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On a sea of stories

The stories of The Arabian Nights are so famous that most of us have never read them, but just absor

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights

Translated by Malcolm C Lyons with Ursula Lyons Introduced and annotated by Robert Irwin

Penguin Classics, three vols, £125

We have all heard of The Arabian Nights, most of us probably as children's stories and cartoon films. The most famous have become stock images of English writing - the genie in the bottle; the door that responds to the cry of "Open Sesame!". Perhaps the most famous of all is the story of Aladdin and his magical lamp, one of the traditional pantomime plots. How many times have we heard policemen describing entering some criminal's storeroom and saying, "It was like an Aladdin's cave in there"? But there is much more to The Arabian Nights than that, and now, in effect for the first time, the English reader can appreciate the full, vast extent of this "ocean of stories".

The "Nights" as we have them today are the product of more than a thousand years of evolution, development and accretion. The original tale, in which Shahrazad tells stories to the jealous king so that he will not put her to death, comes from a Sanskrit original produced in India, probably in the first centuries AD. This was translated into Middle Persian (that is the language of Sasanian Iran, c.220-650 AD) and many more stories of a moralising and improving, if slightly dull, sort were added. Like much of the literary heritage of pre-Islamic Iran, the originals of these stories have disappeared, but soon after the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, they were translated into Arabic.

One page of a 9th-century version survives, which is enough to show that Shahrazad was already telling stories. Although we know that the Nights continued to be developed and elaborated, the earliest substantial manuscript we have dates from the 15th century.

The Arabian Nights essentially reflect the world of Egyptian and Syrian urban culture of the Mamluk period (1260-1517) and the heroes of the stories are as often merchants as kings and princes, something that would be unimaginable in the contemporary world of Arthurian romance. There is lots of talk of commerce and money, the everyday life of the souks and ports from which the unsuspecting, but not unwilling, merchant can be lured to unimaginable adventures. Some of tales are set in clearly defined historical contexts. The most famous of these are the ones featuring the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the vizier Ja'far the Barma kid, Harun's wife Zubayda and the poet/court jester Abu Nuwas. These are all well-known historical figures but none of the stories in which they figure has any known historical basis, and the caliph's night-time, incognito wanderings through his mysterious capital of Baghdad are no more than devices to introduce more fabulous events. In most cases the stories are set in a sort of never-never land, just far enough beyond the horizons of the familiar world to allow for marvels and wonders of all sorts.

It is fair to say that the Nights was looked down on, or more often simply disregarded, by the literary elite of the Arabic-speaking world. The simple narrative flow, the numerous marvels and wholly improbable events, the questionable morality and, perhaps most of all, the sex with which the "Nights" are, to use Robert Irwin's expression, "suffused", all combined to ensure that they were never part of the classical Arabic canon.

There are many Arabic epics, some at least as long (that is, about a million words), but none of them has achieved the popularity and widespread circulation of the Nights. This is at least in part because most of the other epics consist of endless accounts of wearisome battles in which resolute but entirely one-dimensional heroes achieve impossible feats of arms. What distinguishes the Nights and, despite its great length, stops it from becoming tedious, is the different registers of story - comic, romantic, sad, adventurous. It is impossible to predict the twists and turns, and, embarking on any of the stories or cycles of stories, the reader can have no idea where he or she is going to end up.

The most typical narrative device is, of course, the story within the story, in which the lead story of the sequence is repeatedly interrupted as the hero meets people (or animals or jinns) who have their own tales to tell, or when people staying awake at night begin to tell the stories of their lives. No one is ever told to shut up in the Nights: if there are eight brothers, each with a story to tell, they must all have their say. Equally intriguing is the way in which the narrative, after wandering serendipitously in many different directions, gradually brings you back to the main thread and the reader feels that little jolt of recognition: "So that's how we got there."

The variety of The Arabian Nights and its light-hearted and entertaining style has made it better known in the west than any other work of Arabic literature. But, in a very interesting way, the "Nights" as we know them are the product of a creative interaction between the Arabic text and the French and later English translations. Between 1704 and 1717 a version of the Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland and became an immediate success. Galland's translation was elegant, sentimental and, like most of the translations that were to follow, heavily bowdlerised, but its popularity ensured there would be further translations into more languages. Galland was also the author of some of the classic stories that we think of as integral parts of the work. There are no Arabic originals of the stories of Ali Baba and Aladdin. Galland claimed that he was told them by a Syrian visitor but he may equally well have made them up himself. However, they sit very well with the rest of the collection, to the extent that Arabic translations have now been made and integrated into the text.

The translations that followed Galland were popular with the reading public but none of them provided a satisfactory rendering of the original. The first English translation directly from the Arabic (rather than from Galland's French) was made by E W Lane in 1838-41, but it was incomplete, bowdlerised and written in a ponderous, old-fashioned prose that in no way reflected the simple narrative tone of the Arabic. Much more famous was the translation made by Sir Richard Burton and published, in 16 volumes, between 1885 and 1887. Burton relished all the erotic and bizarre material that Lane had edited out, but he, too, succumbed to the temptation to invent a heavyweight and convoluted English prose that makes his version very difficult to read for pleasure.

The new translation by Malcolm Lyons, formerly Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, manages to avoid all these pitfalls. This is a truly magnificent achievement. There are some 2,800 pages and exactly 1,001 "Nights", all newly translated from the fullest Arabic text, the so-called Calcutta II of 1841. As an extra bonus, Ursula Lyons has translated Galland's original stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba from the French. The prose style is simple and clear but never dull. It reads easily enough to be enjoyable light reading, which is exactly as it should be, so that anyone can, as Robert Irwin says in one of his prefaces, "lose themselves in a veritable sea of stories". Irwin is a great authority on the Nights (his Arabian Nights: a Companion is essential for anyone who wants to know more about the book) and his short introductions to each of the three volumes give a clear and lucid setting of the scene.

There are maps and a glossary but otherwise the text is unburdened by the sort of academic apparatus that both Lane and Burton used to show that their translations were serious academic works. Finally, Penguin Books must be congratulated for the elegant production of these three volumes, which make an excellent, if fairly expensive, presentation set. One hopes that there will soon be an ordinary paperback edition of the whole at a more affordable price.

Despite their immense length, the volumes can certainly be read for pleasure and relaxation. True, an attempt to read them all at once would surely provoke literary indigestion. But they should rather be dipped into, as one might dip into a good diary. Once having begun, the reader can easily be swept along and, like King Shahriyar, be so consumed by the desire to know what happens next, that he or she will be compelled to move on to just one more "Night", and another one, two or three after that.

Hugh Kennedy is professor of Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech