The Arabian Nights in English Literary Theory (1704-1910)

Scheherazade in England. An Expanded and Updated Version of the 1981 Edition

by Muhsin al-Musawi (Author)
©2022 Monographs XXII, 238 Pages


In its first edition, this book was a new opening in the study of the Arabian Nights as an index of literary taste, a case study for the engagements of poets and writers, along with the common reading public, with an art that took Europe by surprise, and forced new patterns of response and writing. Borges thought of its advent as a dynamic that helped generate the romantic mode and sensibility. It certainly disturbed old habits of thought and made significant cultural inroads throughout European cultures. Almost no one in 18th-19th century literatures remained oblivious to that sweeping phenomenal appearance. The book analyzes and studies modes and patterns of reading, response, engagement, commentary, translations, claims to authentication, abridgements, and illustrations. It focuses on debates and controversies around the Arabian Nights, and shows how these happened to be at the center of a growing colonial culture. This book can never lose its significance for students, scholars, and general readership, not only in the field of comparative and cultural studies, English and French departments, but also in postcolonial studies and the basics of narrative and narratology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Preface to the New Edition
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 The Eighteenth-Century Reception of the Arabian Nights
  • 2 The Growing Vogue of Scheherazade’s Tales
  • 3 Patterns of Critical Response: The Romantic Appraisal of Scheherazade’s Aesthetics
  • 4 Lane and the Victorian Literary Scene
  • 5 A Panorama of Eastern Life
  • 6 The Growth of Scholarly Interest in the Arabian Nights
  • A Selected Bibliography
  • Index


Very few books have cast such a spell on the reading public as Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, better known as the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, a title which the first Grub Street English translator had chosen early in the eighteenth century when first coming upon Galland’s Contes Arabes. The Arabian tales are still read with avidity, whereas such writers as John Barth and many others have drawn upon Scheherazade’s mine of story-telling to introduce their views on the technique of writing or to ridicule modern attitudes and situations. But no matter how popular the tales are in the twentieth century, adaptations from or studies of the Arabian Nights have become so impersonal that one feels inclined to reintroduce the tales to the twentieth-century reader, a thought which had never bothered a Romantic or a Victorian essayist or critic. When Leigh Hunt, Dickens, or Morris, for instance, used to draw upon Scheherazade’s mine of allusion and anecdote, they felt sure that their readers were so familiar with the tales that they had no need to check a “scholarly companion” to the Arabian Nights.

The framing tale in Scheherazade’s collection is not hard to remember. The Vizier’s charming daughter Scheherazade has requested her father to allow her to risk marrying the brooding melancholy and ruthless Sultan Schahriar. Betrayed by an adulterous wife, the Sultan avowed to marry each wife for a night, killing her upon the next morning in order not to be betrayed again. Unlike other ←xiii | xiv→unlucky females, Scheherazade draws upon her knowledge and wit. Bent upon entangling him in a new attachment to life, she disarms him by stories about the vicissitudes of fortune, and the cruelty of kings. She narrates other tales about the viles of women. More to her purpose, however, is to entangle him in the very web of story-telling. A story leads to another, and the sultan’s mind lives in perpetual suspense for a thousand and one nights. By that time, Scheherazade is a mother, whereas the Sultan, divested now of his arrogance and distrust, is too enthralled by her art and affectionate care to think of sacrificing her. Such is the termination of the otherwise endless tales.

Although not given to allegorical explanations ourselves, it is only fair to agree with O.K. Chesterton that Scheherazade proves the autonomy of art. “Never in any other book,” he says in the Spice of Life (pp. 56–60) “has such a splendid tribute been given to the pride and omnipotence of art.” Such a despot like Schahriar may command multitudes, but he suffers to listen to a story-teller. It is Scheherazade’s art, to be sure, which, so the tales suggest, saves her life.

Composite in nature, the volumes consist of romances, love stories, tales of roguery and adventure, accounts of some historical significance, and moralistic or philosophical pieces. Like literary productions of multifarious growth, the tales passed through many redactions since their early evolution in the ninth century, undergoing a number of changes, omissions, and interpolations in Baghdad, Syria, and in Cairo. Thus, a manuscript of a Baghdadi origin will definitely demonstrate some regional predilections. The same applies with equal force to the compilations of the Cairene origin. Twentieth-century scholarship has fared no better, so far, than the Victorian. Aside from Nabia Abbott’s finding, a ninth-century fragment of the tales of a Baghdadi origin, there have been no further discoveries to illuminate the otherwise obscure genealogy of the Arabian Nights.

