Scheherazade (13)


Illus. by Guydo for “Les Milles et Unes Nuits,” Paris, 1912. (Library of Congress). Digital art by Naomi Backer, xn3art.

“What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live?”

In the world’s best loved collection of stories, the chief character is the storyteller herself.


The Arabian Nights  (Husain Haddawy, Trans.; Muhsin Mahdi, Ed.; New Deluxe Edition). New York: Norton, 2008.   The best available translation in modern English, this book includes the frame story in which Scheherazade begins telling tales to prolong her life, along with the core stories of the original collection. Haddawy’s historical introduction is invaluable.

Sindbad: And Other Stories from the Arabian Nights  (Husain Haddawy, Trans.; Muhsin Mahdi, Ed.; New Deluxe Edition). New York: Norton, 2008.  This collection was originally published in 1995 as Arabian Nights II, and includes the later stories of Sindbad and Aladdin, along with Haddawy’s illuminating introduction.

The Arabian Nights Entertainments of The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (Sir Richard Francis Burton, Trans.). Modern Library, 1997.  Burton’s translation made the Nights famous in the West and Burton himself notorious for his rendering of sexual episodes in the stories.

Farwell, Byron. Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Penguin, 1990.  Burton’s own adventurous life could be strung out into many nights of ribald storytelling.

Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Scribner’s, 1990.  Another fine biography of this Victorian rebel, which discusses his translation of the Arabian Nights.

Naguib Mahfouz.  Arabian Nights and Days: A Novel (Denys Johnson-Davies, Trans.). Doubleday/Anchor, 1995. (Original work in Arabic, 1979)  Mahfouz refashions some of the best known tales of The Arabian Nights, to bring new insight to the characters, especially Shahrazad and Shahriyar, who must truly grapple with the implications of what has gone before.

Marina Warner.  Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2012.  Warner, known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today. She retells and comments on 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie”) and situates the Nights “as a genre of dazzling fabulism…the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24). The most provocative chapter, for me, concerned evidence for Sigmund Freud’s couch as a magic carpet, with the patient as storyteller and himself as the listening Sultan!


Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade / Russian Easter Overture [CD]. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting. Telarc, 2001.  Rimsky-Korsakov attempted to sketch the overarching frame story told by Scheherazade, along with some of her best known tales, in this orchestral suite, his Op. 35, composed in 1888. With its enduring popularity, it has shaped many people’s idea of this character, in musical form.

The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky / Sheherazade, La Spectre de la Rose, The Polovtsian Dances, The Firebird [DVD]. Mikhail Fokine, choreography; with Svetlana Zakharova, Farukh Ruzimatov, and Vladimir Ponomarev. Kultur, 2002.  In 1910, Mikhail Fokine created a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes based on portions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. Although it did not follow the program set forth by the composer, it has become identified with the character as well. This is ironic since the principal role for a ballerina is not Sheherazade, but Zobeide, the faithless first wife of the Sultan whose infidelity hardened his heart. (She is misidentified as Sheherazade on this DVD’s back cover, but the performance is nevertheless one of the best available.) The part of the “Golden Slave” was created for the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.