Literary themes and techniques
The One Thousand and One Nights and various tales within it make use of many innovative literary techniques, which the storytellers of the tales rely on for increased drama, suspense, or other emotions. Some of these date back to earlier Persian, Indian and Arabic literature, while others were original to the One Thousand and One Nights.
An early example of the frame story, or framing device, is employed in the One Thousand and One Nights, in which the character Scheherazade narrates a set of tales (most often fairy tales) to the Sultan Shahriyar over many nights. Many of Scheherazade’s tales are also frame stories, such as the Tale of Sindbad the Seaman and Sindbad the Landsman being a collection of adventures related by Sindbad the Seaman to Sindbad the Landsman. The concept of the frame story dates back to ancient Sanskrit literature, and was introduced into Persian and Arabic literature through the Panchatantra.
Story within a story
An early example of the “story within a story” technique can be found in the One Thousand and One Nights, which can be traced back to earlier Persian and Indian storytelling traditions, most notably the Panchatantra of ancient Sanskrit literature. The Nights, however, improved on the Panchatantra in several ways, particularly in the way a story is introduced. In the Panchatantra, stories are introduced as didactic analogies, with the frame story referring to these stories with variants of the phrase “If you’re not careful, that which happened to the louse and the flea will happen to you.” In the Nights, this didactic framework is the least common way of introducing the story, but instead a story is most commonly introduced through subtle means, particularly as an answer to questions raised in a previous tale.
An early example of the “story within a story within a story” device is also found in the One Thousand and One Nights, where the general story is narrated by an unknown narrator, and in this narration the stories are told by Scheherazade. In most of Scheherazade’s narrations there are also stories narrated, and even in some of these, there are some other stories. This is particularly the case for the “Sinbad the Sailor” story narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights. Within the “Sinbad the Sailor” story itself, the protagonist Sinbad the Sailor narrates the stories of his seven voyages to Sinbad the Porter. The device is also used to great effect in stories such as “The Three Apples” and “The Seven Viziers”. In yet another tale Scheherazade narrates, “The Fisherman and the Jinni”, the “Tale of the Wazir and the Sage Duban” is narrated within it, and within that there are three more tales narrated.
Dramatic visualization is “the representing of an object or character with an abundance of descriptive detail, or the mimetic rendering of gestures and dialogue in such a way as to make a given scene ‘visual’ or imaginatively present to an audience”. This technique dates back to the One Thousand and One Nights. An example of this is the tale of “The Three Apples” (see Crime fiction elements below).
Fate and destiny
A common theme in many Arabian Nights tales is fate and destiny. The Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini observed:
“ every tale in The Thousand and One Nights begins with an ‘appearance of destiny’ which manifests itself through an anomaly, and one anomaly always generates another. So a chain of anomalies is set up. And the more logical, tightly knit, essential this chain is, the more beautiful the tale. By ‘beautiful’ I mean vital, absorbing and exhilarating. The chain of anomalies always tends to lead back to normality. The end of every tale in The One Thousand and One Nights consists of a ‘disappearance’ of destiny, which sinks back to the somnolence of daily life … The protagonist of the stories is in fact destiny itself. ”
Though invisible, fate may be considered a leading character in the One Thousand and One Nights. The plot devices often used to present this theme are coincidence, reverse causation and the self-fulfilling prophecy (see Foreshadowing below).
Early examples of the foreshadowing technique of repetitive designation, now known as “Chekhov’s gun”, occur in the One Thousand and One Nights, which contains “repeated references to some character or object which appears insignificant when first mentioned but which reappears later to intrude suddenly in the narrative”. A notable example is in the tale of “The Three Apples” (see Crime fiction elements below).
Another early foreshadowing technique is formal patterning, “the organization of the events, actions and gestures which constitute a narrative and give shape to a story; when done well, formal patterning allows the audience the pleasure of discerning and anticipating the structure of the plot as it unfolds”. This technique also dates back to the One Thousand and One Nights.
Another form of foreshadowing is the self-fulfilling prophecy, which dates back to the story of Krishna in ancient Sanskrit literature. A variation of this device is the self-fulfilling dream, which dates back to medieval Arabic literature. Several tales in the One Thousand and One Nights use this device to foreshadow what is going to happen, as a special form of literary prolepsis. A notable example is “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream”, in which a man is told in his dream to leave his native city of Baghdad and travel to Cairo, where he will discover the whereabouts of some hidden treasure. The man travels there and experiences misfortune, ending up in jail, where he tells his dream to a police officer. The officer mocks the idea of foreboding dreams and tells the protagonist that he himself had a dream about a house with a courtyard and fountain in Baghdad where treasure is buried under the fountain. The man recognizes the place as his own house and, after he is released from jail, he returns home and digs up the treasure. In other words, the foreboding dream not only predicted the future, but the dream was the cause of its prediction coming true. A variant of this story later appears in English folklore as the “Pedlar of Swaffham” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”; Jorge Luis Borges’ collection of short stories A Universal History of Infamy featured his translation of this particular story into Spanish, as “The Story Of The Two Dreamers.”