But as early as October 1838 and September 1839, the Athenaeum reviewer of the newly published English editions of the Arabian Nights came across some external evidence, corroborating the existence of a twelfth-century work in Arabic titled the Thousand and One Nights. The reviewer himself explained how the tales differ from pre-Islamic romances of chivalrous and warlike atmospheres. Scheherazade’s tales, especially in their European redactions, draw quite heavily on urban manners and aspirations. Aside from a few pieces dealing with the supernatural, they are mostly concerned with domestic practices and intrigues. This very nature of the tales poses certain questions regarding their settings and authorship. The reviewer himself has also touched on this point, reaching some conclusions that must be included in any modern scholarly assessment of the history and people of the Arabian tales.←xiv | xv→

That the tales betray such urban predilections indicates that they began to evolve during the Abbasid reign. While possibly borrowing the framing tale from Hezar Afsaneh the story-tellers of Baghdad invented many others and adapted more to meet the increasing demand for entertaining tales under the starry skies of Eastern nights. In general, however, it is fair to say that the larger portion of the tales is genuinely Arabian. It continued to accumulate till the first half of the sixteenth century. There are tales that were Arabized to meet the taste of the Arab audiences. The expansion of the Arab Empire under the Abbasid rule drove many story-tellers to appropriate the light literature of other nations. But as the Athenaeum reviewer rightly noticed, even this portion is Islamic. Regulating and modelling manners and customs, Islam imposes a certain conformity ritual that defies clear-cut categorizations.

Many suggestions have been advanced regarding possible authors of the primary collections of tales that clustered around the framing tale. But while there should have been a certain author or a number of authors, storytellers or translators in Baghdad during the Abbasid reign, the fact that accumulation and sifting had continued until the first half of the sixteenth century impels scholars to search for manuscripts. These alone can demonstrate the additions, interpolations, and changes imposed upon the primary material by copyists and compilers. Such manuscripts will lead us to see through the regional predilections of such copyists and compilers, the redactors of the Arabian tales who have transmitted to Europe this mine of story-telling. Individual tales had found their way to medieval Europe through numerous channels, to be sure, but the Arabian Nights attained its tremendous vogue as a collection in the first decade of the eighteenth century when it was simultaneously translated into both French and English.

Since the appearance early in the eighteenth century of the anonymous Grub Street translation of Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits, Contes Arabes, there has been no comprehensive assessment of the critical and popular reception accorded to the tales in England, at least not before 1978, the date of my doctoral dissertation. Despite their tremendous vogue and impact, the literary reputation of the Arabian tales has not been heretofore sufficiently recognized, as any cursory reading of standard historical and critical surveys will indicate. In this book, I have attempted to trace and evaluate the salient characteristics of the popularity of the Nights, especially with the nineteenth-century reading public. A survey of relevant eighteenth-century responses is unavoidable, however, not only because historical continuity and rupture invite response, but also because Galland’s edition of the Nights was the one which enjoyed sustained popularity throughout the nineteenth century. Undeveloped and limited as the scope and ←xv | xvi→criteria of literary scholarship and periodical reviewing were in the eighteenth century, basic patterns of reaction and response were nevertheless established at that time, leading to or evoking further critical insights and scholarly studies of the generic characteristics as well as of the origin and impact of the Nights.

But rather than dealing in the main with pseudo-Oriental modes or focusing on imitations and adaptations that fall at times outside the main currents of English literary taste, I have argued that a valid and substantial estimate of the literary reputation of the Nights must rest on a clear understanding of and adequate acquaintance with related contemporary criticism. Thus, my primary concern is with the nature and scope of critical responses as manifested in prefaces to translations and adaptations, in reviews and periodical articles, and in memoirs, recollections, and other miscellanies. But as these will largely testify to the preferences of the intellectual elite and the critical reader, I have made numerous references to adaptations, abridgements, selections, reprints, and “continuations” as a valuable index of popular taste.

This undertaking obviously indicates considerable dissatisfaction with the few existing studies of the vogue of the Oriental mode. Mainly preoccupied with the influence of the Arabian tales on English literature, many well-meaning critics have devoted their attention to servile imitations and adaptations without attempting to probe into the relevance of the Nights to the basic social and literary concerns of the period in question. Others have mentioned only in passing some nineteenth-century appraisals of Scheherazade’s collection, concentrating instead on the allusions to it and borrowings from its mine of anecdote and detail. Useful as such researches certainly are, they nevertheless fall short of accounting for the enduring popularity of the Nights, a popularity which critical appreciations and estimates as well as statistical information on the popular market will surely explain and substantiate.

