Upon learning of his queen’s infidelity, proud King Shahryar has her killed. As revenge on womankind, he decides to wed a different virgin every night, only to have her beheaded at dawn. Such is Shahryar’s practice for three terrible years—until he weds Scheherazade, the maiden who will change his life....
A breathtaking beauty, Scheherazade is as learned as she is sensuous. Her first night with the king, she uses her imagination, her eloquence, and more than a little cunning to regale him with a tale of genies and wishes, wisely cutting the story short at dawn. The king is so beguiled, he cannot have her murdered without hearing the story’s end. From then on, Scheherazade spends nights conjuring stories of flying carpets and fantastical journeys, always stopping with a cliff-hanger—and saving her own life.
This edition follows the unexpurgated translation of Richard F. Burton, the renowned Victorian explorer. Intricate and inventive, these stories within stories continue to captivate readers as they have for centuries.
About the Author
Daniel Beaumont is an associate professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Rochester and the author of Slave of Desire, a critical study of the Arabian Nights. He is also a teacher and scholar of the blues.
Jack Zipes is a professor of German at the University of Minnesota. The author of several books on fairy tales, including Don’t Bet on the Prince, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, and Breaking the Magic Spell, he is the editor and translator of The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm and the editor of Signet Classics’s The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.
Read an Excerpt
The Story of King Shahryar and His Brother
A long time ago there was a mighty king of the Banu Sasan in the lands of India and China, and when he died, he left only two sons, one in the prime of manhood and the other still a youth, both brave cavaliers. But the elder was an especially superb horseman, and he became the successor to the empire and ruled the kingdom with such justice that he was beloved by all the people of his realm. His name was Shahryar, and he appointed his younger brother, Shah Zaman, king of Samarcan. In the years that followed, each brother was content to remain in his own kingdom, and each ruled with such equity and fairness that their subjects were extremely happy. Everything continued like this for twenty years, but at the end of that time, Shahryar yearned to see his younger brother once more before he died.
So he asked his vizier whether he thought it would be a good idea to visit his brother, but the minister found such an undertaking inadvisable and recommended that he write his brother a letter of invitation and send him gifts under the vizier’s charge. Therefore, the king immediately ordered generous gifts to be prepared, such as horses that had saddles lined with gold and jewels, mamelukes, beautiful maidens, high-breasted virgins, and splendid and expensive cloth. He then wrote a letter to Shah Zaman expressing his strong desire to see him, and he ended it with these words: “I, therefore, hope that my beloved brother will honor me with his visit, and I am sending my vizier to make arrangements for the journey. My one and only desire is to see you before I die. If you refuse my request, I shall not survive the blow. May peace be with you!” Then King Shahryar sealed the letter, gave it to the vizier, and urged him to do his utmost to return as soon as possible.
“Your wish is my command,” said the vizier, who began making all the preparations without delay. All this work occupied him three days, and on the dawn of the fourth he took leave of his king and journeyed over hills, deserts, and pleasant valleys without stopping night or day. Of course, whenever he entered a realm whose lord was under the rule of King Shahryar, he would be greeted with magnificent gifts and all kinds of fair and rare presents, and he would be obliged to stay there for three days, the customary term for the ritual to honor guests. And when he left on the fourth, he would be honorably escorted for one whole day to speed him on his way.
As soon as the vizier drew near Shah Zaman’s court in Samarcan, he sent one of his high officials ahead to announce his arrival. This courier presented himself before the king, kissed the ground, and delivered his message. Thereupon, the king commanded various nobles and lords of his realm to go forth and meet his brother’s vizier a good day’s journey from his court. After they encountered him, they greeted him respectfully and formed an escort party. When the vizier entered the city, he proceeded straight to the palace, where he kissed the ground and prayed for the king’s health and happiness and for victory over his enemies. Then he informed the king that his brother was yearning to see him and presented the letter, which Shah Zaman took from his hand and read. When the king fully comprehended its import, he said, “I cannot refuse the wishes of my brother. However, we shall not depart until we have honored my brother’s vizier with three days of hospitality.”
Shah Zaman assigned suitable quarters in the palace for the minister, and he ordered tents pitched for the troops and gave them rations of meat, drink, and other necessities. On the fourth day he prepared himself for the trip, gathered together sumptuous presents befitting his elder brother’s majesty, and appointed his chief vizier to be viceroy of the land during his absence. Then he ordered his tents, camels, and mules to be brought forth, and he set up camp with their bales and loads, attendants and guards within sight of the city in order to set out early the next morning for his brother’s capital.