Another variation of the self-fulfilling prophecy can be seen in “The Tale of Attaf”, where Harun al-Rashid consults his library (the House of Wisdom), reads a random book, “falls to laughing and weeping and dismisses the faithful vizier” Ja’far ibn Yahya from sight. Ja’afar, “disturbed and upset flees Baghdad and plunges into a series of adventures in Damascus, involving Attaf and the woman whom Attaf eventually marries.” After returning to Baghdad, Ja’afar reads the same book that caused Harun to laugh and weep, and discovers that it describes his own adventures with Attaf. In other words, it was Harun’s reading of the book that provoked the adventures described in the book to take place. This is an early example of reverse causation. Near the end of the tale, Attaf is given a death sentence for a crime he didn’t commit but Harun, knowing the truth from what he has read in the book, prevents this and has Attaf released from prison. In the 12th century, this tale was translated into Latin by Petrus Alphonsi and included in his Disciplina Clericalis, alongside the “Sinbad the Sailor” story cycle. In the 14th century, a version of “The Tale of Attaf” also appears in the Gesta Romanorum and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
Leitwortstil is ‘the purposeful repetition of words’ in a given literary piece that “usually expresses a motif or theme important to the given story”. This device occurs in the One Thousand and One Nights, which binds several tales in a story cycle. The storytellers of the tales relied on this technique “to shape the constituent members of their story cycles into a coherent whole.”
Thematic patterning is “the distribution of recurrent thematic concepts and moralistic motifs among the various incidents and frames of a story. In a skillfully crafted tale, thematic patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate events and disparate frames have in common”. This technique also dates back to the One Thousand and One Nights (and earlier).
Several different variants of the “Cinderella” story, which has its origins in the Egyptian story of Rhodopis, appear in the One Thousand and One Nights, including “The Second Shaykh’s Story”, “The Eldest Lady’s Tale” and “Abdallah ibn Fadil and His Brothers”, all dealing with the theme of a younger sibling harassed by two jealous elders. In some of these, the siblings are female, while in others they are male. One of the tales, “Judar and His Brethren”, departs from the happy endings of previous variants and reworks the plot to give it a tragic ending instead, with the younger brother being poisoned by his elder brothers.
Satire and parody
The Nights contain many examples of sexual humour. Some of this borders on satire, as in the tale called “Ali with the Large Member” which pokes fun at obsession with human penis size.
Repetition is also used to humorous effect in the One Thousand and One Nights. Sheherezade sometimes follows up a relatively serious tale with a cruder or more broadly humorous version of the same tale. For example, “Wardan the Butcher’s Adventure With the Lady and the Bear” is paralleled by “The King’s Daughter and the Ape”, “Harun al-Rashid and the Two Slave-Girls” by “Harun al-Rashid and the Three Slave-Girls”, and “The Angel of Death With the Proud King and the Devout Man” by “The Angel of Death and the Rich King”. The idea has been put forward that these pairs of tales are deliberately intended as examples of self parody, although this assumes a greater degree of editorial control by a single writer than the history of the collection as a whole would seem to indicate.
The literary device of the unreliable narrator was used in several fictional medieval Arabic tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. In one tale, “The Seven Viziers” (also known as “Craft and Malice of Women or The Tale of the King, His Son, His Concubine and the Seven Wazirs”), a courtesan accuses a king’s son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Qur’anic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph). Seven viziers attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of women, and the courtesan responds back by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of viziers. The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense in “The Three Apples” and humor in “The Hunchback’s Tale” (see Crime fiction elements below).
Crime fiction elements
The earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements was “The Three Apples”, also known as Hikayat al-sabiyya ‘l-muqtula (“The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman”), one of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights. In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja’far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days or else he will have him executed instead. This whodunit mystery may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction. Ja’far, however, fails to find the culprit before the deadline. Just when Harun is about to have Ja’far executed for his failure, a plot twist occurs when two men appear, one a handsome young man and the other an old man, both claiming to be the murderer. Both men argue and call each other liars as each attempts to claim responsibility for the murder. This continues until the young man proves that he is the murderer by accurately describing the chest in which the young woman was found.