It is indisputable that the Nights exerted tremendous influence on English writing, particularly on drama and romantic fiction. In an essay for Bookman (1907, XXXI, 258), William E.A. Axon recognized this influence. While delighting the “literary palate” with their variety of sentiment and anecdote and with their impressive gallery of rogues, cobblers, fishermen, and scolding wives, the tales “may perhaps have had some share in encouraging the novelists when they did come to deal with homely scenes and common life.” At a time when the modern novel was “as yet unborn” and when readers “were sick of sham classical romances of interminable and portentous unreality,” Galland’s volumes were very much in vogue. A year later, Martha Pike Conant published her monumental book, the Oriental Tale in England in the Eighteenth Century (N.Y.: Columbia ←xvi | xvii→Univ. Press), bringing to the attention of many the nature of Scheherazade’s contribution to the early evolution of the modern novel. She postulated that the tales could not have enjoyed such a sweeping success had they not met certain literary and popular needs. In their romantic machinery, their episodic plots and adventurous spirit, they supplied the very elements which the undeveloped English novel desperately needed to evolve beyond the dull practice of character sketching in periodicals (pp. 238–48).

Although a careful investigation of specific echoes and borrowings from the Nights, coupled with a survey of probable tributaries and channels of transmission and influence, will greatly substantiate and enrich any conclusions regarding literary vogue, I have found it impractical to concentrate on this area. Instead, I have cited only the most notable expressions of this influence that bear directly on the present discussion. A mere survey of recent standard bibliographies and indices will indicate the widening prospects of research for interested scholars. Aside from A. Nicoll’s authoritative listing of dramatic adaptations from the Nights, both Robert D. Mayo’s English Novel in the Magazines, 1740–1815 and Walter E. Houghton’s invaluable Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (1966–) demonstrate how much is left to be done by those intending to assess the nature of the spell which Scheherazade had cast on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mind.

Further studies of literary influx may profit amply from the present estimate of the criticism of the Nights not only because of its direct relevance to contemporary critical issues and cultural taste but also because of the emphasis laid here on the nature of the major translations and editions that were accessible to the public in Augustan and Victorian England. Excepting Sheila Shaw’s remarks on the value of Galland’s version for early eighteenth-century fiction (Muslim World, XLIX [1959], 232–38; PMLA, XC [Jan. 1975], 62–68), there is virtually nothing written on the necessity of classifying and interpreting the impact of and responses to such various editions as those of Galland, Edward William Lane (1838–1841), John Payne (1882–1884), and Richard Burton (1885–1888). Central to my argument is the premise that these translations or redactions reveal much about contemporary predilections and must be seen as significant signs of the prevailing literary concerns of the times. Throughout the forthcoming chapters, these editions have been studied within their immediate socio-cultural context. In doing so, I have been led by two considerations. Aside from the historical and literary factors that would have unavoidably decided and shaped the attitude and method of each translator or editor, nineteenth-century writers, in particular, tended to entertain distinct impressions and maintain well-defined ←xvii | xviii→views of the available editions. Thus, the edition which appealed to Leigh Hunt, for instance, was not the same one that impressed Walter Bagehot. Significantly, the comments which each version evoked correspond to prevailing literary outlooks and aesthetic preferences and form therefore part of the temper of the given period. Being so widely popular and influential, the Arabian Nights in its various garbs elicited views and provoked arguments that should not be overlooked in any fair assessment of the evolution of literary theory in England. It is well to remember that in the early nineteenth-century dispute between the utilitarians and advocates of literary culture or in the late Victorian controversy between the new realists and the romanticists, the tales were often cited to substantiate diverse biases and attitudes.


XXII, 238
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
The Arabian Nights in English Literary Theory (1704-1910): Scheherazade in England Muhsin J. al-Musawi Arabian Nights 18th century criticism 19th century literary theory Galland Grub Street translator Edward W. Lane John Payne R.F. Burton Leigh Hunt William Henley Beckford Alfred Lord Tennyson Walter Bagehot the Victorians Romanticism Dickens Utilitarianism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XXII, 238 pp., 15 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Muhsin al-Musawi (Author)

Muhsin J. al-Musawi is professor of classical and modern Arabic literature, comparative and cultural studies at Columbia University. He is the author of over thirty books (including 6 novels) and over sixty scholarly articles. His books include: The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights (2009); The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence (2003); Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition (2006); Reading Iraq: Culture and Power in Conflict (2006); Islam on the Street: Religion in Arabic Literature (2009), selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2010; The Medieval Islamic Republic of Letters: Arabic Knowledge Construction (2015); Arabic Disclosures: The Postcolonial Autobiographical Atlas (July 2022); The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures (Aug. 2021). His edited volumes include Arabic Literary Thresholds: Sites of Rhetorical Turn in Contemporary Scholarship (2009) and Arabic Literature for the Classroom (2017). He is the editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature, the foremost academic journal in the field of Arabic literature. He has also served as academic consultant for numerous academic institutions in the United States and abroad. Professor al-Musawi is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the highly prestigious 2002 Owais Award in Literary Criticism, the 2018 Kuwait Prize in Arabic Language and Literature, and King Faisal Prize in Arabic Literature in English, 2022.


Title: The Arabian Nights in English Literary Theory (1704-1910)
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262 pages