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The Arabian Nights in European Literature - An Anthology



In the years 1704-1717 the French orientalist Antoine Galland published his translation of an Arabic collection of tales called the Thousand and one nights. It was the first translation of this work in a European language and it was an instant success: Galand’s Mille et une nuit conquered the French audience and was soon translated into the main European languages. The popularity of the Thousand and one nights can partly be explained by the historical framework. During the 17th century economic and diplomatic relations between Europe and he Arab world had become intensified, resulting in a keen interest among European intellectuals in the splendours of the exotic Orient. This development coincided with a phase of intellectual fermentation in Europe: from the 1680s to the 1720s great scholarly minds all over Europe, but especially in France, subjected the European cultural and political tradition to a fundamental scrutiny and thereby prepared the way for the various forms of Enlightenment of the 18th century. Galland’s Mille et une nuit was located at the juncture of these two major trends, and became incorporated into both.
The popularity of the Thousand and one nights was not a passing phenomenon. Its peculiar structure and imaginative contents secured its enduring influence in European culture and literature. At the beginning of the 18th century, the European literary traditions had not yet crystallized into clearly defined, modern, generic forms, and the Arabic tales presented a treasury of literary material and models which invited experiment. Soon, especially in France, emulations of the Thousand and one nights appeared in the form of translations of similar material, and pseudo-translations and continuations compiled by authors. Many authors adopted the structure of the frame story and indulged in all kinds of Oriental fantasies, thereby generating the genre of the ‘Oriental tale’, which blossomed in various forms throughout the 18th century and beyond. In literary and cultural taste, orientalism began to supplement and even replace neo-classicism as a framework of reference. The Thousand and one nights and its imitations became a structural part of the European literary landscape and retained its influence until the present day.
It should be noted that the popularity of the Thousand and one nights in Europe was not only due to its exoticism and its unbound imagination. Neither was it merely caused by curiosity of a strange and stereotypical ‘other’ engendered by colonial expansion. It was especially the literary aspects of the work which fostered the interest in the work and stimulated writers and intellectuals to experiment with the various models it provided and seek inspiration from its narrative wealth. Since especially in the 18th century new literary forms emerged which defined the modern European literary tradition, the Thousand and one nights, as a source of inspiration and emulation, penetrated into the capillaries of European literature. The interest in the Nights was therefore not a temporary spin-off of colonial cultural appropriation; it reveals a far-reaching influence of an Arabic literary work on the European literary field.

This anthology

This digital anthology is part of a research project funded by HERA (Humanities European Research Area) and titled Encounters with the Orient in early modern European scholarship. It intends to present a survey in samples of European authors whose work has shaped the tradition of the Thousand and one nights in Europe during the 18th century. It includes fragments of Oriental tales and novels, and translations and pseudo-translations of various kinds, which reveal the deep influence of the Thousand and one nights on European literature in its formative phase in the 18th century. Of course, efforts have been made in the past to map this part of the literary field. This anthology not only adds samples of texts identified as being influenced by the Thousand and one nights, but also brings together material and updated information relating to the three main traditions, French, English and German, thereby supplementing existing scholarship. The anthology is not a collection of Oriental tales, but rather a reservoir of texts and fragments which can directly be associated with the Thousand and one nights and its various manifestations in the 18th century. For the convenience of the reader, the material is divided into seven categories: (pseudo-) translations; structural imitations; fairy tales; philosophical tales; erotic tales; children’s tales; and criticism. All samples will be briefly introduced with information about the author and the work, situating them in the European tradition of the Thousand and one nights, and provided with relevant references and weblinks.