The young man reveals that he was her husband and the old man her father, who was attempting to save his son-in-law by taking the blame. Harun then demands to know his motives for murdering his wife, and the young man then narrates his reasons as a flashback of events preceding Harun’s discovery of the locked chest. He eulogizes her as a faultless wife and mother of his three children, and describes how she one day requested a rare apple when she was ill. He then describes his two-week long journey to Basra, where he finds three such apples at the Caliph’s orchard. On his return to Baghdad, he finds out that she would no longer eat the apples because of her lingering illness. When he returns to work at his shop, he discovered a slave passing by with the same apple. He asked him about it and the slave replied that he received it from his girlfriend, who had three such apples that her husband found for her after a half-month journey. The young man then suspected his wife of unfaithfulness, rushed home, and demanded to know how many apples remained there. After finding one of the apples missing, he drew a knife and killed her. He then describes how he attempted to get rid of the evidence by cutting her body to pieces, wrapping it in multiple layers of shawls and carpets, hiding her body in a locked chest, and abandoning it in the Tigris river. Yet another twist occurs after he returns home and his son confesses to him that he had stolen one of the apples, and a slave had taken it and run off with it. The boy also confesses that he told the slave about his father’s quest for the three apples. Out of guilt, the young man concludes his story by requesting Harun to execute him for his unjust murder. Harun, however, refuses to punish the young man out of sympathy, but instead sets Ja’far a new assignment: to find the tricky slave who caused the tragedy within three days, or be executed for his failure.
Ja’far yet again fails to find the culprit before the deadline has passed. On the day of the deadline, he is summoned to be executed for his failure. As he bids farewell to all his family members, he hugs his beloved youngest daughter last. It is then, by complete accident, that he discovers a round object in her pocket which she reveals to be an apple with the name of the Caliph written on it. In the story’s twist ending, the girl reveals that she brought it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja’far thus realizes that his own slave was the culprit all along. He then finds Rayhan and solves the case as a result. Ja’far, however, pleads to Harun to forgive his slave and, in exchange, narrates to him the “Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan”.
“The Three Apples” served as an inspiration for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s The Golden Apple (Der Goldene Apfel) (1897). It has also been noted that the flashback narrated by the young man in “The Three Apples” resembles the later story of Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), which was itself based on “Un Capitano Moro”, a tale from Giovanni Battista Giraldi’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565).
Another Nights tale with crime fiction elements was “The Hunchback’s Tale” story cycle which, unlike “The Three Apples”, was more of a suspenseful comedy and courtroom drama rather than a murder mystery or detective fiction. The story is set in a fictional China and begins with a hunchback, the emperor’s favourite comedian, being invited to dinner by a tailor couple. The hunchback accidentally chokes on his food from laughing too hard and the couple, fearful that the emperor will be furious, take his body to a Jewish doctor’s clinic and leave him there. This leads to the next tale in the cycle, the “Tale of the Jewish Doctor”, where the doctor accidentally trips over the hunchback’s body, falls down the stairs with him, and finds him dead, leading him to believe that the fall had killed him. The doctor then dumps his body down a chimney, and this leads to yet another tale in the cycle, which continues with twelve tales in total, leading to all the people involved in this incident finding themselves in a courtroom, all making different claims over how the hunchback had died. Crime fiction elements are also present near the end of “The Tale of Attaf” (see Foreshadowing above).
Horror fiction elements
Haunting is used as a plot device in gothic fiction and horror fiction, as well as modern paranormal fiction. Legends about haunted houses have long appeared in literature. In particular, the Arabian Nights tale of “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad” revolves around a house haunted by jinns. The Nights is almost certainly the earliest surviving literature that mentions ghouls, and many of the stories in that collection involve or reference ghouls. A prime example is the story The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib (from Nights vol. 6), in which Gherib, an outcast prince, fights off a family of ravenous Ghouls and then enslaves them and converts them to Islam.
Horror fiction elements are also found in “The City of Brass” tale, which revolves around a ghost town.
The horrific nature of Scheherazade’s situation is magnified in Stephen King’s Misery, in which the protagonist is forced to write a novel to keep his captor from torturing and killing him. The influence of the Nights on modern horror fiction is certainly discernible in the work of H. P. Lovecraft. As a child, he was fascinated by the adventures recounted in the book, and he attributes some of his creations to his love of the 1001 Nights.
Science fiction elements
Several stories within the One Thousand and One Nights feature early science fiction elements. One example is “The Adventures of Bulukiya”, where the protagonist Bulukiya’s quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to Paradise and to Hell, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction; along the way, he encounters societies of djinns, mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In “Abu al-Husn and His Slave-Girl Tawaddud”, the heroine Tawaddud gives an impromptu lecture on the mansions of the Moon, and the benevolent and sinister aspects of the planets.
In another 1001 Nights tale, “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales also depict Amazon societies dominated by women, lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them. “The City of Brass” features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, life-like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city, which has now become a ghost town. “The Ebony Horse” features a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun. Some modern interpretations see this horse as a robot. The titular ebony horse can fly the distance of one year in a single day, and is used as a vehicle by the Prince of Persia [disambiguation needed], Qamar al-Aqmar, in his adventures across Persia, Arabia and Byzantium. This story appears to have influenced later European tales such as Adenes Le Roi’s Cleomades and “The Squire’s Prologue and Tale” told in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. “The City of Brass” and “The Ebony Horse” can be considered early examples of proto-science fiction. The “Third Qalandar’s Tale” also features a robot in the form of an uncanny boatman.