A Fresher Look at the 1,001 Nights

Tales from 1,001 Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba and Other FavouritesTales from 1,001 Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba and Other Favourites by Anonymous, translated by Malcolm Lyons and Ursula Lyons and an introduction by Robert Irwin

Sure, it’s another compilation of the 1,001 Nights published by Penguin Classics. Ho-hum, right? I mean Penguin already has one, plus there are dozens of other editions out there. Why read this one?

Well, trust me: but this is the one to get, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed the other editions.

For starters, it has a better selection of stories than NJ Dawood’s older translation. This includes a couple of the same stories – Aladdin, Sinbad, The Porter and the Three Ladies – but mostly, its new-to-you material. Some are brief: there’s a collection of animal stories, essentially a string of Aesopic fables, and a selection of stories about kings. Some aren’t: it includes the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, which Dawood criminally omits and is arguably the most famous story in the entire collection.

The longer, new stories really set this one-volume translation apart. Two of them stand out to me: The Story of Taj Al-Muluk and Princess Dunya and The Adventures of Ali Al-Zaibaq. The first is a story about a prince who hears stories about a princess and falls in love, going to pretty incredible lengths to woo her and win her father’s support. The second is a fun story about a thief who falls in love. They’re great selections from the larger work, giving it a larger scope than the stories usually associated with it. And both take elements missing from the older translation: one’s a sensual story of seduction, the other a comic story of thievery, spiritually not that far from Robin Hood.

The translation by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons is another huge plus. They modernize the feel of stories, keeping them from sounding either wooden or old-fashioned. The older Dawood edition sometimes felt ancient, either by intention or accident. His was full of people saying “praise Allah,” in a way that felt artificial and forced, like a motif he repeated over and over. Here, they rarely utter that specific phrase; the same devotion is found, but both Lyons are able to mix up the phrasing and keep their stories from sounding repetitive.

The language itself feels more modern, too. Both Lyons use more contemporary-sounding words. One example: when speaking of a genie, they say jinn (or occasionally its female counterpart, jinniya), not the archaic-sounding Jinee. Other terms are used, from ghul (a monster) or qadi (a judge), giving the book a more natural-sounding feel.

Another key difference is their inclusion of the verses strung throughout the text, an important part of the framework of these stories. Dawood omitted these as “clumsy” in his edition, which compared to this is a fatal flaw: they’re constantly referred to and play a part in setting the emotion in a scene.

The scholarship here is top-notch, too. One of the problems I had with Dawood’s introduction was his focus on prior translations. Here, Robert Irwin spends some time also talking about them, but only to put them in a greater context, explaining their influence on authors like Mishima, Dickens and Poe. He also does a fascinating job tracking the complex history of these stories, writing about its manuscript history and the stories relation to the greater work. For example, did you know there’s no Arabic original to the story of Aladdin? He’s also provided a short but useful glossary and some maps, which I never consulted (so many of these stories only have a loose grasp of geography, really) but some readers might find handy.

Rating: 9/10. I’ve read both Penguin Classic abridgments of the 1,001 nights this year and I feel comfortable saying that if you’re only interested in a selection of these stories and find Burton’s older The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights hard to swallow, this is the one to get. And if you’re still interested (and why wouldn’t you be?), the same people are behind a full, three-volume translation of the complete stories.




%d bloggers like this: