The changing illustrations in One Thousand and One Nights


Detail of cover – Stories from the Arabian nights by L. Housman

Many readers will be familiar with the collection of stories that is One Thousand and One Nights (or Alf Layla wa Layla in Arabic), possibly better known as The Arabian Nights. These folk tales from the Middle East and Asia, thought to originate from between the 8th and 13th century, were originally brought together in Arabic. Although the stories included in the collection vary, especially in European translations, they all have the same initial frame, which also provides the title for the collection.


Illustration by E. Dulac – And ever with the tears falling down from her eyes she sighed and sang. 

The story tells of Shahryar, a Sultan, who became so enraged after discovering that his wife had been unfaithful him, he executed her and proceeded to execute all of his wives on the morning after their wedding. Eventually, there were no more virgins(!) for Shahryar to marry, and so his vizier gave his own daughter, Scheherazade, to the Sultan. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade began to tell Shahryar a tale, but she did not finish it. The Sultan was so curious, he was forced to postpone her execution. The next night, as soon as she finished the first tale, Scheherazade began another, and Shahryar was again forced to postpone her execution. And so this continued for one thousand and one nights. The tales Scheherazade told form the collection we have come to know as The Arabian Nights.


Arabian Nights Entertainments

European readers will be most familiar with such stories as Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. These tales were probably not included in original Arabic manuscripts however, but were added by European translators, most notably Antoine Galland, who is widely credited with bringing the stories to Europe. Galland published a translation of Sinbad the Sailor from Arabic to French in 1701, and after learning that there was a large collection of similar folk stories, he located the entire manuscript and published it in twelve volumes between 1704-1717. Arabian Nights Entertainments was an incredible success, being read by intellectuals and courtiers in Paris, rather than as the children’s stories we might see them as today. Following this success, the collection was translated all over Europe. In Special Collections we hold an English translation of Galland’s twelve volumes (Sp Coll RB 947 – 951), dating from 1763-1765. True to Galland’s edition, and the original Arabic manuscripts, our copy does not contain any illustrations.

In later, often pirated editions, illustrators had no notion of the part of the world where these stories originated, and so the few images that were included were strangely westernised.

This inaccurate portrayal changed with Edward William Lane’s publication in 1839-41. You can see Lane’s three volume edition in Special Collections (Sp Coll BD13-c.3 – 5), and admire for yourself how Lane’s time in Egypt allowed him to translate the texts directly from Arabic, rather than Galland’s French. Lane intended this work to have an instructive purpose, proposing the stories as an introduction to life in the Middle East. His ‘copious notes’ were for this purpose, and so too were his illustrations. The engravings were created under the strict instruction of Lane, who wanted to portray an accurate vision, introducing the British reader to the Arabic world, rather than to stimulate fantasy and imagination.

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Since Lane’s didactic approach, many artists have produced exquisite and fantastical illustrations for the Arabian Nights tales. A few began to consider styles that appealed children, such as Walter Crane (1845-1915), who created some of the first colour illustrations for the stories. By the beginning of the 20th century, expensively illustrated gift books aimed at children were very fashionable. One of the most notable examples of such a work is held in Special Collections in our Hepburn Collection, entitled Stories from the Arabian Nights (Sp Coll Hepburn q16). The book was published in 1907 and illustrated by Edmund Dulac. Dulac’s illustrations are very stylised, drawing on techniques and motifs from East Asian art. His work is ethereal in parts, portraying Middle Eastern culture as fantastic and magical.

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Undoubtedly, the illustrations from these books have gone on to inform further adaptations of the tales, meaning that these images maintain a powerful and continuing influence over the Western perception of this region.

Through the illustrations in these editions of Arabian Nights, on their journey from non-existent to lavish, we can witness Europe discovering the cultures of Asia and the Middle East for the first time. We see first a lack of understanding, out of which grew respect, awe and ultimately an element of fantasy.

The items we hold in Special Collections are especially important in tracing this story of the tales, and in adding another dimension to what we may contemporarily see as ‘just’ a collection of fairy tales.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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