The Middle Eastern World’s Contribution to Fairy-Tale History

Authored by: Ulrich Marzolph

The Fairy Tale World

Print publication date:  April  2019
Online publication date:  April  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138217577
eBook ISBN: 9781315108407
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Although the modern fairy tale is most often discussed as a Western genre, historically, the genre’s genesis and ensuing global dissemination probably owes more to pre-modern and early-modern Middle Eastern, and particularly Muslim, tradition than is currently acknowledged. In discussing this potential contribution, this chapter devotes special attention to two influential pre-modern collections. The Thousand and One Nights is a monumental collection of all kinds of narratives from Middle Eastern tradition whose international impact ranks second only to the Bible. Antoine Galland’s Les mille et une nuit (The Thousand and One Nights) is the early eighteenth-century French translation of a fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript enlarged with material from other sources, particularly tales performed for Galland by young Christian Syrian storyteller Ḥannā Diyāb (Galland 2016). The Persian Munes-nāme, a title that translates as “The Book as an Intimate Friend,” is a late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century compilation (Meredith-Owens 1971). Translated into Ottoman Turkish and enlarged with additional tales probably as early as the last quarter of the fourteenth century, this compilation informed French author François Pétis de la Croix’s early eighteenth-century adaptation Les mille et un jours (The Thousand and One Days) (Marzolph 2017). Both Middle Eastern collections are intimately connected to the ancient ‘Oriental’ art of teaching by way of stories (Marzolph 2010) and the equally influential narrative concept of “Relief after Hardship,” the latter of which is particularly significant when considering the genesis of the modern fairy-tale canon (Marzolph 2017: 46).

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The Middle Eastern World’s Contribution to Fairy-Tale History


Although the modern fairy tale is most often discussed as a Western genre, historically, the genre’s genesis and ensuing global dissemination probably owes more to pre-modern and early-modern Middle Eastern, and particularly Muslim, tradition than is currently acknowledged. In discussing this potential contribution, this chapter devotes special attention to two influential pre-modern collections. The Thousand and One Nights is a monumental collection of all kinds of narratives from Middle Eastern tradition whose international impact ranks second only to the Bible. Antoine Galland’s Les mille et une nuit (The Thousand and One Nights) is the early eighteenth-century French translation of a fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript enlarged with material from other sources, particularly tales performed for Galland by young Christian Syrian storyteller Ḥannā Diyāb (Galland 2016). The Persian Munes-nāme, a title that translates as “The Book as an Intimate Friend,” is a late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century compilation (Meredith-Owens 1971). Translated into Ottoman Turkish and enlarged with additional tales probably as early as the last quarter of the fourteenth century, this compilation informed French author François Pétis de la Croix’s early eighteenth-century adaptation Les mille et un jours (The Thousand and One Days) (Marzolph 2017). Both Middle Eastern collections are intimately connected to the ancient ‘Oriental’ art of teaching by way of stories (Marzolph 2010) and the equally influential narrative concept of “Relief after Hardship,” the latter of which is particularly significant when considering the genesis of the modern fairy-tale canon (Marzolph 2017: 46).

Terminology and definition

None of the classical languages of the Middle Eastern Muslim literatures, whether Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, have a term corresponding to the European concept of the fairy tale. The modern languages employ a variety of terms. Arabic khurāfa is historically connected to the fantastic adventures of the eponymous character Khurāfa who is said to have lived at the beginning of the seventh century (Drory 1994: 147–57). Persian afsāne is linguistically related to Persian afsun (spell, charm) and fosun (incantation), and thus to magic. Turkish peri masalı is a literal translation of the term “fairy tale,” the originally Indo–Persian character of the peri or pari constituting the equivalent of the European fairy in modern Persian folktales (Adhami 2010). Historically, a broad variety of fictional tales or stories were specified by generic terms such as the Arabic ḥikāya, qiṣṣa, or mathal (ʿAbdel-Meguid 1954) or the Persian dāstān.

