It is interesting that a medium of the arts has long connected a world otherwise in conflict. More exactly, folklore seems to bring all nations and cultures together, and from humanity’s first efforts to create and pass on stories. Without question, the nature of a culture and an era very much go to how a fable is created or developed. As Germany of the early 19th century was suffering from the consequences of long war, for example, the tales of the Brothers Grimm emphasized stepparents, danger, and death (Abler). Nonetheless, universal themes are consistently evident in all fairy tales and folklore, and for the not unexpected reason that people engage in the same concerns no matter specific cultures. Reinforcing this strongly is how the Arabian Nights stories, clearly originating in the Middle East, reflect Western fables in theme and story. Moreover, this massive collection of tales, through commerce between East and West alone, came to have a powerful influence over European storytelling. As the following explores, the Arabian Nights, while having influenced other cultures’ folklore, emphasizes how universal themes appear in all fables.
Influence of the Arabian Nights
If it is true that fables have ancient origins, it is also true that the stories evolve over centuries, and are then subject to the influences of their own eras and the forces shaping them. The Arabian Nights, as noted, has a history very old and difficult to trace. The first written reference dates to the 9th century C.E., but the stories had clearly been in circulation long before this. Equally importantly, and taking into account their Middle Eastern, Greek, and Indian roots, they gradually became known to Western culture long ago. The reason was the Crusades, which brought 12th and 13th century Europeans in direct contact with the Middle East (Al-Olaq 385). Later, commerce would play an ongoing and important role in spreading the tales, as merchant sailors returning home to Europe would entertain their children with the fantastic stories. It was not until the early 18th century, however, that English and French translations of the Arabian Nights appeared, and the impact was immense. The Genis, Ghouls, Princesses and Peris fascinated both adults and children in Europe (Lang). Nonetheless, and emphasizing the power of oral traditions, there is evidence that the tales had direct impact on earlier European storytelling. The core story of the Arabian Nights, in the princess’s continuing narrative made to save her own life, is seen in Giovanni Sercambi’s Novella d’Astolfo of 1400, and the 1516 Orlando Furioso of Ludovico Ariosto (McCormick, White 129). Even before this, moreover, the English poem, “The Owl and the Nightingale,” a fable itself of the late 12th century, has many references to Asian and Arabic elements found in the Arabian Nights. In fact, a large number of European works so influenced has been identified. Shakespeare uses the story of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in The Taming of the Shrew. Samuel Rowland’s 1612 poem, “The Bride” is a virtual retelling of the frame story of the Arabian Nights: “The poem draws the image of a bride and her bridesmaids in a way that…resembles the Arabian story of Scheherazade” (Al-Olaq 386). Clearly, the Arabian Nights has then had a long history of influencing European literature.
Similarities and Other Connections
The nature of Western fairy tales and folklore is that it is rooted in ancient traditions of oral storytelling. There is no way, for example, of identifying when “Jack and the Beanstalk” or the first versions of “Little Red Riding-hood” first made their appearances, as Aesop and the Brothers Grimm famously refined stories long circulating. The Brothers Grimm, for example, added strongly German elements to their fables, but the stories themselves were collected from oral traditions, mythology, Christian scripture and, notably, tales having come from the Middle East. The story of “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the most enduring fables, is easily traced to the myth of Cupid and Psyche (Abler). This being the reality, it becomes plain that certain stories and themes of the Arabian Nights appear in other fables of other cultures. For example, “The Story of the First of the Three Ladies of Baghdad” bears strong resemblances to the Western classic, “Cinderella.” The Arabian Nights story alters the wealth of the stepsisters; in this, it is the younger girl who has riches, as the sisters continually lose their through marrying bad husbands. At the same time, there is the clear and ongoing conflict between three sisters, and the theme of advancing in the world as fueling that conflict. Most importantly, it is the youngest who is virtuous, and this then also brings the tale near to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Then, “The Story of the Fisherman” has many parallels to Western fables, in that a poor man encounters a magic Geni who seeks to kill him. The fisherman manages to trick the Geni back into the enchanted jar from which he cannot escape. The story then veers off into a seemingly disconnected direction, but the point remains that it sets out a classic folklore scenario. Poverty, to begin with, drives the protagonist, just as so many tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Also in keeping with the latter, the Geni is a magical creature who, like Jack’s Giant, is both wealthy and capable of extreme cruelty. Moving away from fables and to modern work, even Stephen King’s horror novel, Misery, relies on the plot drive of Scheherazade’s tale, as the writer is forced to literally spin out a tale in order to satisfy the woman holding him prisoner. Just as the Arabian Nights has had direct and indirect influences on Western storytelling, then, so too does the work support how certain themes are so common in varied cultures as to be universal.
The nature of all folklore, and of much actual literature, is to reflect human experience and explore different dimensions of it. This is true no matter the natures of individual cultures, because it is a human drive to understand human experience and impart lessons to others. This being the reality, it is hardly surprising that the Arabian Nights, a massive collection originating in the Middle East and Asia, should reflect stories identified with Western cultures. The work has certainly influenced Western storytelling in direct ways, as Europeans were and are fascinated by the strange characters and supernatural elements of the Arabian Nights, and global forces of war and commerce introduced them to the West. Nonetheless, the greater reality is that these connections exist because the themes resonate with all. Ultimately, the Arabian Nights, while having influenced other cultures’ folklore and literature, emphasizes how universal themes consistently appear in all fables.
- Abler, Abel. “The Moral of the Story.” Vision. 2008, Web. http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/society-and-culture/moral-of-the-story/153.aspx
- Al-Olaq, Fahd M. T. S. “The Influence of the Arabian Nights on English Literature: A Selective Study.” European Journal of Social Sciences. 31.3 (2012): 384-396. Web.
- Lang, Andrew (Ed.). The Arabian Nights. 2014, Web. 20 Nov. 2014. http://trwheeler.com/ebooks/arabian_nights.pdf
- McCormick, Charlie T., & White, Kim K. (Eds). Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Print.