Translations and pseudo-translation

Galland’s Mille et une nuit was the first European translation of a major literary work in the early modern period. Previous translation efforts had been directed mainly at scientific, philosophical, geographic and religious texts, and an incidental collection of fables and proverbs. From the 17th century onwards interest in translated texts rose as a result of the increased interaction with the Orient, and the Mille et une nuit responded to this demand. Although the translation of the text is relatively precise, Galland’s version is still a hybrid text, since it contains stories from other sources than the manuscripts which were in the translator’s possession (see Galland). This hybridity was not exceptional at the time; it reflects the mechanisms inherent in the transition of literary texts across cultural boundaries. Moreover, it followed the trends and procedures in the literary field of the period, with its uncertain boundaries between genres and its inclination to mystification and narrative complexity. Because of its popularity and peculiarity, the Mille et une nuit became a model for several literary translations from Oriental languages, and, to be sure, pseudo-translations and emulations which appeared during the course of the 18th century.
The most remarkable of the translations inspired by the Nights is Pétis de la Croix’s Mille et un jours, which was presented as a translation of a Persian original, but later turned out to be a collection of Turkish tales translated by French language students in Istanbul, preserved in the Royal Library and rather haphazardly put together and edited by the compiler of the work. The Mille et un jours became almost as popular as the Mille et une nuit and was translated into several European languages. It inspired others to do the same and in 1743 and 1778 similar collections appeared compiled by Comte de Caylus and Cardonne. These collections are not only interesting because they are the basis of the vogue of orientalism; they also testify to the transfer of Turkish literary material to Europe and give an impression of literary trends in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The vogue expanded to Persian and Indian literature, producing genuine translations (Dow, Scott, Jones) and pseudo-translations (Ridley, Gueullette).
Significant examples of the way in whch the narrative material of the Thousand and one nights was integrated into European literature are the works of Cazotte and Beckford. Cazotte reworked a translation of a Thousand and one nights manuscript compiled (and translated) by a certain Dom Chavis, an Arabic teacher in Paris. His Continuation des Mille et une nuits contains these reworked translation, supplemented by original work by Cazotte in a similar vein, revealing the deep influence of the Nights on his work. Beckford, too, started from an original manuscript, from which he took stories which he translated, edited and rewrote to be incorporated in his major work Vathek. His procedure shows how the Nights was not merely a source of inspiration for his work, but rather pervaded his whole imagination and shaped his self-vision within a sensual, exotic, realm. Both authors laid the foundation for what later became the Gothic or fantastic strands in literature, which is still appreciated to this day. Their main importance here, however, is that they show the process of hybridization by which the Mille et une nuit became integrated into the European field through experimentation and the exploration of new literary forms.

Structure and concept

The main formal feature of the Thousand and one nights, which immediately draws the attention of the reader, is its peculiar structure: it consists of a framing story which contains a long series of embedded tales. The framing story is not merely a container to hold the collection together; it also itself contains a plot which explains the origin of the work and creates a suspension which is sustained until the very end. This concept inspired several authors to write similar works. The main examples are the collections by Gueullette and Ridley, which are rather loosely connected agglomerations of fantastic tales. Here the coherence is mainly formal, without a concept unifying the purport of the work as a whole. More sophisticated emulations are found in the works of Crébillon fils, who in his novels adopted the narrative procedures of the Nights to explore the technical and formal aspects of the novel and by doing this contributed to the development of the genre. Later on, the procedures of the Nights were more implicitly used to shape novelistic plots and structures, as in Cazotte’s Le diable amoureux. These examples show that the influence of the Nights was not confined to forms of exoticism, but also covered the domain of textual and literary strategies.

Oriental tales

The most often explored category of literary texts inspired by the Thousand and one nights is the genre of the Oriental tale, which finds its origin in a combination of travellers’ tales and the examples provided by Galland’s Mille et une nuit. The genre, whose basic characteristics were elaborated during the course of the 18th century, can be divided into several sub-categories: fairy tales; philosophical tales; erotic tales; and children’s literature. Of course, the boundaries between these categories are not always sharply defined.

Fairy tales

The most unpretentious sub-category of the Oriental tale is the Oriental fairy tale. The use of this term is not without complication, since, as in the Thousand and one nights, only part of the material would conform to the traditional definition of the fairy tale, while the greatest part could better be described as various forms of fantastic tales. The sub-category would include the works of Hamilton, Gueullette, Walpole, Beckford, and Swift, which use the exoticism of the Nights to create a dream-like imaginary realm, or indulge in erratic fantasies which would now probably be called surrealistic, but which refrain from moral or philosophical admonitions. This type of Oriental tale was especially flowering in France and was much criticized for its excessive fantasizing, especially in England and Germany. ‘Enlightened’ intellectuals tended to prefer the realist trend in literature and disapproved of the irrational fantasies of the Oriental tale. Still, in spite of the eventual predominance of the realist, bourgeois, novel, this type of literature became structurally integrated into European literature and surfaced in the romantic and Gothic trends and, later, in surrealist, symbolist, magical realist, and postmodernist currents.