The lack of a term corresponding to the European fairy tale does not, however, imply that narratives in which magic constitutes a natural and unquestioned constituent of the human experience as in the European fairy tale were unknown. But in the pre-modern Muslim world-view tales of magic and the supernatural did not constitute a specific genre. Instead, the genre that included tales of magic is ruled by a perception of the extraordinary as aptly expressed by the Arabic terms ʿajīb (marvelous) and gharīb (strange) (Chraïbi 2016: 42–50). In other words, the genre is constituted by tales treating or discussing characters, events, or objects that surpass the ordinary everyday experience by far. Whether or not magic is involved constitutes just one of a variety of factors, others of which may include highly unusual experiences, such as a person’s extraordinary magnanimity, wisdom, trickery, or deceitfulness, or the unbelievable events of a person being subjected to the vicissitudes of fate before he or she would eventually attain happiness. Against this conceptual backdrop, magic is a possible ingredient whose potential appearance is part of a traditional world-view according to which nothing at all is impossible as God is omnipotent and may permit the occurrence of events or the existence of characters or objects the human mind cannot fathom.

A note on tradition

When studying the impact of Middle Eastern or ‘Oriental’ tales on Western tradition, researchers are prone to discussing exclusively or predominantly about tales in written or literary sources. These instances supply solid evidence of a given tale’s occurrence in a specific language or regional tradition, often at a specific time, thus allowing the hypothetical reconstruction of influences, dependencies, and chains of tradition. Literary collections whose tales overlap to a large degree in terms of content and sequence are more likely copied from previous models than not, and creative innovations in the later versions probably result from the conscious interference of their authors. If, on the other hand, one studies the dissemination of single tales, oral transmission and the creativity of oral storytellers need to be considered, although they can rarely be proven with certainty. Any newly discovered occurrence of a given tale in a written source might easily change the picture, and given the present degree of exploration of written sources from the pre-modern Middle Eastern Muslim literatures, new discoveries are highly probable. Even so, written sources often reveal no more than the tip of the iceberg of a given tradition area’s narrative culture. The narratives documented in written tradition are but the white crests in a turbulent sea the content of whose wave hollows, although much larger than the visible parts, can only be guessed. All the same, oral tradition should never be underestimated, both in terms of quantity or impact.

Magic in the core corpus of The Thousand and One Nights

The Muslim world’s most prominent contribution to fairy-tale history is The Thousand and One Nights. Introduced to European and world literature by way of Antoine Galland’s adapted and enlarged French translation at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Nights is a work of many layers. In the work’s frame tale, Shahrazād entertains the cruel Shahzamān with tales in order to save her own life and, in extension, to secure the existence of the female gender. The frame tale partly derives from Indian models, was constituted in Persian in the pre-Muslim or early Muslim period, and is first attested in tenth-century Arabic sources (Abbot 1949). Inserting the previously independent travel narrative of Sindbād the seafaring merchant’s seven voyages (Bellino 2015), Galland translated the Nights from a fragmentary fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript at his disposal, still today the work’s oldest manuscript copy known. When Galland’s material was exhausted, volume 8 of his Nights was filled with a tale from a different Arabic manuscript (Akel 2017), and his publisher added another two tales from an Ottoman Turkish collection of tales that Galland’s colleague Pétis de la Croix had translated (Karateke 2015). The final four volumes of Galland’s Nights contain adapted and elaborated versions of tales the Syrian storyteller Ḥannā Diyāb had performed for Galland in May 1705 (Marzolph 2018), and thus material that never belonged to the Nights in Arabic. Galland’s Nights was without competition for more than a century. Most of the translations published in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century follow its text. Only shortly before the middle of the nineteenth century, the first translations prepared directly from Arabic printed editions appeared, including the famous English versions done by Edward William Lane (1839) and Richard Burton (1885). The most recent English translation of the Nights, based on the Calcutta II edition (1839–1842), was done by Malcolm C. Lyons (with translations of two of Ḥannā Diyāb’s most famous tales from Galland’s French by Ursula Lyons) and published in 2008.

