Arabian Nights Research Paper

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Arabian Nights and the Supernatural

As Bruno Bettelheim states in The Uses of Enchantment, the fables depicted in Arabian Night are of a specific character that has been shown to be part of the universal nature of stories of enchantment. For centuries such stories have been woven into the fabric of various cultures and civilizations for a multitude of reasons, not the least being the fact that they provide a kind of moral framework by which children and adults can gauge the natural world and their place in it. This paper will analyze and assess three stories from 1001 Arabian Nights and show what the aspect of magic and the supernatural reveals about life not only at the time of Arabian Nights but for all the years that the Arabian Nights fables have been popular.

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The structure of Arabian Nights is one of tales told within tales: the central story of the book being that of King Shahrayar and the virgin queen Shahrazad, whose life depends upon her telling a tale each night -- the conclusion of which is suspended until the next night, whereupon a new one is begun and the King "forced" to spare her life for another night till he can hear how the story ends; the cycle is thus repeated for the duration of the work. One theme that runs through many of the stories is the use of magic or the supernatural. Thus, in "The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey," there is a merchant who can speak the language of the animals; in "The Tale of the Merchant and his Wife," the merchant learns how to make his wife submissive through a conversation between the animals; and in "The Story of the Merchant and the Demon," (in which several tales are told), the supernatural world of spirits constantly interacts with humankind.

Research Paper on Arabian Nights Assignment

Such themes of magic and supernaturalism pervade the Nights -- and the Nights have in turn pervaded the canons and thoughts of Western literature and civilization -- not least of all to the great age of Science that ended the medieval age and introduced the modern. As Saree Makdisi says, "The Nights…added a supernatural dimension to the Enlightenment; the tales offered an avenue into modernity through its magical opposite, an alternative to European identity, and an antidote to neoclassicism" (4). Since the Western world had become thoroughly dissatisfied with the ancient traditions of its culture, it is no surprise that it should look to the East to supply those forms that could hold its moral compass in some sort of check. The Nights had helped do as much (in a sense, and to a limited extent) in the East for as long as they had existed -- as Bettelheim argues: "It should be recalled that in Hindu medicine -- and the Thousand and One Nights cycle is of Indian-Persian origin -- the mentally deranged person is told a fairy story, contemplation of which will help him overcome his emotional disturbance" (88). Thus, the king, who has been betrayed by womankind, requires 1001 nights of story-telling to free him from the melancholy that has warped his perspective and turned him into a slaughterer of women. The magic of the fairy tale, as Bettelheim suggests, is illustrative of the Arabic sense of what today is known as "magical realism" -- a kind of cross between the real and the (imaginary or) hyper-real -- in other words, the natural and the supernatural.

Such themes are readily seen in the tales stated above -- and in the central tale itself, as the king is mesmerized each night by another fable: the implication is that magic does leave us all spellbound -- as it certainly appeared to do for the ancient Arabic world.

However, such themes also offer a glimpse into the moral order that the ancient Arabic world perceived as part of the natural law. Through the use of a kind of magic, the merchant is able to learn the language of the animals, which in turn helps him manage his own domestic affairs. The implication is that nature contains some lessons that we may use to our advantage.

Furthermore, faith in the supernatural plays an integral part in the Nights. "The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon" is one in which Moses is referenced and the spirituality of old is given great significance. Robert Irwin notes that "the Muslim faith…pervades the stories of Nights and in some cases even dominates them. Those who venture into the world of the Nights learn of the doom of mighty dynasties by the decree of Allah; they are taught to be patient in suffering and to trust in Allah; and they are told of the inspiring deeds of Sufis and other holy men" (ix). Such faith infuses the tales and thematic structure of the work overall -- without the incredible perseverance of Shahrazad, there may be no such work at all -- and without the unfailing grip that the magical tales have over the king there would be no Shahrazad. Therefore, the entire collection is a kind of ode to the mystical element of nature. Arabian Nights may thus be considered one of the earliest records of "magical realism" to exist.

The Arabic world therefore must indeed have been a place of deep spirituality -- as much of the world was at that time. In fact, it was a contention of ideologies that drove the wedge between East and West, Christian and Mohammedan Empires. Neither ideology was as devoid of spirituality as the modern ideology of today, which insists upon skepticism and naturalism to define humankind's existence. Yet, the emergence of "magical realism" in places such as Latin America and the spread of it throughout Europe and America can mean only that the ancient traditions in which spiritual plays primary importance, though long buried, are being unearthed again. What held true for the Arabic world holds true for our own -- stories of magic captivate as though made of magic themselves.

"The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon" certainly illustrates the point well enough -- and even serves as a reflection of the central tale itself, that of the ability of Shahrazad to keep herself alive through the outwitting of the king by subduing his madness through narrative: in "The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon" the same tactic is employed as the fisherman attempts to outwit the Demon through the telling of various tales which leave the Demon spellbound. Likewise, "the injustice of the demon's plan to kill the blameless fisherman provides both the recurrent theme of the tales that the fisherman and the demon tell and the principal link between these stories and those of the three old men" (Lawall 1568) -- which, again, is the first step in the restoration of the actual listener's health. The king, who is really the one for whom these tales are told is thus guided by narrative, which involves the supernatural effects of both good and evil. "The one important change in this narrative structure is the substitution of a good man for a good woman as the agent whereby justice is done and the king and his kingdom are returned to health" (Lawall 1568). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert that the Arabic world put great stride by the power of narrative and the power of the supernatural.

"The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey" speaks no less to the power of magic as a tool for conquering the baser natures. The donkey, being an animal of stubbornness, advises the ox to act as if he were sick so that he might get out of a day's labor. The merchant, who is wise to the ways in which the animals speak, advises the farmer to take the donkey out to do the ox's work. The donkey's mischief thus comes back to bite him, as he is now worked to the bone and the ox happily enjoys his rest. Thanks to the cunning of the merchant, the stubbornness of nature is subdued and order is maintained -- but it is only through this kind of magical way of knowing what the animals communicate to one another that such order is able to be kept.

"The Tale of the Merchant and His Wife" also teaches the same lesson. When the wife's curiosity to find out what merchant's secret, which is that he can make out what the animals say to one another, gets the better of her and throws the household into disarray, the merchant is nonplussed to find a way to restore order. Again, from the animals he gets the sage advice that rings of Arabic common sense: if your wife is giving you problems, there is a simple solution: beat her until she stops nagging you. The merchant puts the advice into practice and the problem is solved -- no more nagging. Thus, magic again is a door into the world of order. And… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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