Philosophical tales

A sub-genre which typically characterizes literature of the Enlightenment was the ‘philosophical’ or didactic Oriental tale. Since the Enlightenment was obsessed by education (Rousseau) and intellectual rationalism, literature was utilized as a medium to express ‘modern’ visions of the world, which exorcised obscurantist and irrational elements. At first it was especially Classical Antiquity which provided the framework for the development of moral and cultural ideals, but during the 18th century these sources were gradually supplemented and even replaced by Oriental settings, which allowed a non-Christian, sophisticated and stereotypal background for the treatment of ideas and moral dilemmas. The Oriental setting more specifically allowed the author to reflect on his society from an outsider’s perspective, deconstructing self-images and revealing social deficiencies. This trend was initiated especially by Montesquieu and Diderot, but it was soon embraced by such thinkers as Voltaire in France, Johnson in England, and Wieland in Germany. In all these cases, structures, plots, motifs, characters and images from the Thousand and one nights were used to expound ideas about society, human nature and moral questions. Crébillon fils disguised his criticism in allegorical Oriental tales. Since these authors decisively influenced European thought, culture and socio-political organization, they show how deeply the Nights penetrated into European culture in the 18th century and beyond. A small sub-category belonging to the type of the philosophical tale is the didactic story for children, which orginated in the 18th century as a branch of Enlightenment literature. Nice examples of children’s literature inspired by the Tthousand and one nights are provided by Richard Johnson and Liebeskind.

Erotic tales

Especially in France, the 18th century was the age of ‘libertinage’, the delicate interface between social criticism, the exploration of the boundaries of freedom of expression, eroticism, and pornography. From a 20th century perspective, this demarcation seems perhaps a bit over-inclusive, but in the 18th century the boundaries between these domains were vague. Diderot and Crébillon fils’ novels satirized social behaviour in France, with a comical overtone, but a serious intention, both using sometimes rather scabrous erotic connotations. Marquis de Sade is usually seen as the quintessential hard-core pornographer, but even his obsessive elaborations fit into a philosophy of freedom and nature which concord with Enlightenment visions. Beckford, by using the exoticism of the Thousand and one nights, explored the realms of sensuality, sub-conscious desires and urges, homosexuality, and eroticism in a way that prefigures romanticism and surrealism. In fact, it is only Voisenon who unreservedly states that the erotic excursions and innuendoes in his novel are trivial and nonsensical, compiled out of recalcitrance and naughtiness. Of course, this kind of literature made use of stereotypes of the Orient as a world of sensuality, erotic tension, harems, male prowess, slaves, etc., thus projecting the mapping of sub-conscious drives on an imaginary Orient.


The anthology includes a few samples of literary criticism in which the genre of the Eastern tale or the Thousand and one nights more specifically are discussed. It was generally thought that the art of storytelling had historically originated in the East, and that the Thousand and one nights was a proof of this supposition. In the beginning the work was generally appreciated and applauded, but as the genre of the Oriental tale developed, more and more criticism arose saying that the tales were rather futile and trivial. Especially English critics, such as Reeve, Aikin, Blair reprehended French extravagance, while Wieland condemned the taste for Schwärmerei, which he deemed incompatible with Enlightyenment rationalism. The most noteworthy critic was Hole, who dedicated a whole volume to a discussion of the Nights, focusing on the cycle of ‘Sindbad’, with the aim of incorporating the work into the category of ‘world literature’, a term which did not exist at the time, but whose intention seems to be expressed in Hole’s essay. More generally, critics tended to prefer the ‘realist’ novel to the fancies of the Oriental tale, although the didactic value of the latter is acknowledged.

Sources and references


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