The Arabian Nights and Children: A History

Oxford Writers' HouseEssays2016DecemberThe Arabian Nights and Children: A History

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The Arabian Nights and Children: A History

The collection of stories is immense in size: the phrase ‘a thousand and one’ is Arabic in origin and means ‘infinite’.

Anyone who has attempted to wade through The Arabian Nights in its entirety knows that this is no easy feat. As the alternative title One Thousand and One Nights suggests, the collection of stories is immense in size: the phrase ‘a thousand and one’ is Arabic in origin and means ‘infinite’. Yet there may be a hint of truth in Coleridge’s claim to have read Galland’s translation of The Arabian Nights by the tender age of six. Across the 18th and 19th Centuries, there is a well-documented phenomenon of children compulsively reading the compendium. One contemporary of Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, described being terrorized as a young child by the Nights – in particular by the sinister images of jinn and genies, and the fatalistic ethos that drives the tales forward. The only exception was ‘Aladdin’, which De Quincey wrote of in his Autobiography as the source of his lifelong belief that profound meaning could be derived from even the littlest of details. 

Whilst Coleridge and De Quincey suffered nightmares as a result, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens imbued their own work with a child-like adoration of the tales.

More examples abound. The celebrated Orientalist Robert Irwin, in The Arabian Nights: A Companion, lists a whole host of other literary figures who either read The Arabian Nights as children, or associated it with childish fancy in their own writings. Whilst Coleridge and De Quincey suffered nightmares as a result, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens imbued their own work with a child-like adoration of the tales. The fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude records how the poet’s youth made him treasure his physical copy of the book as much as the magic between its covers:

          ‘I had a precious treasure at that time, 
          A little, yellow canvas-cover’d book,
          A slender abstract of Arabian Nights;
          And when I learn’d, as now I first did learn,
          From my Companions in this new abode,
          That this dear prize of mine was but a block
          Hewn from a mighty quarry; in a word,
          That there were four large Volumes, laden all
          With kindred matter, ‘twas, in truth, to me
          A promise scarcely earthly.’

Tennyson was another self-professed lover of the tales.  In his case, however, fondness for The Arabian Nights seems to have been an offshoot of his love of the foreign or exotic, obvious from the sombrero-like hat he never took off (supposedly to accentuate his rather Hispanic appearance). In 1830 Tennyson devoted an entire poem to the memory of reading the tales for the first time, aptly named ‘Recollections of The Arabian Nights’:

          ‘When the breeze of a joyful dawn blew free
          In the silken sail of infancy,
          The tide of time flow'd back with me,
          The forward-flowing tide of time;
          And many a sheeny summer-morn,
          Adown the Tigris I was borne,
          By Bagdat's shrines of fretted gold,
          High-walled gardens green and old;
          True Mussulman was I and sworn,
          For it was in the golden prime
          Of good Haroun Alraschid…’  

The opening shows Tennyson looking back on The Arabian Nights with two kinds of nostalgia: for an imagined medieval Arab world of decadence, superstition and adventure (‘Baghdat’s shrines of fretted gold,/ High-walled gardens green and old’) as well as for the exaggeration that comes with childhood (‘the silken sail of infancy’). The way in which the reader experiences these two forms of nostalgia simultaneously illustrates the coherence of the two experiences: how children are so strongly drawn, with their love of drama and tendency to think in superlatives, to The Arabian Nights’ grand narratives of physical stateliness and tense prophecies.

The way in which the reader experiences these two forms of nostalgia simultaneously illustrates the coherence of the two experiences: how children are so strongly drawn, with their love of drama and tendency to think in superlatives, to The Arabian Nights’ grand narratives of physical stateliness and tense prophecies.

Charles Dickens, arguably the quintessential British writer with his depictions of chimney-sweeps, gruel and workhouses, similarly conjured up images of childhood innocence in his writing by referencing The Arabian Nights. Certainly, in A Christmas Carol, it is how the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of the long-forgotten joys of youth:

‘Why it’s Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It’s dear old honest Ali Baba…And what’s his name who was put down in his drawers asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don’t you see him! And the Sultan’s Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head!’

Dickens’ enthusiasm (though rampantly orientalist), visible in the form of effusive, exclamatory caricatures, contrasts with the dryer, more intellectual affection for the Nights that the historian Edward Gibbon felt despite them both being introduced to the Nights at an early age. Whereas for Gibbon the book would ‘always please by the moving picture of human manners and specious miracles’.

The destructive allure of The Arabian Nights holds sway for children and adults alike; interestingly, according to late nineteenth century Middle Eastern superstition, no-one can read the whole text without dying.

This catalogue of literary giants, compiled by Irwin, goes a long way in displaying just how strong the effect of The Arabian Nights on children has been. But, as a set of stories concerned with morality, the law, adult interpersonal relations and religious duties, the question remains: why were so many children obsessed with them?  As psychologist and philosopher William James suggests, ‘Living things, then, moving things, or things that savor of danger or of blood, that have a dramatic quality, these are the objects natively interesting to childhood, to the exclusion of almost anything else.’ Indeed, there may be something visceral that draws children to The Arabian Nights for all its gore, the ever lurking threat of death, the extravagant battles and the constant sense of anticipation, as opposed to its masterfully constructed framing narrative and self-reflexivity. At an age when the act of construction brings parental praise, destruction of any kind holds a deep fascination. The destructive allure of The Arabian Nights holds sway for children and adults alike; interestingly, according to late nineteenth century Middle Eastern superstition, no-one can read the whole text without dying.

In the twenty-first century, giving a child The Arabian Nights is increasingly rare. With the rise of diminished attention spans, ethos of ‘safe space’ cultivation and extreme political correctness with regards to depictions of race, culture, gender and sexuality, most parents would balk at the idea of reading the uncensored version to their kids at night. However, the occasionally bawdy humour, daunting length, danger, and supernatural presences are essential parts of the book’s appeal to children. And they may still be redeemed: after all, characters such as Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin are cultural icons now more than ever, even if in the diluted digital form of one of Disney’s most popular animated movies, the universally adored Aladdin.


Nayra Zaghloul

Nayra Zaghloul

Nayra Zaghloul is a finalist reading English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. She is interested in the synergy between literature produced by different cultures at varying points in time. She typically writes (and Instagrams) about Egypt, poetry and fashion.


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