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The Arabian Nights: A Companion Hardcover – September 1, 1994

4.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

In this learned and exotic companion to the Arabian Nights, Irwin, a novelist and the author of The Middle East in the Middle Ages (Southern Illinois Univ. Pr., 1986), provides a history of its origins, translations, and textual editors; a treatment of the various literary approaches to the text (structuralist, folklorist, etc.); and insight into the work as social history. Irwin has, admittedly, concentrated on the "seedy and bizarre" aspects of the tales, asserting that the Arabic world of criminals, sorcerers, drug-takers, and adulterers is far less known than the edifying world of miracle-working holy men and sages. Though the Arab world long viewed the Nights as folk literature, in the West it has continued to exert enormous influence on diverse writers, giving way, only in the 20th century, to its rival genres, science fiction and fantasy. Irwin's soundly researched and provocative work is highly recommended for academics and interested readers of Arabic social history and literature.
Marie L. Lally, Alabama Sch. of Mathematics & Science, Mobile
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Matching The Arabian Nights' scope and enchantment with erudition and wit, Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare, 1987) explores its elusive kingdom of stories, delving into the vast work's textual genesis, cultural history, and literary legacy. The most influential book in the Western canon that does not actually belong to it, The Arabian Nights never enjoyed the same literary status in the East, and its origins have been made only murkier by its reception in Europe. Irwin begins with the translators who popularized the Nights and, along the way, bowdlerized and warped it, or even inserted their own episodes. Most famously, Aladdin, who has no Arabic version predating his appearance in 18th-century France, may well have been the creation of translator Antoine Galland, not of Scheherazade. Irwin wryly glosses these early translations, which distortedly mirror the original Eastern exoticism with the reflections of their age's prejudices and their translators' personal eccentricities (notably the lexical, racial, and sexual obsessions of the Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton). The earlier Arabic compilations are no more reliable, however--Irwin devotes a separate chapter to forerunners (conjectural or lost) over several centuries, from India to Persia and Egypt. In a quixotic effort to amass 1,001 actual tales, these medieval compilers would incorporate local legends and real settings, sometimes approaching souk storytellers as sources. Throughout, Irwin's scholarly acumen illuminates these myriad worlds of the Nights, whether the cityscapes of the Mamelukes, the urban rogues' gallery of thieves and bazaar magicians, or the marvels of jinn and clockwork birds. The longest chapter is a selected roster of its literary heirs, from nursery fables and gothic novels through Proust, Joyce, and Borges, to contemporaries like Salman Rushdie and John Barth. An enchanting dragoman and chaperon for sleepless nights with Scheherazade. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1St Edition edition (September 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713991054
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713991055
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,478,470 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Scott Chamberlain VINE VOICE on May 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
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."
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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