Courage Book Review – 1,001 Versions of the Arabian Nights

The great, overstuffed toy box that is the 1,001 Arabian Nights has provided stories and inspiration for generations, with examples of each of the six types of courage.  How many of us have had occasion to say “Open Sesame!” or joked about the perils of rubbing tarnished lamps?  It is likely that only scholars or novelists would attempt to make their way through the entire collection.  For most of us, “selections” will have to do.  Rather than 1,001 we might be satisfied with far fewer – the highlights reel.  Here are three to consider:

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the SailorThe Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor  retold by John Yeoman is enlivened by the wonderful illustrations of Quentin Blake.  The narrative follows the familiar formal style of the early translations of the tales: “Little by little my strength began to return and my spirits began to revive.  When I could walk comfortably again, using a stick that I cut from a tree, I decided to explore the island.”  This formal diction can weigh heavily, but the loose, breezy style of Blake’s artwork adds lightness to a heavy dough.  The shipwrecks and monsters and twists of fate that make up these voyages will provide many hours of excitement. 
Tenggren's Golden Tales from the Arabian NightsAnother beautifully illustrated mix-tape of tales from the Arabian Nights is Tenggren’s Golden Tales from the Arabian Nights.  The ten stories here are among the most popular of the tales,  retold by Margaret Soifer and Irwin Shapiro in a more contemporary style with plenty of dialogue. Acclaimed Scandinavian illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren, turned this into a visual feast of full-page illustrations in dazzling colors.  Originally published in 1957, this book has been reissued with an introduction by Mary Pope Osborne of Magic Tree House fame.  The Scheherezade story starts the ball rolling; it is significant one, as it gives us the moral courage of a girl who is willing to risk her life to put a stop to the murderous wife-killing spree of the king. 
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (Oxford Story Collections)For readers with more ambition, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (Oxford Story Collections) retold by Carnegie Medal-winner, Geraldine McCaughrean, offers many more stories.  Here, McCaughrean follows the spirit of the original by weaving the tales into and around  the story of Scheherezade who preserves her life day after day with the infamous cliff-hanger style of story-telling.  “‘But what am I thinking of,’ said Shahrazad, breaking off suddenly.  ‘I have told you the story of the First Voyage of Sinbad and now I presume on your patience to tell you the awful events of the Second Voyage.’   ‘Don’t interrupt the story with your chattering,’ said King Shahryar. ‘Go on, go on.’  ‘But your courtiers are knocking on the door, my most eminent and conscientious lord, and I still owe you your rightful wedding present – my little head in a silver dish.’  ‘Worthless woman!’ said Shahryar, stamping to the chamber door… ‘Are you suggesting that I go without the Second Voyage of Sinbad rather than keep my own headsman waiting?  I forbid you to leave this room until I have come back tonight and heard the story.’  ‘O patient and even-tempered husband,’ said Shahrazad. ‘To hear you is to obey.'”   The intellectual courage and physical courage she displays is a lesson to us all – “grace under pressure” is putting it mildly!

What the McCaughrean book also has, that the others do not, is Allah.  What is noteworthy about the earliest Western translations (I’m looking at the Burton translation from the late 19th Century) is the omnipresence of Allah as an inescapable force throughout the lives of the characters, frequently invoked, frequently praised, always credited with ultimate control.  Since this is a blog about courage, I think this is important: many of the characters in the stories are sustained by their spiritual courage as much or more than anything else.  To remove this major source of courage from the stories robs them of their power, and renders them mere adventure tales.  I recommend the first two books for the pictures, but for the spirit of the Arabian Nights, go with the third.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *