Wednesday 10 November 2010

Arabian Nights by Richard Burton

I love a good story, and somehow I had just never got around to reading Arabian Nights.  I chose the Richard Burton version as he had travelled around the region and spent time learning the local languages.  It's also one of the oldest.

Synopsis: On discovering his wife cheating, a sultan beheads her and then marries a new woman every night only to kill her the following morning.  To escape this fate, Scheherazade tells her new husband a new tale every night for 1001 nights, never quite giving away the ending.  Most of the stories are therefore "stories within stories".

Score: 4 out of 5

First of all, I very much enjoyed Richard Burton's translation.  Although others have complained of the language being too old-fasioned, or of his practise of inventing new words, I felt that the old-fashioned-ness added to the atmosphere of the stories; the biblical language suited the grand tales.  Burton's footnotes were great too - some were helpful and some were overly focused on sex, to say the least, but all were entertaining.  I also enjoyed reading the introduction about Burton's life - it seems he was a real life Indiana Jones.

My favourite thing about the stories was that they just transported me to another world.  After reading them all I wanted to do was walk in the desert sand, meet a genie, steal a cave full of golden treasure and take a voyage with Sinbad.  Sometimes after putting the book down it was hard to return to the modern world.  The more interesting stories were generally the more well-known ones; Ali-Baba and the Fourty Thieves, Aladdin and the Lamp, the Voyages of Sinbad.  Some of the ones that were unfamiliar to me were very enjoyable too - the Ebony Horse was a real epic of love and adventure and the City of Brass was fantastic too.

Of course, in any collection as long as this, some of the stories were not as enjoyable as others and sometimes it felt like a slog.  There was a good balance between long and short stories though, which did make reading easier.  I have to admit that whilst I admire Burton's efforts to translate the original rhyming poems, I didn't enjoy these parts and felt they took away from rather than added to the stories.

Others have said the stories are sexist/colonialist/racist, but there are so many stories with so many viewpoints that you could argue just about anything.  Women may be looked down upon in some stories but in others cross dressing women take on the role of sultan and in Ali Baba it's down to a clever slave woman to save his life repeatedly.  I'm not a fan of over-analysing stories in this way anyway - I read them as stories and nothing more and in that sense they were wonderful.

I would recommend this collection to anyone who likes a good story, even if it's only to read a few of the more famous ones.


  1. Hi Sam! I didn't read this version of 1001 Nights, I read a different one. I loved most of the stories in this compilation! It's funny that you should mention two of my favorite stories -- Aladdin and Sinbad -- though I suppose it's due to them being among the more popular of the stories. Your review makes me want to go re-read these stories. <3

    Also, you've gotten an award at my blog. :)

  2. Don't have a clue which version I read but I remember really liking it-- as a kid I was such a fan of the hokey old Sinbad movies and it was fun to read the real story.

  3. I'm so glad you reviewed this, I've been trying to decide which version I should buy, and this sounds like a great one, thanks! I always find it strange that people complain about/dislike old stories for being racist, sexist etc - that is all part of the time in which the story was written, and needs to be read with that in mind, I don't understand why people don't get that.

  4. @Kristina Barnes♥
    Go re-read! It's worth it!

    I think my favourite was Ali Baba. I did like Sinbad but couldn't understand why he kept going on the voyages when all those horrible things kept on happening to him.

  5. @Lesa

    I love those Sinbad films too - they're so bad they're good. I feel the same way about the old Jason & the Argonauts movie.

  6. @mummazappa

    There are so many versions that I found it hard too. I only went with Richard Burton because I had heard of him, but I'm glad I did. It's a good one if you don't mind a bit of old-fashioned language.

    And I agree about the racist/sexist stuff. Sometimes I think we over-analyse and should just enjoy stories for what they are - stories.

  7. This book sounds brilliant :D Am going to have to add it to my pile of To-Be-Read!

  8. @noiashui
    Yeah it was brilliant. It takes a while to get through, so it's maybe one to read alongside a few other books.

  9. Is this the really, really long version? I think this is the one I've read parts of. It's a funny sort of book...

  10. "I'm not a fan of over-analysing stories in this way anyway - I read them as stories and nothing more and in that sense they were wonderful."

    Yeah, me too!

    I have never read these stories as part of a book. Just the individual stories in school.
    I think I will pick this up. Sounds good!

  11. Ooh I've wanted to read this one for a while, but was unsure about which translation to pick. Thanks for the heads up!

  12. OMG! This book brings back childhood memories! Great review!

  13. It is a beautiful edition of these stories, complete with 40 fully illustrated pages, and genuine bonded leather. I absolutely love what it has added to my bookshelf.
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  14. If you like Arabian Nights, I think you would enjoy this inexpensive and beautiful version. If like me, you are new to reading these stories, this serves as a great and readable book which will look nice in the library and should last for many decades.
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