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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  

PASSAGE FOR STUDY

Tales from A Thousand and One Nights

A Thousand and One Nights, generally known to the English speaking world as the Arabian Nights, is a compendium of Arabic tales compiled between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. The collection starts with the story of King Shahryar. Betrayed by his adulterous wife, he swears never to trust a woman again, deciding instead to marry a different virgin every night and have her executed the next day. He carries out his plan for three years, until his Vizier can no longer find a virgin to offer the king. The Vizier's courageous daughter, Shahrazad, then attempts to change the king's mind and save the remaining maidens of the kingdom. Shahrazad offers herself as a bride and obtains permission to tell the king a story. Just as the sun is about to rise, she reaches the point of critical suspense, and the king, his curiosity piqued, spares her for the next night to complete her narrative. But the following night only brings another unfinished story. Thus the king spares the bride for a thousand and one nights during which time she narrates an astonishing variety of tales. Finally, fascinated with his bride of "one night," Shahryar rescinds the decree and crowns her as the queen.

Running the gamut from the fanciful to the realistic, the stories connect through skillful interweaving rather than thematic links. Depicting all types of people from the wicked to the virtuous, from the proud to the humble, from the gruesome to the gleeful, the tales thread the whole scope of human experience into one long narrative. Some stories are stretched out and form a sort of mini-series. "The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor," for example, are told in seven installments. Others are short anecdotes, barely one page long.

Products of an extraodinarily intricate process of literary evolution, the stories originated in a wide geographical area. Although most relate to medieval Arabic culture and civilization, many stories are rooted in ancient oral traditions of the Near East, Persia, India, Iraq of the first millennium B.C., Greece, Israel, and pre-Muslim Arabia. First written in different vernaculars, the tales also were embellished, revised, and spiced with Muslim flavor when translated into Arabic.

The technique of connecting incomplete stories under the umbrella of a frame story is not original. The archetype of this literary genre already was established during the third century B.C. by Indian stories about the birth of Buddha intended to inculcate moral axioms ascribed to Buddha. While the frame story provided a rationale for a successive line of tales, in itself it was only a frame and as such, subservient to the separate stories. Likewise, the Arabic tales, under a similar frame, were not necessarily related, even though the wise counsel at the end of each story provided a unifying factor.

A Thousand and One Nights illustrated that secular pieces, even when humorous, could be told for moral purposes, and that didactic teaching could be achieved outside a house of worship. These apparently frivolous stories could bolster and supplement the moral exhortations of the clergy when transmitted orally, but they had an even broader dissemination and greater impact when put into written form.

The tales of A Thousand and One Nights may possess an allegorical dimension, in which their conspicuous emphasis on material wealth functions as a metaphor for the lasting richness of spiritual life, while their general preoccupation with the lower echelons of society provides a ray of hope to the low-born, conveying the promise that Allah equips the paupers and have-nots with a secret key that puts them beyond the rich and strong. Everybody has a story to tell, which suggests an underlying equality. At the same time, the organizing story-teller, who is, it should be emphasized, a woman, enacts through her narrative the everlasting human desire for earthly life, which suggests that literature--storytelling--preserves life.

Even the frame story itself is revealing. The king, the oppressor, can destroy cities and kill their inhabitants, but he cannot guess the outcome of imaginary tales or compete with the common sense of an inexperienced young woman, to whom he, the omnipotent, ultimately surrenders. Regardless of his stature, he has to wait in order to satisfy his curiosity. Never in any European literary setting has such a glorious tribute been paid to the powerful influence of literature.

It is interesting that Arabic society undervalued the tales because they were of popular origin and denigrated them as unsophisticated, unpolished folklore in a colloquial tongue. Consequently, the tales probably have had less influence on Islamic than on European literatures, which have been indebted to A Thousand and One Nights for almost a thousand years, even though the tales were not translated into a European language until Antoine Galland produced a French version in the early eighteenth century. Medieval writers, who generally did not invent their own tales but reworked existing ones, tailoring and transforming them to suit their own purposes and design, made free use of narrative resources passed on orally without the mediation of writing. Thus Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, borrowed materials from the international pool of oral tradition. While his precise sources, when oral, remain obscure, readers can at least identify his general indebtedness to traditional materials by recognizing their analogues in other collections of narratives.

Instances of such shared sources are obvious in stories about a merchant's wife and a talking bird, which appear in two different versions in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights and twice in The Canterbury Tales, in both "The Manciple's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale." The theme of a husband, a wife, and a parrot (or magpie) appears in many medieval texts as an example of woman's deception. But by immediately following a tale that presents a negative image with another describing a woman's unique fidelity, Shahrazad the storyteller, like Chaucer, offsets the impression of the first story. Not all women are unfaithful; rather the world is composed of all types.

The translations below are by Sir Richard Burton (1821-90), an Englishman who lived much of his life in the Middle East. Despite Burton's reliance on archaic words and phraseology, intended presumably to convey a "foreign" and medieval flavor but which often obscured the meaning of the text, his translation played an important role in bringing Arabic culture to the attention of Europeans.