The degree to which the diverse layers of Galland’s Nights relate to tales of magic varies. The core corpus of the Nights as represented by the fifteenth-century manuscript begins with the tale of “The Merchant and the jinnī” (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 419–20) in which three old men narrate their own experience in order to redeem the life of a merchant who had inadvertently killed the son of a jinnī. All of the three tales the old men tell deal with the magic transformation of a human being into an animal, such as a cow, a calf, a gazelle, or a dog. The transformation is always performed by a female character, and both transformation and disenchantment are achieved through a magic incantation in conjunction with the application of water. The tale of “The Merchant and the jinnī” is modeled on the narrative of Khurāfa that is first documented in the collection of proverbs and related tales compiled by Arabic author al-Mufaḍḍal b. Salama (d. after 903) (Drory 1994: 147–57). Khurāfa, a person who is said to have lived at the beginning of the seventh century, narrates the events as experienced by himself. The first tale is about a change of gender done twice, from man to woman and back to man, that is effected through contact with water. This change of gender also appears in the frame of a tale germane to Gaelic narrative tradition in which a man is requested to pay for a place to stay by telling a story (Hillers 1995). Since he claims not to know any story he could tell, he is sent away on an errand during which he happens to experience a series of strange adventures. A comparatively small number of versions documented from the oral performance of Scottish travelers involves a boat on which the man is magically transformed into a woman. The woman gets married, has children, and lives with her husband for many years until she is eventually transformed back into the original man. When the man returns to his house, his wife tells him that he has only been away for a few moments. In Gaelic narrative tradition, this tale finds an early antecedent in “The Story of the Abbot of Druimenaig.” Documented in a number of late medieval Irish manuscripts, in terms of linguistic criteria the tale dates to a period not later than the year 1200, and thus about three centuries later than Khurāfa’s second tale. Khurāfa’s third tale involves a complex procedure in which a female magician has a rat instantly plow, sow, harvest, and thresh barley, following which the magician prepares a magic potion from the barley with the help of which she intends to transform her disliked husband into an animal. A similar procedure is already known from a variety of Arabic texts dating from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries (Somadeva 1968: 63). In addition, it is documented in Somadeva’s Sanskrit Kathāsaritsāgara (Ocean of Streams of Stories), compiled around the year 1000 (55–6). It also appears in tale of “Jullanār of the Sea and Her Son, Badr Bāsim” in the fifteenth-century manuscript of the Nights (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 248–51) and the fourteenth-century Arabic collection al-Ḥikāyāt al-ʿajība wa-’l-akhbār al-gharība (Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange) that contains various tales also incorporated into the Nights (Lyons 2014: 129–30).

The following tale in the Nights, “The Fisherman and the ʿifrīt” (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 184) introduces the motif of the demon imprisoned in the bottle, one of the internationally most influential single motifs of the Nights. Although in the story, the fisherman manages to trick the demon back into the bottle when he threatens to take the fisherman’s life and only releases him for good when the demon promises to reward him richly, the motif has become highly popular in political imagery, particularly cartoons, as a warning of powers that, once released, might easily get out of control. In the further course of events, there is another female magician who disenchants her husband, whose body she had previously partially petrified, by chanting incantations while sprinkling him with water.

Most of the following tales from the fifteenth-century manuscript Galland translated get by without any explicit references to magic, although magic is again central in two of the tales embedded in “The Porter and the Three Ladies.” Of these, “The Story of the Second Dervish” (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 338–40) is particularly pertinent, as here a demon transforms a man into a monkey by sprinkling him with dust while murmuring some incantations. The young woman who recognizes the monkey’s true nature and who eventually succeeds in disenchanting him also informs the audience how she became an expert in magic.

When I was young, she replied, I had with me a cunning old woman who had a knowledge of magic, a craft she passed on to me. I remembered what she taught me and have become so skilled in magic that I know a hundred and seventy spells, the least of which could leave the stones of your city behind Mount Qaf and turn it into a deep sea, with its people as fish swimming in the middle of it.

(Lyons 2008: vol. 1, 86)

The monkey’s disenchantment is achieved only after a violent fight between the woman and the demon. In the course of the fight both the woman and the demon transform themselves into a number of different animals, this being the pivotal motif of the modern tale type 325: “The Magician and his Pupil” (Blécourt 2014). As in the fairy tale, the demon’s external soul is finally secured in a single seed, here a pomegranate seed, which the woman in the shape of a cockerel would have to pick up and eat in order to destroy the demon. Having succeeded in destroying the demon at the end of the long fight, the woman is burned to ashes.

Altogether, magic in tales from the core corpus of the Nights is practiced either by supernatural creatures or by human women. Magic procedures, particularly those of transformation, regularly involve some kind of spell and the use of water. Although some of the tales document motifs that later appear in modern fairy tales, none of the tales bears a close resemblance to modern fairy tales in terms of plot or structure. Only the motif of the demon imprisoned in the bottle has had a noticeable impact on later tradition. In addition to political imagery, one of the motif’s recent uses (although mixed with the imagery of Aladdin’s lamp) appears in Christina Aguilera’s song “Genie in a bottle,” released in 1999, in which the singer promises to “make your wish come true” if rubbed “the right way.”

