Friday, August 29, 2014

Review of Tales from the Arabian Nights ed. by Andrew Lang

A book oft mentioned yet little read these days, Arabian Nights nevertheless remains one of the world’s treasure troves of storytelling.  Multiple threads of story interwoven with exotic Middle Eastern settings, the fact it has persisted through time is a testament to the inherent quality of the tales.  Occupying multiple, multiple volumes originating from the cultural breadbasket of Persian, Arabic, and Hindu lands, there is no definitive, single version.  But there are innumerable translations.  In the late 19th century, folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang settled down to have a read, and in the process selected those stories he thought to be the most salient and poignant among them—taking care, as it were, to preserve the matroyshka presentation where possible.  Tales from the Arabian Nights (1898), a sub-section  of the larger collection, is the bite-sized result. 

Echoing through the ages, the names of the heroes and heroines of the Arabian Nights remain famous.  Scheherazade and her survivalist, honey-guilded tongue; Sinbad and his voyages of wealth, poverty, and adventure; and of course, Aladdin and the jinni (genie, genius, djin, whatever you want to call him) are all there.  As are several other stories of equal, if not better, quality, though lesser known. They may be some of the world's oldest tales, but their sentiment and morals ring true to this day.  Bad luck, good luck, fate, karma, and a host of other unpredictable influences on everyday life riddle the stories, making it a dynamic yet relevant commentary on this amazing thing we call life.

Writing a review of Arabian Nights is like writing a review of the Bible: beating a dead horse.  There’s not much I can say about Lang’s selected anthology that hasn’t already been said a million times.  The stories are plot-centric (i.e. setting and character are loosely sketched) and as a result move quickly and effectively.  The cliffhangers lead the reader by the nose from one fantastic scene to another and take amazing leaps of fantasy—sometimes literally.  And all are told in the voice of the classic storyteller.  Undoubtedly this latter is the work of translators of old, but nevertheless remain readable to this day.  Thus, the Greeks left the world a collection of myths and stories analyzed to the nth degree in universities worldwide and captured in theater, film and spin-off fiction to this day, but it is Arabian Nights that, simmering in the sauces of Middle Eastern culture, has gifted the lighter, more adventurous and comedic side of storytelling to the world, and in it one will find just as many roots to modern storytelling as what the Greeks left European culture.

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