Friday, January 31, 2014

My surprise and grief were inexpressible: Sindbad's Seven Voyages, etc

I am reading N.J. Dawood's 1954 translation of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, in the nice recent Penguin edition. I will be quoting here, however, from the 1884 Crosby & Nichols edition, which does not list the translator. The text is available online so it's easily cut-and-pastable. The prose in Dawood's edition is better than what I quote here, so you should buy that version if you are so inclined.

One of the pleasures of reading folk tales from around the world is seeing how many of the same stories or characters are found across cultures. In the section of 1001 Nights relating the tales of the seven voyages of Sindbad, Sindbad is accidentally abandoned on the island of the mythical roc, which is that impossibly large bird from Persian mythology. (The "seven voyages" are all disasters and shipwreck, though each ends with our hero finding his way back to Baghdad with great wealth.) On his third or fourth voyage, Sindbad is shipwrecked with his crew on a remote island. They take refuge in a great fortress where they meet an interesting character:
He was a tremendous black giant, as high as a tall palm-tree, with only one eye in the middle of his forehead, which looked as red as a burning coal; his teeth and nails were long and sharp, and his mouth resembled that of a horse. The sight of so frightful a figure rendered us immovable with horror. After surveying us for some time, he took me up by the nape of the neck, and felt my body as a butcher would his sheep. Finding me very thin, he bent down and took up another; at last, laying hands on our captain, who was fat, he thrust a long spit through him, and kindling a fire, he roasted and ate him. After which he retired to an adjoining room, where he slept, and snored all night like thunder. In the morning he got up, went out, and left us in his dwelling.
That's right, the ship captain was roasted on a spit. How will our plucky adventurers escape this horrible fate? Just how you'd think: one night while the giant sleeps, the sailors, at Sindbad's urging, heat the points of two of the giant's enormous iron spits and drive them into the monster's eyes, blinding him. The sailors flee the island on a hastily-built raft as the giant (and his wife, who appears out of nowhere) hurl immense rocks at them.

"That sounds familiar," I thought. In Sindbad's next voyage, he and his crew find themselves on an island where all of the crew save Sindbad are transformed into piglike animals, fattened up and killed for food. "Hey," I said, "I know that one, too." Both of those stories are from The Odyssey, of course. The Arabian Nights tales date from the middle ages, first collected in Persian in around 840 AD. So I will keep my eye out for other Greek influences as I read on. The story of Sindbad thrown into the communal tomb with his late wife's corpse appears to be a Persian original, and does not show our hero in a particularly heroic light, though now that I think about it, there might be a strong hint of the wily Odysseus in his self-serving survival tactics. Hard to say. 1001 Nights are not exactly morality plays; they're more an enumeration of the sins of mankind, warnings of the dangers of unfaithful servants and pretty women. Just like Elizabethan theater, then, right?

A lot of the stories are bawdy tales, and women don't come out well in most of them. There's also a good deal of racial bigotry, which is no surprise given the age of the stories.

Another pleasure of reading folktales is the view into ancient cultures' ideas about the natural world. Many old texts are part bestiary, and there are a lot of beasts in the 1001 Nights travelogue:
There is in this island the rhinoceros, a creature less than the elephant, but greater than the buffalo. It has a horn upon its nose about a cubit long, which is solid, and cleft in the middle ; there are upon it draughts representing the figures of men. The rhinoceros fights with the elephant, runs his horn into his belly, and carries him off upon his head ; but the blood and fat of the elephant run into his eyes, and make him blind. He falls to the ground, and what is very astonishing, the roc carries them both away in her claws, to be meat for her young ones.
I had no idea that rhinos and elephants were natural enemies. Thank God for the printed word.

4 comments:

  1. Well, I got hits when I searched YouTube for "Elephant versus Rhinoceros." That must make it true. I've never read 1001 Nights, but I keep meaning to at least start it. You know how much I like bawdy tales.

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  2. Aside from the bawdiness, the thing I most enjoy about this book of tales is the low expectation had of the reader. Possibly they're meant to inform, edify and moralize, but I'm missing all of that and just being amused.

    I'll have to try that youtube search. I don't want to see bawdy rhinos, though. You know how delicate I am.

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  3. I'd feel bad if I had a part in triggering the recurrence of your bawdy rhinoceros nightmares.

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  4. Don't even talk about it. I lost so much sleep that year.

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