The extent to which tales from the Arabic Nights might have been known in pre-modern or early modern Europe, and thus the extent to which these tales might have influenced the genesis of European fairy tales, is still being explored. The general outlines of the frame tale of The Thousand and One Nights and its sibling collection The Hundred and One Nights (Fudge 2016) are already encountered in Italian authors Giovanni Sercambi’s (1347–1424) Novella d’Astolfo and Ludovico Ariosto’s (1474–1533) Orlando furioso, canto 28 (Horta 2015). In addition, numerous single motifs encountered in tales of the Nights are documented in works of the medieval European literatures, ranging from the Byzantine epic Digenis Akritas via Geoffrey Chaucer’s (d. 1400) Canterbury Tales to Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313–1375) Decamerone (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 2, 510, 518, 500–2).

Magic in the Nights’ Tales told by Ḥannā Diyāb

Much more influential than the tales of the old core corpus of the Nights were the tales the Syrian Christian storyteller Ḥannā Diyāb performed for Galland, some of which the French translator adapted and elaborated into the texts published in the final volumes of his Nights (Marzolph 2018). Right from the very start, the tales of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” acquired an emblematic status as the tales of the Nights most appealing to the Western audiences, and as representatives of the ‘Oriental’ art of storytelling altogether. Already shortly after their publication, the tales were published in cheap Grub Street prints available to a large audience. Together with a limited number of ‘usual suspects,’ such as the tales of Sindbād (originally a separate collection in Arabic), the tale of “The Fisherman and the jinnī” (from the Arabic Nights), and the “Tale of the Ebony Horse” (narrated by Ḥannā Diyāb; Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 172–4), “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” were subsequently published in innumerable selective editions of the Nights targeting an audience of children and young adults (and the adults who might have read the tales aloud). In particular, the character of Aladdin together with his lamp acquired a supreme position in world cultures (Marzolph forthcoming). It has been popularized as an emblem of magic and affluence in US consumer culture since the pre-bellum period, spawned by-products such as Sidney Sheldon’s 1965–70 fantasy and comedy sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, and turned into an all-encompassing marketing machinery with the 1992 Disney animated movie and its musical version. Constituting an overwhelming and, in fact, inescapable, reality at the beginning of the third millennium, the Disney Aladdin in turn relied on earlier film adaptations of “fantasies” based on tales from the Nights (Cooperson 1994). Principal amongst these influences was Alexander Korda’s 1940 remake of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 Thief of Bagdad, which was itself indebted to Fritz Lang’s 1921 silent fantasy romance film Der müde Tod (Destiny) and Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 pioneer animated feature film, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), a pastiche of tales from the Nights including Ḥannā Diyāb’s tales of “The Ebony Horse,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou” (Marzolph and van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 80–2), and “Aladdin.” Fairbanks’s debt is particularly prominent in the motif of the flying carpet that in Western tradition later developed into the quintessential expression of ‘Oriental’ magic. Although Muslim tradition credits King Salomon with having possessed a flying carpet, the motif’s first mention in the Nights occurs in Ḥannā Diyāb’s “Prince Ahmed.” Altogether, the position of Ḥannā Diyāb’s “Aladdin” as the internationally most influential Middle Eastern fairy tale is unchallenged, and the image of Aladdin’s lamp with its incorporated promise of a magic solution to all kinds of everyday problems has become a prominent icon of international consumer culture.

The tales Ḥannā Diyāb performed for Galland are particularly interesting for the study of intercultural narrative communication, as some of them are fairly close to corresponding versions documented in earlier European tradition (Bottigheimer 2014). This applies particularly to Ḥannā Diyāb’s versions of “The Ebony Horse,” “The Envious Sisters” (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 425–6), and “Fortunatus” (Marzolph 2018). Having grown up in the transcultural atmosphere of the seventeenth-century commercial hub Aleppo (Heyberger 2015), the storyteller was subjected to a large variety of different influences, including those of Western and Middle Eastern Christian as well as Middle Eastern Muslim (and, to some extent, Jewish) Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish cultures. The extraordinary success of “Aladdin” may thus not only result from Galland’s ingenious reworking of the (lost) written version Ḥannā Diyāb had supplied, but also from the fact that the storyteller relied on a common ground of shared values with the Western Christian audience that later read his tales as adapted by Galland.

