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An essay by George Hamlin Fitch

The Arabian Nights And Other Classics

Title:     The Arabian Nights And Other Classics
Author: George Hamlin Fitch [More Titles by Fitch]


The gap between the ancient writers and the modern is bridged by several great books, which have been translated into all languages. Among these the following are entitled to a place: The Arabian Nights; Don Quixote, by Cervantes; The Divine Comedy, by Dante; The Imitation of Christ; The Rubá'iyát of Omar Khayyám, St. Augustine's Confessions, and The Nibelungenlied.

Other great books could be added to this list, such as Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography, Boccaccio's Tales, the Analects of Confucius and Mahomet's Koran. But these are not among the books which one must read. Those that I have named first should be read by any one who wishes to get the best in all literature. And another reason is that characters and sayings from these books are so often quoted that to be ignorant of them is to miss much which is significant in the literature of the last hundred years. Whatever forms a part of everyday speech cannot be ignored, and the Arabian Nights, Don Quixote and Dante's Divine Comedy are three books that have made so strong an impression on the world that they have stimulated the imagination of hundreds of writers and have formed the text for many volumes. Dante's great work alone has been commented upon by hundreds of writers, and these commentaries and the various editions make up a library of over five thousand volumes. The Arabian Nights has been translated from the original into all languages, although the primitive tales still serve to amuse Arabs when told by the professional story-tellers of today.

In choosing the great books of the world first place must be given to those which have passed into the common language of the people or which have been quoted so frequently that one cannot remain ignorant of them. After the Bible and Shakespeare the third place must be given to The Arabian Nights, a collection of tales of Arabia and Egypt, supposed to have been related by Queen Scheherezade to her royal husband when he was wakeful in the night. The first story was told in order that he might not carry out his determination to have her executed on the following morning; so she halted her tale at a very interesting point and, artfully playing upon the King's interest, every night she stopped her story at a point which piqued curiosity. In this way, so the legend goes, she entertained her spouse for one thousand and one nights, until he decided that so good a story-teller deserved to keep her head.

Today these Arabian tales and many variants of The Thousand and One Nights are told by professional story-tellers who call to their aid all the resources of gesture, facial expression and variety of tone. In fact, these Oriental story-tellers are consummate actors, who play upon the emotions of their excitable audiences until they are able to move them to laughter and tears. This childlike character the Arab has retained until today, despite the fact that he is rapidly becoming expert in the latest finance and that he is a past master in the handling of the thousands of tourists who visit Egypt, Arabia and other Mohammedan countries every year.

The sources of the leading tales of The Arabian Nights cannot be traced. Such stories as Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp may be found in the literature of all Oriental countries, but the form in which these Arabian tales have come down to us shows that they were collected and arranged during the reign of the good Caliph Haroun al Raschid of Bagdad, who flourished in the closing years of the eighth century. The book was first made known to European readers by Antoine Galland in 1704. This French writer made a free paraphrase of some of the tales, but, singularly enough, omitted the famous stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba.

The first good English translation was made by E. W. Lane from an Arabic version, condensed from the original text. The only complete translations of the Arabic version were made by Sir Richard Burton for a costly subscription edition and by John Payne for the Villon Society. Burton's notes are very interesting, as he probably knew the Arab better than any other foreigner, but his literal translation is tedious, because of the many repetitions, due to the custom of telling the stories by word of mouth.

The usual editions of The Arabian Nights, contain eight stories. Happy are the children who have had these immortal stories told or read to them in their impressionable early years. Like the great stories of the Bible are these fairy tales of magicians, genii, enchanted carpets and flying horses; of princesses that wed poor boys who have been given the power to summon the wealth of the underworld; of the adventures of Sinbad in many waters, and of his exploits, which were more remarkable than those of Ulysses.

The real democracy of the Orient is brought out in these tales, for the Grand Vizier may have been the poor boy of yesterday and the young adventurer with brains and cunning and courage often wins the princess born to the purple. All the features of Moslem life, which have not changed for fourteen hundred years, are here reproduced and form a very attractive study. For age or childhood The Arabian Nights will always have a perennial charm, because these tales appeal to the imagination that remains forever young.

The great poem of German literature, The Nibelungenlied, may be bracketed with The Arabian Nights, for it expresses perfectly the ideals of the ancient Germans, the historic myths that are common to all Teutonic and Scandinavian races, and the manners and customs that marked the forefathers of the present nation of "blood and iron." The Nibelungenlied has well been called the German Iliad, and it is worthy of this appellation, for it is the story of a great crime and a still greater retribution.

It is really the story of Siegfried, King of the Nibelungs, in lower Germany, favored of the Gods, who fell in love with Kriemhild, Princess of the Burgundians; of Siegfried's help by which King Gunther, brother of Kriemhild, secures as his wife the Princess Brunhilde of Iceland; of the rage and humiliation of Brunhilde when she discovers that she has been subdued by Siegfried instead of by her own overlord; of Brunhilde's revenge, which took the form of the treacherous slaying of Siegfried by Prince Hagen, and of the tremendous revenge of Kriemhild years after, when, as the wife of King Etzel of the Huns, she sees the flower of the Burgundian chivalry put to the sword, and she slays with her own hand both her brother Gunther and Hagen, the murderer of Siegfried.

The whole story is dominated by the tragic hand of fate. Siegfried, the warrior whom none can withstand in the lists, is undone by a woman's tongue. The result of the shame he has put upon Brunhilde Siegfried reveals to his wife, and a quarrel between the two women ends in Kriemhild taunting Brunhilde with the fact that King Gunther gained her love by fraud and that Siegfried was the real knight who overcame and subdued her. Then swiftly follows the plot to kill Siegfried, but Brunhilde, whose wrath could be appeased only by the peerless knight's death, has a change of heart and stabs herself on his funeral pyre. Intertwined with this story of love, revenge and the slaughter of a whole race is the myth of a great treasure buried by the dwarfs in the Rhine, the secret of which goes to the grave with grim old Hagen.

These tales that are told in The Nibelungenlied have been made real to readers of today by Wagner, who uses them as the libretto of some of his finest operas. With variations, he has told in the greatest dramatic operas the world has yet seen the stories of Siegfried and Brunhilde, the labors of the Valkyrie, and the wrath of the gods of the old Norse mythology. To understand aright these operas, which have come to be performed by all the great companies, one should be familiar with the epic that first recorded these tales of chivalry.

Many variants there are of this epic in the literature of Norway, Sweden and Iceland, but The Nibelungenlied remains as the model of these tales of the heroism of men and the quarrels of the gods. Wagner has used these materials with surpassing skill, and no one can hear such operas as Siegfried, The Valkyrie, and Gotterdammerung without receiving a profound impression of the reality and the power of these old myths and legends.

Perhaps for most readers Carlyle's essay on The Nibelungenlied will suffice, for in this the great English essayist and historian has told the story of the German epic and has translated many of the most striking passages. In verse the finest rendering of this story is found in Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris, told in sonorous measure that never becomes monotonous. A good prose translation has been made by Professor Shumway of the University of Pennsylvania. The volume was brought out by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston in 1909. His version is occasionally marred by archaic turns of expression, but it comes far nearer to reproducing the spirit of the original than any of the metrical translations.

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George Hamlin Fitch's essay on: Arabian Nights And Other Classics