Arabian Nights week 11




  • Porter laments fate and inequality, is invited to hear the merchant's tales

First voyage

  • Inherits young, but wastes it
  • Gathers capital, sets sail
  • Lands on an "island" that's really a giant fish
  • Sinbad abandoned but doesn't drown
  • Recovers, meets a man on the island
  • Tells of the water-horse
  • Taken to King Mihrajan, employed for years
  • Eventually the original ship appears, still with his goods
  • Sinbad proves his identity, thanks the king and receives gifts, returns home

Second voyage

  • Wanderlust prompts the voyage
  • Abandoned on an island
  • Finds giant dome, then the rukh
  • Ties himself to leg, carried away to a valley without exit, but soil made from diamonds, and giant snakes
  • Spends the night with a snake
  • Finds carcass, gathers diamonds, is carried away by eagle
  • Finds solace with another merchant
  • More curiosities
  • Returns home, rich

Third voyage

  • Attacked at the Mountain of Apes, ship stolen
  • Finds a house and a giant
  • Giant inspects the men, kills and cooks the captain. Another the next day, and the next
  • Blind the giant, escape on the raft, a female appears
  • All but three men killed
  • Wash up on another island
  • Other men eaten by serpent
  • Sinbad makes wooden "armour", survives
  • Hails a ship, which contains his stores
  • Convinces the captain of his identity
  • More curiosities, returns home

Notes and comments


  • Again, unclear what the "definitive" story is or where it came from
  • Transformed into the swashbuckler by Harryhausen's films
  • What do you think of the scene-setting and desciption of the merchant's house?
  • What lesson do these stories hold? (notes 6 & 7)
  • Is this version of Sinbad what you were expecting? What about the stories?
  • Structure of serialised tales follows that of the frame story

First voyage

  • Strangers welcomed
  • Why was the ship so long coming, and still with Sinbad's goods aboard?
  • Sinbad is rather passive. Is he anything other than an empty vessel of narrative?

Second voyage

  • Again, blown by winds of fate
  • Focus on making money
  • Again, strangers treated well

Third voyage

  • Are these apes, or pirates?
  • Very similar to an episode in Odyssey
  • Horta seems desperate to assert that these tales couldn't be influenced by anything European!
  • Monster and the more monstrous female: Beowulf?


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    Well, another very enjoyable section, when I could indulge myself and listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade suite of music (based very loosely on the Sinbad cycle but should probably be described as "inspired by" rather than "following" the text).

    It was indeed illuminating to see Sinbad described as a merchant rather than adventurer - presumably the older European versions thought this was really boring so translated him into more of a hero figure. The comments and annotations were helpful here in interpreting parts of the story as a kind of Handbook of Cool Advice for Merchants.

    I did wonder about how the overall time frame was supposed to work? Sinbad seems to spend many years in each of the random places he goes to, and then quite a few years back home enjoying all the loot he's acquired, but doesn't come over as an old man when recounting it all to the porter! And as you said @NeilNjae it stretches belief that the various ship captains would have carefully stored away all his stuff. One feels that there could have been dozens of Sinbad stories, all with a basic plot of mercantile disaster and recovery ,and what we now have are simply the best of them.

    I also looked up Tim Severin, mentioned in one or two of the comments, and found that as well as recreating the possible journey of Sinbad, he ventured on a number of other ancient-world sea journeys to assess their credibility. Might be fun to get hold of the Sinbad one and see how it goes.

    But on the whole I found the comments in this section quite uneven. The comment about how the tales form a kind of ring structure with the most climactic in the middle ("Mia Gerhardt... argues that the peak of intensity is reached in the third, fourth and fifth voyages - the middle of the story cycle. This, she suggests, is an unusual structure that is not common in Western literature, which typically positions the most suspenseful events within a final climax... Richard Burton complained about this...") - well, ring structures (and their more complex cousin chiasmus) are often used in near-and middle-eastern literature, and have been for millennia. But there has been huge interest in the subject in the west for a lot of years now (especially when it turns up in biblical literature, and it's surprising that the comments don't recognise this. As well as recognising its use in the middle east, a number of western authors have used this structural ploy, notably Hemingway (and even me, in a small way) and it's an exaggeration to implicitly present it as rare.

