Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World

By Paul McMichael Nurse. 2010. Viking Canada. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780670063604 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Michael Lundell, University of California, San Diego

[Review length: 693 words • Review posted on October 27, 2010]

Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of literature, The 1001 (aka Arabian) Nights remains elusively misunderstood. This is of course forgivable considering the folktale collection’s obscure history: no original version, no known author, and a long and well-documented history of forgery, mistranslation, added stories of unknown origin, and lost manuscripts.

The story collection’s historical obscurity is, however, changing with recent scholarship based on uncovering the history, reception, and idiosyncratic details of specific individual versions of the Nights. The late scholar Muhsin Mahdi, for example, spent over a decade researching the oldest Arabic manuscript of the Nights. Despite this relatively recent shift in scholarship toward dealing with specific versions of the Nights, a good deal remains to be uncovered.

Paul McMichael Nurse’s recent book Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World does much in the way of explicating and researching several of the major versions of the 1001 Nights in their historical contexts. An accessible and yet scholarly treatment of the history of the Nights, Nurse’s book is particularly important for its handling of the nuances surrounding individual versions of the Nights.

In particular and perhaps most importantly, Eastern Dreams provides what may be the only extensive biography in English of the French Orientalist Antoine Galland, the man who first brought the Nights to Europe and the West with his 1704 French translation. Nurse calls Galland “the work’s true author,” as this linguist, academic, and book collector was essentially the genesis of the popularity of the Nights in Europe and beyond. At the time the Nights was little regarded in the Middle East or really known anywhere, and Galland re-popularized the story collection. His version spawned ultimately everything Nights-related that followed it.

In addition, Eastern Dreams outlines the history of how several of the most famous stories of the Nights, including “Sinbad,” “Ali Baba,” and “Aladdin,” were inserted into the Nights by Galland and how these stories had their own individually convoluted histories. Aladdin, for example, was never a part of the Nightsand has never been found before Galland. Arabic manuscripts of Aladdin discovered by researchers were later found to be forgeries, for example.

Previous chapters of the book do an equally investigative job at outlining the earlier history of the Nights, much of which was not understood until the twentieth century, but the bulk of the book’s strength is in its post-Galland treatment of several important versions of the Nights. These versions include perhaps the most famous English translation, by Sir Richard Burton in 1885, and its own problematic and scandalous history (Burton famously added extensive footnotes about sexual practices and heightened the sexuality in the Nights).

In addition, Nurse’s book offers perhaps the most well-balanced treatment of Burton’s involvement with another translator, John Payne. Payne had written an earlier English translation of the Nights, and several books and biographies have charged Burton with essentially copying Payne. Nurse’s book does an important job of investigating these charges and showing how the reality of the situation is much more complicated than it appears to be. Those leveling the charges against Burton often had their own personal reasons for doing so.

Other chapters of the book examine how the Nights influenced the English Romantic movement, how scholarship on and academics of the Nights seem historically obsessed with discovering one “true” manuscript of the Nights, and a concluding section on where Nights scholarship is today and where and how the Nights is understood contemporaneously.

The strength of the book lies in its ability to collect and clearly focus the history of the Nights in a readable and accessible manner, something curiously absent from the great amount of writing done on the Nights. The book’s treatment of the individual versions of the Nights is also an important introduction to the idiosyncrasies found in each version and is an invaluable starting point to anyone interested in learning more about them.

Eastern Dreams is likely to become the most important book for introducing the Nights to anyone interested in learning about its literary history—a vital and clearly written history of a widely misunderstood yet widely and generally known story collection.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.