The general impact of the Nights

As for the general impact of the Nights on the Western literatures, it has aptly been noted that instead of discussing the influence of the Nights, it might be easier to discuss those authors that were not, in one way or another, influenced by the Nights (Irwin 1994: 290–1). As regards oral tradition, a number of tale types in comparative folk narrative research were only defined in the aftermath of the strong impact Ḥannā Diyāb’s tales as popularized by Galland had on international oral tradition, such as ATU 465: “The Man Persecuted because of His Beautiful Wife,” ATU 561: “Aladdin,” and ATU 954: “The Forty Thieves” (Marzolph 2006a: 19). Galland and his version of the Nights stood at the beginning of a powerful development. It not only gave rise to the vogue for literary fairy tales in the Oriental mode in eighteenth-century France and Germany but also engendered a growing interest in Middle Eastern narratives as documented in the numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications pertaining to the genre of ‘Oriental Miscellany’ (Marzolph 2005). Once Galland’s Nights was superseded by direct translations from the Arabic, versions such as Joseph Charles Victor Madrus’s (1899–1904) much expanded French translation exploited Middle Eastern narrative tradition beyond recognizable limits, incorporating the jests of Turkish trickster Hodja Nasreddin as well as Egyptian fairy tales that had recently been collected from oral tradition (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 2, 637–8). The fanciful exploitation of the Nights for the entertainment of the European bourgeoisie found a temporary peak in the early decades of the twentieth century when the so-called Ballets Russes performed the tales in the exotic costumes designed by Russian artist Leon Bakst (i.e. Leyb-Khaim Izrailevich [Samoylovich] Rosenberg; 1866–1924) (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 2, 487) and the Comtesse de Chabrillan in Paris organized a sumptuous costume party in 1912 under the motto “The Thousand and Second Night” (Sironval 2005: 120–1). From literature and folk narrative via the stage and the visual arts to music there is hardly an area of European and international creativity that has not been influenced by the Nights. In their turn, these manifestations contributed to solidifying a Western readership’s superficial notion that the Nights are all one needs to know of Middle Eastern narrative culture. In its post-Galland eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscripts, the Nights has turned into an omnium gatherum of all kinds of tales, ranging from fairy tale via legend and romance to jokes and anecdotes. Even so, it presents only a minute fraction of the richness of Middle Eastern narrative culture that remains to be explored in its thematic and motific variety as well as its potential source for European fairy tales.

The Persian Munes-nāme and its international impact

The Persian Munes-nāme was compiled at the end of the twelfth century or in the first decade of the thirteenth century by a certain Abū Bakr b. Khosrow al-Ustād (Abū Bakr, son of Khosrow the Teacher) (Meredith-Owens 1971). The book’s initial 16 (relatively short) chapters are devoted to wisdom literature of Middle Eastern and ancient Greek tradition. The seventeenth and final chapter, covering more than 80 percent of the book’s volume, is titled “On the words of great individuals, mysteries, advices, and miscellaneous maxims.” Contrary to expectations, the content of this chapter does not deal with wisdom in a straightforward manner. Instead, it contains a total of 31 lengthy narratives, the majority of which belong to the genre of “tales of the marvelous and strange,” including several tales in which magic and the supernatural play a major role (Marzolph 2017: 47–8).

Only recently (re)discovered by international research, the Munes-nāme is a highly influential collection of pre-modern Persian fairy tales. By way of the numerous anonymously compiled selections and adaptations of its tales, some of them enlarged with additional material, known as Jāme ʿal-ḥekāyāt (Collection of Stories), it had, first and foremost, a lasting impact on the tradition of the Persianate world. The book’s late fourteenth-century Ottoman Turkish adaptation titled Ferej baʿd esh-shidde (Relief after Hardship) influenced subsequent literary and oral tradition in Turkey and beyond. For instance, English poet Adam of Cobsam’s The Wright’s Chaste Wife, written about 1462, is so similar in content to the Ottoman Turkish (and previous Persian) tale of “The (Faithful) Wife of the Architect of Bam” as to suggest a dependance on or at least a close relation to the latter (Köhler 1867). Most importantly, the Ottoman Turkish collection lies at the roots of French author Pétis de la Croix’s early eighteenth-century adaptation The Thousand and One Days (Pétis de la Croix 1980) published in competition with Galland’s Nights. The version of the tale of Turandot in the Days is modeled upon the Ottoman Turkish (and previous Persian) tale of “Prince Khalaf, His Parents, and Their Adventures” (Pétis de la Croix 2000). Following Pétis de la Croix’s publication, the tale was further popularized in drama and opera, most prominently in Giacomo Puccini’s often performed opera Turandot (1924). In terms of European genres, the Ottoman Turkish tale is not a stereotypical representative of the fairy tale as magic is not a prominent ingredient. In terms of the genres of its areas of origin, “Turandot” certainly is a tale of the marvelous and strange. Moreover, it also contains elements of supernatural interference, as when the hero’s discovery of the emperor’s lost falcon indicates the end of his (and his parents’) sufferings or when his accidental reading of the deathly letter entrusted to him by an anonymous messenger not only saves him from certain execution but also strengthens his confidence so that, eventually, he takes courage to confront the princess and her enigmatic questions.

