Doyle & “The Arabian Nights”

by Peter Adrian Behravesh

The true history of the Nights is difficult to trace. While fragments date back to the ninth century, the oldest complete edition is a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript. But many of the tales are, in fact, much older, tracing their origin to a Persian precursor, Hezar Afsaneh (“the thousand tales”), which was supposedly composed for the Persian queen Homay. In the early eighth century CE, this collection was translated into Arabic (along with tales from India) as ʿAlf Layla (“the thousand nights”). Then, in Iraq, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab tales were added to this Persian/Indian core. Starting in the thirteenth century, more stories were added in Syria and Egypt.

Sadly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when these stories were translated into languages like French and English (most notably by Antoine Galland and Richard F. Burton), a layer of Orientalism was added as well. Galland’s French translation introduces some of the most famous tales, such as Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which he heard from a Syrian storyteller named Hanna Diyab. No versions of these tales exist in Arabic prior to Galland’s translation. Moreover, Galland worked from a single Arabic manuscript and omitted much of the eroticism and all of the poetry of the original. Despite this, many other European translators based their versions off of Galland’s, rather than the surviving Arabic sources. Whereas Burton’s English translation, while comprehensive (he openly mocked Galland’s version as an “abbreviation and adaptation”), has its own problems, not the least of which are the racism and misogyny it introduces into the text. This translation (published in 1888) is likely the one Doyle was most familiar with, at least by the time “The Terror of Blue John Gap” was published.

Thankfully, modern translators like Husain Haddawy and Yasmine Seale are correcting the record with fresh translations that no longer cater to a Western gaze. With any luck, these translations will encourage a new generation of Nights readers to fall in love with Shahrazad’s many magnificent and magical tales.

Copyright 2022 Peter Adrian Behravesh


Peter Adrian Behravesh is an Iranian-American musician, writer, editor, audio producer, and narrator. For these endeavors, he has won the Miller and British Fantasy Awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Ignyte, Stabby, and Aurora Awards. His interactive novel, Heavens' Revolution: A Lion Among the Cypress, is forthcoming from Choice of Games, and his essay, “Pearls from a Dark Cloud: Monsters in Persian Myth,” is forthcoming in The Oxford University Press Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or consuming stories, Peter can usually be found hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and sharpening his Farsi.