If I were the publisher’s editor during the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th centuries) during the time when these stories were being compiled into a Tale of 1001 Nights, I would have strongly recommended that it be pared down to 101 Nights. 1001 is too many. These three volumes (2008 edition by Penguin Classics) are in essence 270 short stories divided into 1001 sessions to fit the setting of the woman named Scheherazade telling a story per night with tantalizing incomplete endings in order to keep her bloody handed husband/king from killing her.
The three volumes total 2,784 pages. Any reader who manages to make it through to the end of the collection will find that their memory of the stories will be muddled and mixed because of their similar themes and motifs. Most books of short stories can have the same effect on a reader, but it’s worse in this case because of the large number of stories.
The experience of taking time to read all of this three volume set is something I can’t recommend to others. I was obligated to give it a try because I was a member of a reading group that decided to discuss the Arabian Nights in three meetings during the summer months of 2013. I managed to read only parts of Volume 1, none of Volume 2 (I was out of town), and with extra effort (and listening to audio) I managed to get through Volume 3.
This collection of stories does provide a glimpse into Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales of the 8th to 13th centuries. Since all my reading was in the first and third volumes I can offer some generalizations about the differences I noticed between the early and late stories. The earlier stories are shorter, less complex and contain fewer references to religion. The later stories are mostly longer and more religious. One story in Volume 3 takes up to 31 nights to get the story told. And Volume 3 is steeped in praise of the Muslim religion. As a matter of fact some of the stories in Volume 3 go out of their way to make it clear that the Christians (i.e. the Franks) are the bad guys and the Moslems are to good guys.
Here's a summary of the nights per story for the three volumes:
74 stories over 294 nights for an average of 3.9 nights/story
158 stories over 425 nights for an average of 2.7 nights/story
38 stories over 282 nights for an average of 7.4 nights/story
At my book club it was pointed out that there is a story in Volume 2 that is almost exactly the same as another story in Volume 3. Again this indicates lack of an editor to correct this sort of thing.
One little detail which is probably left out of the children's version of these stories is the fact that 1001 nights is sufficient time to get pregnant three times and have three children by the end of all these stories. That is exactly what happens in this book. So the king was doing more than listening to the stories. Scheherazade must have been quite a woman to be able to not miss a night, and apparently deliver her babies without her husband noticing because at the end of the book the king seems to have not been previously aware of the existence of his children.
The following are some comments about this edition of the Arabian Nights taken from Wikipedia:
“In 2008 a new English translation was published by Penguin Classics in three volumes. It is translated by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons with introduction and annotations by Robert Irwin. This is the first complete translation of the Macnaghten or Calcutta II edition (Egyptian recension) since Sir Richard Burton. It contains, in addition to the standard text of 1001 Nights, the so-called "orphan stories" of Aladdin and Ali Baba as well as an alternative ending to The seventh journey of Sindbad from Antoine Galland's original French. As the translator himself notes in his preface to the three volumes, "No attempt has been made to superimpose on the translation changes that would be needed to 'rectify' ... accretions, ... repetitions, non sequiturs and confusions that mark the present text," and the work is a "representation of what is primarily oral literature, appealing to the ear rather than the eye". The Lyons translation includes all the poetry, omitted in some translations, but does not attempt to reproduce in English the internal rhyming of some prose sections of the original Arabic.”
The following excerpt from Wikipedia seems to indicate that Arabian Nights is given more attention within Western Literature than found in the study of Arabic culture and literature:
“There is little evidence that the Nights was particularly treasured in the Arab world. It is rarely mentioned in lists of popular literature and few pre-18th century manuscripts of the collection exist. Fiction had a low cultural status among Medieval Arabs compared with poetry, and the tales were dismissed as khurafa (improbable fantasies fit only for entertaining women and children). According to Robert Irwin, "Even today, with the exception of certain writers and academics, the Nights is regarded with disdain in the Arabic world. Its stories are regularly denounced as vulgar, improbable, childish and, above all, badly written."
I guess the above indicates that Western Literature has lower standards than Arabic Literature. I actually agree with the last sentence of the above quotation.