Probably the character most fascinating for a Western audience in the Persian tales is the peri or pari (Adhami 2010). Although the Persian word is tantalizingly close to the English ‘fairy’, both words do not appear to be etymologically related. English ‘fairy’ derives from Latin fatum, ‘fate’, via the Old French faerie, ‘land of fairies’. The modern Persian word, instead, derives from the Avestan pairikā, a term probably denoting a class of pre-Zoroastrian goddesses who were concerned with sexuality and who were closely connected with sexual festivals and ritual orgies. In Persian narratives and folklore of the Muslim period, the peri is usually imagined as a winged character, most often, although not exclusively, of female sex, that is capable of acts of sorcery and magic (Marzolph 2012: 21–2). For the male hero, the peri exercises a powerful sexual attraction, although unions between a peri and a human man are often ill-fated, as the human is not able to respect the laws ruling the peri’s world. The peri may at times use a feather coat to turn into a bird and is thus linked to the concept of the swan maiden that is wide-spread in Asian popular belief. If her human husband transgresses one of her taboos, such as questioning her enigmatic actions, the peri will undoubtedly leave him, a feature that is exemplified in the widely known European folktale tale type 400: “The Man on a Quest for His Lost Wife” (Schmitt 1999).

Magic and the supernatural play a major role in several tales of the Munes-nāme (and its Ottoman Turkish translation). In the tale “Riżvān, the King of China, and the Dame Shahristāni” (Marzolph 2017: 55–7), the male hero falls in love with a peri princess who had appeared to him in the shape of an onager, and the princess shares his feelings. Although she is the rightful heiress to her father’s throne, her cousin usurps the rule, and both the princess and her human mate experience a series of trials and tribulations, including separation, shipwreck, and the help of a friendly sorcerer against a malevolent witch. In the end, the lovers are happily united and enjoy a life of bliss. In the tale “Bilqīs, Her Mother, her Birth, and Her Father” (74–5), a young man saves the king of the peris who had appeared to him in the shape of a white snake. The king rewards him by consenting to marry him to his sister, warning him, however, that she might at times act in ways that he will not understand. Questioning his wife’s actions later, the man loses her, as he had not respected the terms of their marriage. The couple’s daughter Bilqīs is later identified as the legendary queen of Sheba who marries Solomon.

A pari also plays a pivotal role in Ḥannā Diyāb’s tale “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou” (Marzolph and van Leeuwen 2004: vol. 1, 80–2). Rather than documenting the integration of the peri into the world of Arabic fairy tales, this occurrence indicates the storyteller’s acquaintance with Persian lore and his intention to locate the events in the never-never land of Persia that had since times of old been regarded as a land of sorcery and magic in which all kinds of unbelievable events might occur.

