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ClassicsOnline Home » BURTON, R.: Arabian Nights (The) (Abridged)
Though The Arabian Nights are generally known as stories for children, they were originally tales for adults full of adventure, sexuality, violence and the supernatural. They certainly inspired the imagination of Sir Richard Burton, the nineteenth-century explorer, linguist and erotologist who brought all his worldly experience and a superbly expressive prose style to bear on the tales of Sinbad the Seaman and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Scheherazade must keep her king entertained with stories if she is to avoid the promised sentence of death. Philip Madoc’s sonorous performance allows the tales to weave their own enchantment as they have done down the centuries.
Sir Richard Burton
The Arabian Nights
The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night
The tales of The Arabian Nights first became known in Europe
in the early 18th century through the French version by Antoine Galland, and
were translated into English soon after. John Payne’s 1882 edition gave the
complete text, but it is Sir Richard Burton’s translation (1885-8) which offers
the most colorful and interesting version of this remarkable work, and which we
have used in this recording.
Many English readers will be familiar with Andrew Lang’s
sanitized edition for children, and it comes as quite a shock to encounter the
bold relish with which Burton retells these tales of adventure, sexuality,
violence and the supernatural. The stories have a varied provenance, deriving
from Middle Eastern and Indian sources, and being collected together over many
hundreds of years, the earliest possibly dating back to the 8th century. It is
perhaps worth noting that The Arabian Nights are not normally granted the
status of classical Arabic literature: they have nevertheless exerted an
extraordinary power over the Western imagination.
The framework for the tales is the story of Scheherazade.
King Shahryar has discovered the infidelity of his wife and, having had her
beheaded, he vows to wed a new wife every day, consummate the marriage, and
slay her the next morning. After three years of this slaughter, Scheherazade
offers herself as the next wife, but cleverly prevents her own death by keeping
the King spellbound night after night through the art of her storytelling —
hence the 1001 Nights, after which the King relents and cancels his murderous
vow. What makes the storytelling richer and more complex, however, is the
succession of ‘tales within tales’ which Scheherazade relates: in this
collection, for instance, the three Barber’s Tales all fall within the larger
setting of The Hunchback’s Tale — which is itself imagined as being told to the
great Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, in the 8th century.
Further, the tales vary greatly in style and content —
hardly surprising, given the way in which the collection grew over eight
centuries. The Barber’ s Tales, for instance, reveal a world of strict social
hierarchy and harsh mockery of those who aspire to a sexuality beyond their
sphere, while the stories of Sindbad’s voyages are full of supernatural terrors
(monstrous birds and serpents), miraculous escapes and acts of ruthless
self-preservation (Sindbad clubbing to death the other wretched souls who are
buried alive). Even that old favorite, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, is a
tale in which murderous and thieving ingenuity is rewarded by wealth untold.
Clearly the moral world of The Arabian Nights is an uncomfortable one —
notwithstanding the ostensible emphasis on pious Islamic values — yet the
stories are told with a beguiling artistry that fascinates and compels the
reader (or listener), especially in Sir Richard Burton’s definitive version.
Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) was a remarkable man. Educated
at Trinity College, Oxford, he served in the army in India, studying oriental
languages and gaining an intimate knowledge of Muslim culture. He is supposed
to have been the first white man to make the pilgrimage to Mecca — in disguise
— and embarked on a further career as an explorer, discovering Lake Tanganyika
in 1858. He was able to continue this as a diplomat serving in many locations.
Later he devoted himself mainly to literature, publishing translations from
various languages. He was also, incidentally, something of an erotologist — an
interest revealed in the numerous foot notes he provides in his edition of The
Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Philip Madoc was born in Wales and, after studying languages
at university, and a period as an interpreter, turned to drama. His extensive
theater work has encompassed many principal Shakespearean roles, including Iago
and Antony as well as 19th and 20th century drama. His film and TV work is
equally varied, including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the BBC TV’s
Fortunes of War and, most recently, his own detective series, A Mind To Kill.
The music on this cassette is taken from the NAXOS catalog
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV SCHEHERAZADE 8.550726
Philharmonia Orchestra, London, Enrique Bátiz
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BURTON, R.: Arabian Nights (The) (Abridged)