Reading the essays selected for inclusion in The Arabian Nights Reader will take some readers on autobiographical journeys of their own development as Nights scholars. I found myself transported back to graduate school as I reread the essays from the 1970s and 1980s, those studies I had immersed myself in as I was finding my own voice and path through the Thousand and One Nights as a young academic. Nights scholars will all find themselves in one essay or another in Marzolph’s representative sampling of twentieth-century scholarship. The original publication dates for these studies range from 1942 (Gustav E. von Grunebaum’s “Greek Form Elements in the Arabian Nights”) to 1997 (Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s “Shahrazad Feminist”), and just as far-ranging are the paleographical, critical, and theoretical approaches these writers take to the Arabian Nights.
The Arabian Nights Reader is perhaps best suited, however, to the new scholar or curious reader who will have the pleasure of indulging in some of these essays for the first time. One learns some of the basics, such as the [End Page 337] fact that the frame story of the Arabian Nights (better known as Alf Layla wa-Layla among Arabic scholars) dates from at least the ninth century of the common era and was most likely adapted from a Persian tale titled Hazar Afsana (Thousand Tales) from relatively early essays by Nabia Abbott (1949) and Solomon D. Goitein (1958). Abbott’s “A Ninth-Century Fragment of the ‘Thousand Nights’: New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights” not only sheds light on the provenance of the Nights, but also describes one of the earliest (if not the earliest) fragments of a “paper book outside the ancient Far East” (73) and explains how the material itself indicates much about the source of the fragment.
How much of the history and transmission of the Arabian Nights scholars do not yet agree on or know for a certainty is demonstrated by Heinz Grotzfeld’s “Neglected Conclusions of the Arabian Nights”; his “The Age of the Galland Manuscript of the Nights”; and Muhsin Mahdi’s “Sources of Galland’s Nuits.” The first of these essays outlines the various ways in which the conclusion has been cast in the various versions of the Nights, explaining how Shahrazad’s gender and fertility were chosen by some redactors as more significant than her storytelling prowess, some of which Malti-Douglas returns to in “Shahrazad Feminist.” The Grotzfeld and Mahdi essays on the Galland manuscript demonstrate one of the many mild controversies regarding this work in that each dates the Galland source manuscript by different means and comes to a different conclusion. For the general reader, the difference between a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century manuscript might be negligible, but for Nights scholars steeped in the exciting and frustrating history of a lack of documentary evidence for so much concerning this work, the debate continues to fascinate.
Amid all the discussion of the various Arab, Persian, and Indian sources of the Arabian Nights, von Grunebaum (“Greek Form Elements in the Arabian Nights”) and Peter Heath (“Romance as Genre in The Thousand and One Nights”) bring out the parallels between some of the form and content of the Nights and those of Greek romance genres. While “the very nature of the Greek contribution formed the greatest obstacle to its discovery” (von Grunebaum 138), various hints of Greek influence are apparent in the structure of some of the shorter embedded tales as well as in their character development.
Readers who are more interested in studying the content of the Arabian Nights will be more interested in the second half of The Arabian Nights Reader, which includes several studies from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s that delve into psychological and structural criticism as well as historicism and mythical interpretations. In his essay “From History to Fiction,” Mahdi uses his depth of knowledge about the history of the Middle East to interpret the content of “The Tale Told by the King’s Steward” as...