Teaching by way of stories

Although a fair number of folk and fairy tales in Western tradition derive from or are closely related to tales from pre-modern Middle Eastern tradition, the Middle East’s contribution to Western fairy-tale tradition surpasses that of a supplier of motifs and themes. The truism that fairy tales are never as innocent as they might appear at first sight meets with the pedagogical concept of teaching by way of stories, as often applied in fairy tales. This concept is documented in the literatures of the Muslim world ever since their beginning. It applies to both explicit teaching in such genres as the “mirror for princes” (Lambton 1971) and implicit instruction in tales of a predominantly entertaining and, sometimes, amusing nature (Marzolph 1991). The Nights itself addresses the concerns of its main audience in the pre-modern Muslim context, the members of the thriving merchant class, to such an extent that it has been labeled a “mirror for merchants” (Chraïbi 2004: 6). The implicit teaching in many tales of the Nights, particularly those of its core corpus, is probably best summarized as one of self-awareness and audacity. In his famous essay “Narrative Men,” Tsvetan Todorov (2006) has analyzed this essential message of the Nights, arguing that unless characters have a tale to tell, they will die. Their self-awareness, demonstrated by their capacity to reflect their own experience in the form of a personal narrative, and their audacity, implied in the fact that they share their misfortunes with complete strangers, contribute to a positive outcome of their future. Considering the Nights’ function as a teaching manual, it does not come as a surprise that the Arabic author Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 759), famed for his translation of the Pahlavi version of the ‘mirror for princes’ Kalila and Dimna, has also been credited with translating the old Persian version of the Nights, the lost Hazār afsān (A Thousand Tales), into Arabic (see Chraïbi 2008: 25). The Persian Munes-nāme adds yet another level to the genre of instructive tales. As the author explicitly states in his preface, his collection targets a female audience (Askari 2018). If one considers the prominent female protagonists of many of the tales and reads their depiction as instructing the female audience about dos and don’ts, including a practical vision of the relative consequences, the Munes-nāme turns into a veritable ‘mirror for maids.’ Early modern European fairy tales were often presented in a specific frame tale, this also being an ancient ‘Oriental’ device (Belcher 2004). Frame tales are, e.g. found in Boccaccio’s Decamerone, or Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose Tales). Although fairy tales in modern (oral) tradition are often detached from their previous inclusion in frame tales, it appears viable to discern traces of the ancient Middle Eastern concept of teaching by way of stories in the early modern collections of fairy tales and their content.

The concept of “relief after hardship”

An essential characteristic of fairy tales is the fact that their protagonists experience a series of trials and tribulations before attaining ultimate happiness that stereotypically consists of the threefold bliss of acquiring wealth, a beautiful wife, and political power. This feature finds its correspondence in the concept of “relief after hardship” (Arabic al-faraj baʿd al-shidda) that governs much of the Middle Eastern Muslim narrative literatures. As a matter of fact, there is a specific genre by that name whose best-known representative is the comprehensive collection of tales compiled by Arabic author al-Muḥassin al-Tanūkhī (d. 994) (Bray 2014). Although most of the tales in Tanūkhī’s book are presented as recounting actual events that occurred to protagonists identified by name, the concept itself eventually transcended the boundaries of factual narratives. When the Ottoman Turkish enlarged translation of the Persian Munes-nāme uses the very same title, it only vaguely alludes to the ancient genre. The title rather implies that the tales the collection contains are subject to a similar structure, as their protagonists also experience numerous hardships before attaining their goal. Although the Ottoman Turkish collection dates at most from late in the fourteenth century, many of its tales, and particularly those documented in the Persian Munes-nāme, are much older, thus predating by far the collections of Straparola and other European compilers that became constitutive of the genre of fairy tales. In this manner, the concept of “relief after hardship” might well have had an inspiring effect on the nascent genre of the European fairy tales that subsequently was to enjoy international success. Exactly how the concept might have been mediated to Europe still requires thorough investigation. For the dissemination of the two internationally most influential collections of Middle Eastern tales, the Persian Sindbād-nāme (Book of Sindbād [the Sage]), the European versions of which are collectively known under the label The Seven Sages (of Rome), and the Arabic Kalīla wa Dimna, European versions of which mostly derive from the Latin version Directorium vitae humanae, Jewish authors played a decisive role. In particular, Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob Ibn Shahin’s (d. 1062) highly influential Judaeo-Arabic compilation al-Faraj baʿd al-shidda (Ibn Shāhīn 1977) probably contributed significantly to transmitting this narrative device to Europe, though the precise nature of this mediation still remains to be explored.


Whatever the contribution of Middle Eastern Muslim narrative culture to the genesis of the modern European fairy tale might be in the end, it is important to remind ourselves that cultural boundaries in the pre-modern world were not as impenetrable as they might appear today. Ancient Greek literature was to some extent a Middle Eastern literature, Persian literature owes much to previous Indian and ancient Greek sources, Arabic literature draws on ancient Persian, Arabic, and Jewish sources, and Ottoman Turkish literature is equally indebted to the totality of previous sources. The quest for the origins of the fairy tale in Middle Eastern Muslim literature is thus almost as fantastic as the topic it explores, and ultimately conclusive answers to our questions are elusive; equally, the answers are bound to develop, change, and become more nuanced as knowledge progresses. Although the Muslim cultures of the Middle East are today often stigmatized as the Western world’s essential Other, the narrative cultures of both East and West are historical siblings.

References and further reading

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