Telling tales: The Arabian Nights

The theme for school holidays events this April is storytelling – the perfect excuse to look at one of the all-time greatest hits of children’s literature, the Arabian Nights, known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa LaylaThe Thousand and One Nights.

Their Chief in a low but distinct voice uttered the two words, “Open Sesame”. 

Storytelling is one of the repeated themes of the Nights, with the collection well-known for its ‘stories within a story’ framing device. In most full editions the Nights begin with the tale of the jealous king Shahriyar, who is a serial killer of wives – marrying daily and executing his brides the next morning. Into this deadly situation steps Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter and an expert storyteller.

Scheherazade begins her stories on her wedding night, and employs a variety of storytelling techniques designed to keep the king so interested that he cannot kill her in the morning, and so keeps her tales going for ‘a thousand and one nights’. Some of her tales are cliff-hangers, others are story-cycles with one tale leading to another, or contain characters who tell their own stories within a story. Many, like the tale of Scheherazade herself, feature someone telling stories to save their life.

The publishing history of the Arabian Nights is also a fascinating story in its own right, and the various versions of the Nights held in Sir George Grey Special Collections reflect this. The first printed translation to appear in Europe was Antoine Galland’s Les Milleet une nuits (1704-1717). However the stories themselves are much older than this, with the earliest known Arabic manuscript dating from the early 800s. Nor are they are a consistent collection, with manuscript versions from Syria and Egypt differing in style, content and length.

The desire to produce an authentic, complete, and in some cases “improved” edition of the Nights led to the production of several multi-volume English editions throughout the 19th century. These aimed to be scholarly works yet they also appealed to the popular taste for all things exotically oriental, as did illustrated works that took the tales as their subject. Artists such as Lalauze, Letchford, Brangwyn and Wood, all produced illustrations that were published as unbound plates, with instructions for placing in the Burton, Lane or Villon Society editions. These works became a standard feature of collector’s libraries, and many of those in the Sir George Grey Special Collections come from the collections of Fred and Henry Shaw, Frank Reed and Sir George Grey himself.

The popularity of illustrated versions of the Nights continued into the era of the Edwardian gift book - lavishly produced large format works designed to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Auckland Libraries holds many wonderful examples of these, including the celebrated collaboration of Housman and Dulac, and Edward Detmold’s 1924 Arabian nights – previously featured in a Heritage et AL post about elephants in the collection. The National Library has put up an album of Dulac's illustrations on Flickr.

Lastly, but not least, Sir George Grey Special Collections also holds many examples of Nights works published for children. On display now at the Central City Library in our reading room is a version produced in 1893 by Raphael Tuck, a Victorian company best known for their postcards and greeting cards. Pay us a visit over the remainder of these school holidays and see which Arabian Nights you like best.

Author: Renee Orr, Sir George Grey Special Collections