As someone who loved the "Arabian Nights" since childhood, I eagerly read this book as well. For the most part, I wasn't disapointed. It does a wonderful job of setting the scene, discussing its origins, its distortions, and showing how the stories relate to medieval Arabian life. I was particularly impressed with the section discussing the connections between various story collections in both Asia and Europe. In short, this book helps the reader better understand this complex (and often confusing)work. The chapters are all clearly laid out and well argued, and the book as a whole is easy to read. He has complex ideas, but is able to communicate them fluidly.
One idea I would challenge, however. I believe the scholars who argue that the more "complete" manuscripts probably arose from increased European interest in it. It makes sense that writers would add filler to reach 1001 nights in response to consumer demand.
An interesting read for fans of "Arabian Nights."
on September 24, 2005
The history of the Arabian Nights (1001 Nights) is often appended to the various translations available. They tend to be brief and often reflect the focus of the editor and/or translator. The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin is very substantial. The author often makes conclusions but always includes the thoughts of those with whom he disagrees. This is a must for anyone who really enjoys this collection of stories and will be rewarded by its fascinating history and the history of its translation...almost as enjoyable as the stories themselves.
on April 9, 2006
This is one of the more interesting companion books I have read. It goes into great detail of the history and the formation of the 1001 Nights collection, and provides an interesting window into Arabic culture. However, one thing I found to be really interesting is that the 1001 tales of Arabic culture were primarily oral tales. The professional storytellers who would tell these books would have manuscript versions which they would use as notes, so there were no official versions--each telling would be elaborated and expanded on depending on the audience. The version that we are familiar with in the west was formalized in France in the 17th century, and may have more relevance to the European expectations of Arabic culture than to Arabic culture itself. In fact, several tales which appear in the European version do not appear in any Arabic manuscripts and may have been written by Europeans to fill the demand for fantastic tales. Overall, this book is quite interesting and I really recommend this to those who would like to see how a lose collection of oral tales becomes a work of literature.
on February 21, 2009
This excellent book by Robert Irwin is essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand "The Thousand Nights and One Night", also known as "The Arabian Nights", "The Arabian Tales", and "The 1,001 Nights". As you probably know, these famous stories were supposedly told by Scheherazade to King Shahriyar over the course of 1,001 nights. Scheherazade kept the King enthralled with cliffhanger endings each night, postponing his plans to execute her until he grew to love her and changed his mind. This book will do several things for readers interested in these stories.
First, the introduction and first chapter will help discerning readers decide which edition to read. That doesn't mean that you necessarily have to follow Irwin's recommendations, but you'll be able to make an informed decision. For instance, while he rightly criticizes the accuracy of the Mardrus/Mathers edition, that is the most readable "complete" version; I read it and enjoyed it very much and would recommend it to those who are more focused on reading something entertaining than on authenticity. But if you do read Mardrus/Mathers, you'll know it's only a loose adaptation of the original Arabic sources. This brings up another point which Irwin makes, which is that there is no authentic version even in Arabic; in reality there are multiple Arabic editions in which different stories occur in different versions.
The book will also give readers a much better understanding of the stories themselves and the cultures from which they originated. Note that more than one culture was involved since there are Indian, Persian, Syrian, and Egyptian sources. Irwin focuses on the ways in which the stories were orally transmitted in Arab societies and provides details about how this shaped the stories to attract listeners. This helps readers understand why the stories are filled with religion, poetry, epic tales, love stories, aphorisms, jokes, magic, fantasy, sexuality, criminals, and assorted other features.
Finally, Irwin provides literary analysis of the stories and connects them to story collections and other fiction in other cultures, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern. This includes influences on Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", Boccaccio's "Decameron", Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso", western fairy tales, William Beckford's gothic novel "Vathek", "The Saragossa Manuscript" by Jean Potocki, and Robert Louis Stevenson's "New Arabian Nights" before the 20th century. Influences in modern literature can be found in "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, the works of John Barth, and the novels of Salman Rushdie.
I highly recommend this book to all of you who love the fantastic world of the Arabian Nights and would like to learn more about the origins and influences of these wonderful stories.
on July 10, 2007
The best companion to one of the most fascinating collection of tales in history. Irwin's work is also a great socio-political study of both the times that The Arabian Nights was written in and the times that it was finally translated into the west. If you have the The Arabian Nights and this book then I highly recommend Irwin's other book, Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, and Edward Said's Orientalism.