It so happened, however, that in the middle of the night he suddenly remembered he had forgotten a gift in his palace that he wanted to take to his brother. So he returned alone and entered his private chambers, where he found the queen, his wife, asleep on his own couch, and in her arms she held a black cook with crude features, smeared with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this, the world turned dark before his eyes, and he said, “If this is what happens while I am still within sight of the city, what will this damned whore do during my long absence at my brother’s court?”
So he drew his scimitar, cut the two in four pieces with a single blow, and left them on the couch. Soon thereafter he returned to his camp without letting anyone know what had happened. Then he gave orders for immediate departure and set out on his trip. Nevertheless, he could not help thinking about his wife’s betrayal, and he kept saying to himself over and over, “How could she have done this to me? How could she have brought about her own death?” until excessive grief seized him. His color changed to yellow, his body grew weak, and he appeared to be on the verge of death. So the vizier had to shorten the stages of the journey and remain longer at the watering places in order to take care of the king.
Now, when Shah Zaman finally approached his brother’s capital, he sent messengers to announce his arrival, and Shahryar came forth to meet him with the viziers, emirs, lords, and nobles of his realm. After saluting him, he was overcome with joy and ordered the city to be decorated in his honor. At the same time, however, Shahryar could not help but see how poor his brother’s health was, and he asked him what had happened.
“It’s due to the long, hard journey,” replied Shah Zaman, “and I’ll need some care, for I’ve suffered from the change of water and air. But Allah be praised for reuniting me with my beloved brother!”
Then the two entered the capital in all honor, and Shahryar lodged his brother in his palace overlooking the garden. After some time had passed, King Shahryar noticed that his brother’s condition was still unchanged, and he attributed it to his separation from his country. So he let him do as he pleased and asked him no questions until one day when he said, “My brother, I can’t help noticing that you’ve grown weaker and paler than you were before.”
“I’m sick in my heart,” he replied, but he would not tell Shahryar about his wife and all that he had seen.
Thereupon Shahryar summoned doctors and surgeons and asked them to treat his brother to the best of their ability, which they did for a whole month, but their potions had no effect, for he dwelled upon his wife’s treachery. Indeed, he became more and more despondent, and even the use of leeches failed to change his mood.
One day his elder brother said to him, “I’ve decided to go on a hunting expedition. Perhaps you’d feel better if you joined me.”
However, Shah Zaman declined and said, “I am not in the mood for anything like this, and I beseech you to let me stay quietly in the palace, for I can’t seem to get over this sickness.”
So, King Shah Zaman spent the night in the palace by himself. The next morning, after his brother had departed, he left his room and sat down at one of the lattice windows overlooking the garden. There he rested awhile and became steeped in sad thoughts about his wife’s betrayal, occasionally uttering sighs of grief. Now, as he was moaning and torturing himself, a secret door to the garden swung open, and out came twenty slave girls surrounding his brother’s wife, who was marvelously beautiful and moved about with the grace of a gazelle in search of a cool stream. Shah Zaman drew back from the window, but he kept the group in sight from a place where they could not spot him, even though they walked under the very window where he had stationed himself. As they advanced into the garden, they came to a jetting fountain amidst a great basin of water. Then they stripped off their clothes, and Shah Zaman suddenly realized that ten of them were women, concubines of the king, and the other ten were white slaves. After they had all paired off, the queen was left alone, but she soon cried out in a loud voice, “Come to me right now, my lord Saeed!” and all of a sudden a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes leapt from one of the trees. It was truly a hideous sight. He rushed up to her and threw his arms around her neck, while she embraced him just as warmly. Then he mounted her, and winding his legs around hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he tossed her to the ground and enjoyed her. The other slaves did the same with the girls until they had all satisfied their passions, and they did not stop kissing, coupling, and carousing until the day began to wane. When the mamelukes rose from the bosoms of the maidens and the blackamoor slave let go of the queen, the men resumed their disguises, and all except the Negro, who climbed up the tree, left the garden via the secret door and reentered the palace.
