Maybe it just seemed like 1001 nights…sheesh.

I remember reading, as a child, some version of the Thousand and One Nights.  Evidently it was not Sir Richard Burton’s bestselling Victorian translation, which is written in a faux-medieval style that is pretty annoying to my adult self and would have been impenetrable to the 9-year-old me.  Also, to judge from the first chapters, about 95% of the book would have to be cut from any children’s version–“adult” is not really the right word for most of this material…how about “revoltingly  disturbing”?  Makes one wonder about the Victorians who lapped it up.

I suppose the kiddie Nights must have mentioned the frame story, which is gruesome enough, but kids are familiar with the brutality of arbitrary authority both in fairy tales and in real life, so perhaps the king who murders his wife every morning was probably considered family-friendly enough.  But surely not his reason for the killings.

To begin at the beginning, King Shahryar wants to see his brother.  Bro sets out to see him, but forgets one of the gifts he wanted to bring and heads back into the house at night.  There he “found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet bed embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease.”  Bro cuts the two of them into four pieces, as the narrator tells us with a touch of what I think is meant to be humor.

After a long journey, Bro arrives chez King S, but still is not quite himself, and stays home while King S goes out hunsting.  Peeking through a blind, he sees the Queen’s male and female (white) slaves having an orgy which culminates thus:

And then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her [Mrs. Shahryar]  and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly. Then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.

Reluctantly, the brother tells King S about what he has seen; S has to see for himself, so we get another similar description.  Having disposed of his first wife and gone on a soul-searching journey (he is forced to ‘futter’ the wife of a genie, which reinforces his low opinion of women), King S concludes that the only way to get the nightly screwing to which he considers himself entitled without incurring the fear of betrayal is to marry every evening and murder his new bride the following morning.  Now it all makes sense, right?

Well anyway, after he’s exhausted the local virgin supply, Scheherazade steps up to the plate.  To his credit, her dad is unenthusiastic about the marriage, though he expresses himself peculiarly:

“Now, Daughter Scheherazade,” continued the Wazir, “I will do to thee as did that husband to that wife.” Said Scheherazade, “And what did he do?” He replied, “When the merchant heard the wise words spoken by his cock to his dog, he arose in haste and sought his wife’s chamber, after cutting for her some mulberry twigs and hiding them there. And then he called to her, “Come into the closet, that I may tell thee the secret while no one seeth me, and then die.” She entered with him and he locked the door and came down upon her with so sound a beating of back and shoulders, ribs, arms, and legs, saying the while “Wilt thou ever be asking questions about what concerneth thee not?” that she was well-nigh senseless. Presently she cried out: “I am of the repentant! By Allah, I will ask thee no more questions, and indeed I repent sincerely and wholesomely.” Then she kissed his hand and feet and he led her out of the room submissive, as a wife should be. Her parents and all the company rejoiced and sadness and mourning were changed into joy and gladness.

Thus the merchant learnt family discipline from his cock and he and his wife lived together the happiest of lives until death.

Rrk.  I hate to say it, but I think this, too, is supposed to be funny.  Scheherazade, though, gets her way, and the first tale of the first night begins with…Yay!  Not violent racist misogynistic bitterness but a genie and some magic talking fish and fun stuff like that.  But it’s all a ruse, for after a pages Scheherazade too is drawn back to the familiar obsession, like a Poe narrator who can’t stop thinking about the body parts buried in the woodwork. 

There’s an ensorcelled prince who tells of being tipped off that his wife was cheating on him.  One night he follows her and…can you guess what he finds? 

And lo! my fair cousin [his wife is his cousin–this seems to be normal] had gone in to a hideous Negro slave with his upper lip like the cover of a pot and his lower like an open pot, lips which might sweep up sand from the gravel floor of the cot. He was to boot a leper and a paralytic, lying upon a strew of sugar-cane trash and wrapped in an old blanket and the foulest rags and tatters.

The prince bursts in on the couple, but doesn’t kill them and ends up under his wife’s spell, necessitating much agony and many complications before another prince comes along and slices up wife and lover real good and everyone who isn’t dead lives happily ever after.

I’m sorry, but this is what RL Stevenson called pure adventure?  I feel as though I had ordered Star Wars and instead received America’s Sternest Headmasters.   I have focused on the Victorian context because I do not know enough about the original and its cultural matrix–perhaps there is some kind of sophisticated irony that is lost in translation, though I rather doubt it.  I do know enough about the public prudishness and private creepiness of Victorian culture to wonder what they were thinking.

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One Response to Maybe it just seemed like 1001 nights…sheesh.

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    Oh lawdy, who knew?! Thanks you gfor your ever-enlightening take on a beloved work of art???

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