From A Thousand And One Nights

Story Of The Confectioner, His Wife, And The Parrot

Once upon a time there dwelt in Egypt a confectioner who had a wife famed for beauty and loveliness; and a parrot which, as occasion required, did the office of watchman and guard, bell and spy, and flapped her wings did she but hear a fly buzzing about the sugar. This parrot caused abundant trouble to the wife, always telling her husband what took place in his absence. Now one evening, before going out to visit certain friends, the confectioner gave the bird strict injunctions to watch all night and bade his wife make all fast [secure], as he should not return until morning. Hardly had he left the door than the woman went for her old lover, who returned with her and they passed the night together in mirth and merriment, while the parrot observed all. Betimes [early] in the morning the lover fared forth and the husband, returning, was informed by the parrot of what had taken place; whereupon he hastened to this wife's room and beat her with a painful beating. She thought in herself, "Who could have informed against me?" and she asked a woman that was in her confidence whether it was she. The woman protested by the worlds visible and invisible that she had not betrayed her mistress; but informed her that on the morning of his return home, the husband had stood some time before the cage listening to the parrot's talk. When the wife heard this, she resolved to contrive the destruction of the bird. Some days after, the husband was again invited to the house of a friend where he was to pass the night; and, before departing, he enjoined the parrot with the same injunctions as before; wherefore his heart was free from care, for he had his spy at home. The wife and her confidante then planned how they might destroy the credit of the parrot with the master. For this purpose they resolved to counterfeit a storm; and this they did by placing over the parrot's head a hand-mill (which the lover worked by pouring water upon a piece of hide), by waving a fan and by suddenly uncovering a candle hid under a dish. Thus did they raise such a tempest of rain and lightning, that the parrot was drenched and half-drowned in a deluge. Now rolled the thunder, then flashed the lightning; that from the noise of the hand-mill, this from the reflection of the candle; when thought the parrot to herself, "in very sooth the flood hath come on, such an one as belike Noah himself never witnessed." So saying she buried her head under her wing, a prey to terror. The husband, on his return, hastened to the parrot to ask what had happened during his absence; and the bird answered that she found it impossible to describe the deluge and tempest of the last night; and that years would be required to explain the uproar of the hurricane and storm. When the shopkeeper heard the parrot talk of last night's deluge, he said: "Surely O bird, thou art gone clean daft! Where was there, even in a dream, rain or lightning last night? Thou hast utterly ruined my house and ancient family. My wife is the most virtuous woman of the age and all thine accusations of her are lies." So in his wrath he dashed the cage upon the ground, tore off the parrot's head, and threw it from the window. Presently his friend, coming to call upon him, saw the parrot in this condition with head torn off, and without wings or plumage. Being informed of the circumstances he suspected some trick on the part of the woman, and said to the husband, "When your wife leaves home to go to the Hammam-bath, compel her confidante to disclose the secret." So as soon as his wife went out, the husband entered his Harim and insisted on the woman telling him the truth. She recounted the whole story and the husband now bitterly repented having killed the parrot, of whose innocence he had proof.

This next story has existed at least since the third century B.C., when it appears in a cycle of Indian stories about the birth of Buddha. Students of Chaucer will recognize it as a cognate of Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," which tells of three revelers who find gold near the root of a tree.

The Merchant And The Two Sharpers

In a city called Sindah there was once a very wealthy merchant who made ready his camel-loads and equipped himself with goods and set out with his outfit for such a city, purposing to sell it there. Now he was followed by two sharpers, who had made up into bales what merchandise they could get; and, giving out to the merchant that they also were merchants, wended [proceeded] with him by the way. So halting at the first halting-place they agreed to play him false and take all he had; but at the same time, each inwardly plotted foul play to the other, saying in his mind, "If I can cheat my comrade, times will go well with me and I shall have all these goods to myself. " So after planning this perfidy, one of them took food and putting therein poison, brought it to his fellow; the other did the same and they both ate of the poisoned mess and they both died. Now they had been sitting with the merchant; so when they left him and were long absent from him, he sought for tidings of them and found the twain lying dead; whereby he knew that they were sharpers who had plotted to play him foul, but their foul play had recoiled upon themselves. So the merchant was preserved and took what they had. Then quoth the Sultan, "O Shahrazad, verily thou hast aroused me to all whereof I was negligent! So continue to edify me with these fables."

Questions for Discussion

  1. What kind of relationship does the confectioner have with his wife? What other works of medieval literature view marriage in a similar light?
  2. What kind of relationship does the confectioner have with his parrot? What do literary depictions of such communication between different species suggest about human and animal nature?
  3. Drawing on the second story, define the term "sharper," which exemplifies Burton's unusual vocabulary choices. Why is it a powerful word?
  4. Do you find any religious elements in these stories? Do you think the tales are told principally to promote moral behavior, or for other motives?
  5. If you have read "The Pardoner's Tale," compare it to "The Merchant and the Two Sharpers."