    Likewise the link to the Tale of Sinuhe seemed very tenuous to me - that tale originates around 17-1800 BCE, and was largely forgotten after the New Kingdom (say around 1000 BCE in round figures). The main focus of the story is that of exile and the desire to return home (and most especially to be buried properly in one's home country), with themes of anticipated fall from favour at a change of monarch, with restoration in the end. It's true that Sinuhe becomes wealthy, but not as merchant or adventurer, but by way of gifts from rulers for loyal service during exile and upon return. And try as I might I couldn't find reference to snakes there, other than the standard Egyptian motif of the uraeus (upright cobra) worn by the pharaoh - snakes don't form a part of the narrative in the way that they do in Sinbad.

    Other comments were interesting and helpful, but my feeling is that they have to be taken with a large pinch of critical salt.

    To repeat (in proper ring structure form :) ) the stories themselves were a lot of fun - rather different in tone again from the early ones, so there's this nice sense of discovering changes of style and manner in the storytelling.

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    edited December 2023
    These are exactly as I expected them to be, and I’m not sure if this is basically me remembering an old read, or something else. I also very distinctly remember reading the account of the people throwing meat into the chasm of snakes in the Travels of Marco Polo, and that’s because I lifted wholesale and got a multi-session arc out of it in a RuneQuest campaign I one ran. In my version, the bird was also a rukh (not eagle). In our campaign, one of the more ‘heroic’ characters blew his hunting horn at the wrong moment, which caused the bird to take off back to its nest with h the diamond-studded meat, and they had to climb up to wrestle from the bird’s young before mamma returned.

    So, we also made the tale more heroic than the original (and I’m not sure if Polo’s version is older than Nights version or not). But it was all in a good cause.

    Yes, I’d also like to read that Tim Severin book. I read his Ulysses Voyage last year and liked it a lot, so I collected a bunch more, including Sindbad.
    And this year one of my thrift store browses netted me a first ed. of John Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, so that’ll be interesting, too. And the work mentioned by Tim Mackintosh Smith - I have several by him, but not that one - will have to look for it.

    Comment 8 lists four more stories not in this collection. Just haw many are not in it? More than are in it, I wonder?
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    I just looked up the Wiki article about the rukh (or roc in more Anglicised versions) and a reference there reminded me of the Eagles of Middle Earth - for some weird reason I had not made that connection.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Other comments were interesting and helpful, but my feeling is that they have to be taken with a large pinch of critical salt.

    I'm also being forced to use larger and larger pinches of salt when reading the comments. Many of them are so overblown as to make me question the rest.

    @Apocryphal said:
    Comment 8 lists four more stories not in this collection. Just haw many are not in it? More than are in it, I wonder?

    I think the comments have made it clear that there's no one definitive collection of "Arabian Nights" stories. For instance, the other translation I read has a long (very long) story about a couple of generations of kings getting revenge on a woman assassin freelancing for the Byzantine emperor.

    As for these stories, I'm enjoying the pace of them, but I'd like a bit more about the characters and the drama that comes from them. Sinbad has almost no inner life in these stories.

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    > @NeilNjae said:
    > As for these stories, I'm enjoying the pace of them, but I'd like a bit more about the characters and the drama that comes from them. Sinbad has almost no inner life in these stories.

    Which was one of the more useful notes contributed by the commentator, that he was "a narrative man" - a phrase that I'd never encountered before but is a fair description. In more modern writing you'd only get this superficial level of characterisation in a secondary character who was basically part of the background. But I guess we're learning that Shahrazad is gambling her survival on plot rather than character!
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