Now, after Shah Zaman had witnessed this spectacle, he said to himself, “By Allah, my misfortune is nothing compared to my brother’s! Though he may be a greater king among kings than I am, he doesn’t even realize that this kind of perfidious behavior is going on in his very own palace, and his wife is in love with the filthiest of filthy slaves. This only proves that all women will make cuckolds out of their husbands when given the chance. Well, then, let the curse of Allah fall upon one and all and upon the fools who need the support of their wives or who place the reins of conduct in their hands!” So, he cast aside his melancholy and no longer had regrets about what he had done. Moreover, he constantly repeated his words to himself to minimize his sorrow and added, “No man in this world is safe from the malice of women!”
When suppertime arrived, the servants brought him the trays, and he ate with a voracious appetite, for he had refrained from eating a long time, no matter how delicious the food. Now he was able once again to give grateful thanks to Almighty Allah for the meal and for restoring his appetite, and he spent a most restful night, savoring the sweet food of sleep. The next day he ate his breakfast with a hearty appetite and began to regain his health and strength and was in excellent condition by the time his brother came back from the hunt ten days later. When Shah Zaman rode out to meet him, King Shahryar looked at him and was astonished by the remarkable change in his brother’s appearance, but Shah Zaman did not say or disclose a thing to him. Instead, the two just embraced, exchanged greetings, and rode into the city.
Later when they were seated at their ease in the palace, the servants brought them food, and they ate to their hearts’ content. After the meal was removed and they had washed their hands, King Shahryar turned to his brother and said, “I am astonished by the change in your condition. I had hoped to take you with me on the hunt, but I realized that your mind was sorely troubled by something, and you looked so pale and sickly. But now—glory be to God!—your natural color has returned to your face, and you’re in fine shape. I had believed that your sickness was due to the separation from your family, friends, and country, so I had refrained from bothering you with probing questions. But now I beseech you to explain the cause of your troubles and the reason for your recovery to such good health.”
When Shah Zaman heard this, he bowed his head toward the ground, and after a while he raised it and said, “I shall tell you what caused my troubles and bad health, but you must pardon me if I don’t tell you the reason for my complete recovery. Indeed, I beg you not to force me to explain everything that has happened.”
Shahryar was much surprised by these words and replied, “Let me hear first what caused you to become so sick and pale.”
“Well then,” began Shah Zaman, “it was like this. When you sent the vizier with your invitation, I made all sorts of preparations for three days and camped before my city to begin the journey early the next day. But that night I remembered that I had left a string of jewels in the palace that I intended to give to you as a gift. I returned for it alone and found my wife on my couch in the arms of a hideous black cook. So I slew the two and came to you. However, I could not help grieving about this affair and regretting what I had done. That’s why I lost my health and became weak. But you must excuse me if I refuse to tell you how I managed to regain my health.”
Shahryar shook his head, completely astonished, and with the fire of wrath flaming in his heart, he cried, “Indeed, the malice of woman is mighty! My brother, you’ve escaped many an evil deed by putting your wife to death, and your rage and grief are quite understandable and excusable, especially since you had never suffered anything as terrible as this before. By Allah, had this been me, I would not have been satisfied until I had slain a thousand women and had gone mad! But praise be to Allah, who has eased your tribulations, and now you must tell me how you regained your health so suddenly, and you must explain to me why you are being so secretive.”
“Oh brother, again I beg you to excuse me for refusing to talk about this!”
“But I insist.”
“I’m afraid that my story may cause you more anger and sorrow than I myself have suffered.”
“That’s even a better reason for telling me the whole story,” said Shahryar, “and in the name of Allah, I command you not to keep anything back from me!”
Thereupon Shah Zaman told him all he had seen from beginning to end, and he concluded his story by saying, “When I saw your misfortune, and your wife’s betrayal, my own sorrow seemed slight in comparison, and I became sober and sound again. So, discarding melancholy and despondency, I was able to eat, drink, and sleep, and thus I quickly regained my health and strength. This is the truth and the whole truth.”
After King Shahryar heard this tale, he became so furious that it seemed his rage might consume him. However, he quickly recovered his composure and said, “My brother, I don’t mean to imply that you have lied to me, but I can’t believe your story until I see everything with my own eyes.”
“If you want to witness your misfortune,” Shah Zaman responded, “rise at once and get ready for another hunting expedition. Then hide yourself with me, and you’ll see everything with your own eyes and learn the truth.”