I read this book concurrently with volume three of Malcolm Lyons' translation. I now wish I had read it simultaneously with volume 2. (I had already forgotten a lot of the first two volumes by the time I got to volume 3.) Overall, I think this book is excellent. I am very impressed with Irwin's erudition and scholarship. He presents the material in a well-organized and cohesive manner and writes in a clear style that made me eager to continue. Despite the complexity and detail of some sections, I didn't find any of it pedantic or boring. In fact, Irwin has a sense of humor that had me chuckling several times at his observations. The book contains the things that one would expect to find in a "companion book": a history of the stories' creation and provenance and how they found their way into the European consciousness, as well as their effect on European culture in general. If you're going to invest the time and effort into reading the complete Arabian Nights, you owe it to yourself to read this relatively short volume, too. It will vastly increase your appreciation and understanding of the Arabian Nights. Five stars.
on May 10, 2013
I decided to finally read the "1001 Arabian Nights" and became more curious about when they were written and where?
This book surpassed my original questions and quickly became more interesting than "the Nights" themselves to me.
Full of historical background and amazing stories about the history of story telling in the Middle East, a fascinating tale.
I learned more about why, where and the cultural reasons behind it all than I could have imagined. This book filled in gaps in my education about Arabic poetry, the art of story telling, coffee houses as cultural centers, the development of the "Cliff Hanger" and some of the strangest and most humerous tales and origins of stories and the story tellers that I have ever had the pleasure of hearing about from any other source. As I said, I put down the "Nights" and read this instead.
on August 4, 2012
Robert Irwin has produced a combative scholarly treatise on the Arabian Nights which explores that work in great detail. If you've read the Nights and want to know more about the collections of stories themselves, this is the right place to turn to for that information. Irwin spends a chapter exploring the different translations of the Nights and lays out what he sees as the merits and drawbacks of each translation and each translator's style. He explores the use of fantasy in the Nights and details the criminal element and low-lifes who populate the pages of these tales. He gives a fascinating chapter on storytelling techniques, both oral and literate. Finally he talks about imitative works and works inspired by the Nights and notes that even though the Arabian Nights these days has to compete with television, movies and the internet for attention, interest in these stories remains strong, and excellent adaptations continue to be made.
This work reads like a survey, with Irwin turning to many sources for his information. He surveys the many translations of the Nights, surveys what people were saying about these stories, and surveys the works that arose from the Nights. There are a lot of interesting tidbits herein, like the influence of the Nights on Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft and comparisons of the Nights with contemporary science fiction and high fantasy. I found the chapter on storytelling techniques to be particularly interesting, because I didn't know much about medieval storytelling styles until I read this chapter. It's perhaps disheartening to see that the same pressures that influence modern novelists influenced the medieval storyteller as well; storytelling never changes, for all that the technology adapts.
This book is not a casual read, though it is an entertaining one with numerous little humorous points. Irwin's cracks about coffee-house idlers looking for a good story rang true to me, since I was reading his work in a coffee-house! You have to approach this work with a bit of dedication, becaues it is a scholarly work and a little on the dry side (only a little; as I said before, there are frequent amusing comments), but it is a rewarding book that will illuminate your understanding of The Arabian Nights and increase your appreciation for the influence of the Nights on Western literature. I definitely recommend this book as a well-above-average read.
on March 24, 2013
If you really love the Arabian Nights, this is the book. Robert Irwin is a great and a complete schoolar, but for the writing. He picks bast subjects of this beloved book and plunges the reader into this strange and colorful world: transalations, influences, background, past, present. It is so hard to find something about the Arabian Nights, most of the links and books remain too simple, deals always in the transalations, but they leave a lot of history and criticism behind. You can navigate this books trough the different chapters, but it is worth while to read them all, despite the strange and sometimes difficult story of the book itself. The only thing to regret is that this Companian was published before de Malcom Lyons transalation of the Arabian Nights.
on July 22, 2012
Irwin explores the Arabian Nights from a variety of perspectives as evident in his chapter titles, including, "Street Entertainments", "Low Life", and "Sexual Fictions". Of particular interest is Irwin's discussion of how stories mutate, merge, migrate, and reappear elsewhere. For example, a short story about partners plotting to kill each other is the plot of "The Pardoner's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales. Later it's a movie plot in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Other versions of a story from the Arabian Nights, "The Tale of the Woman who Wanted to Deceive her Husband" also appears in Sanskrit in the 11th century, Latin in the 12th, and in the 14th both Persian and Italian in Bocccaccio's Decameron. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann reused the plot once again in his Dr. Faustus.
Besides Mann, other modern authors have found inspiration in the Arabian Nights, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Salman Rushdie.
Irwin's The Arabian Nights : A companion offers an expansive and thoroughgoing look at this great work. There is little that he doesn't touch upon. This book is a substantial contribution to the study of literature.