“It hath reached me, O King of the Age, that there dwelt in a city of the cities of China a man which was a tailor, withal a pauper, and he had one son, Alaeddin hight. Now this boy had been from his babyhood a ne’er-do-well, a scapegrace; and, when he reached his tenth year, his father inclined to teach him his own trade; and, for that he was over indigent to expend money upon his learning other work or craft or apprenticeship, he took the lad into his shop that he might be taught tailoring. But, as Alaeddin was a scapegrace and a ne’er-do-well and wont to play at all times with the gutter boys of the quarter, he would not sit in the shop for a single day; nay, he would await his father’s leaving it for some purpose, such as to meet a creditor, when he would run off at once and fare forth to the gardens with the other scapegraces and low companions, his fellows.”
Thus begins the story of “Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp,” one of the nightly tales told by Shahrázád to her husband King Shahryar in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, as translated by famed British explorer/orientalist Richard Francis Burton. Published in a 17-volume set, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, Now Entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night was, until the 21st Century, the first and only unabridged and unexpurgated translation of this ancient set of Middle Eastern tales. This massive, heavily footnoted series of entertaining but very adult tales was considered scandalous when originally published in the 1880s.
Distributed Proofreaders volunteers processed the complete 17-volume set, managed by Rich Hulse (Bookbuff) and post-processed by Rick Tonsing (okrick), and is now available in its entirety at Project Gutenberg. While this edition is not appropriate for young audiences, it gives valuable insight into the cultural, moral, and religious practices in the regions of Persian influence (from the Red Sea to Western India) at the end of the first millennium.
The first written evidence of the tales appeared in 947 A.D., though many were probably based on stories passed on verbally from decades or centuries earlier. Additional stories were added during the next few centuries.
The stories are all predicated upon the framing story of King Shahryar and Shahrázád (also known as Scheherazade). After discovering that during his absences his wife has been regularly unfaithful, the King kills her and those with whom she has betrayed him. Thereafter, distrusting all womankind, he marries and kills a new wife each day until Shahrázád, the daughter of his vizier (chief advisor), intervenes to stop the slaughter. She agrees to marry the King, but each evening tells a story, leaving it incomplete to finish it the next night if the King allows her to live. The King finds the stories so entertaining that he puts off her execution from day to day until he finally abandons it completely.
Since these stories were designed to entertain the King, many tend to be adult-oriented bedroom stories. Many of the well-known modern stories, like that of Aladdin, have the more prurient elements removed or are stories that were added much later. Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821‒1890), an Oriental language expert fluent in 25 languages covering 40 dialects, faithfully translated as many of the authentic stories as he could find. English society censored his work and refused to allow it to be published because of its risqué content. Sir Richard got around this censorship by using a private publisher for subscription purchase only. He published the stories in a 10-volume set, followed by a seven-volume supplemental set, between 1885 and 1888.
This post was contributed by Distributed Proofreaders volunteer Rich Hulse (Bookbuff), who was the Project Manager for all 17 volumes of A plain and literal translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, now entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.