Eastern Enchantment: The Impact of the Arabian Nights on the West

The stories collected in the Arabian Nights have dazzled Western audiences since their first translations. They are entertaining, but also represent freedom and fantasy.

May 26, 2024By Katrina Jefferson, MA Secondary English Education, BA Studio Art

arabian nights impact west


For many, The Arabian Nights can be neatly summed up in one Arabic word: ‘aja’ib, meaning wonders or marvels. They have inspired artists all over the globe and across many generations, yet the history of these tales, and particularly their influence on Western culture, is much more complex than a series of whimsical stories would have one believe. Upon being introduced to Europe and then traveling to other continents, the Arabian Nights changed world literature forever.


Origin & Form of the Tales

fragment from Egypt
A manuscript fragment from the Arabian Nights, 879 CE Egypt. Source: The University of Chicago


Like the fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, the stories found in the Arabian Nights appear to derive from a blend of many cultures. Appear, that is, because they have no definitively known place of origin or named author. There are hints of Egyptian, Indian, Persian, Babylonian, Turkish, Greek, and Latin influence, and some of the tales were added later in the first European translation. Yet the collection is most firmly associated with the Arab world. Its title in Arabic is Alf Layla wa-Layla, and in English, it is sometimes called One Thousand and One Nights or, more commonly, the Arabian Nights, as it will be referred to in this article.


The earliest surviving manuscripts come from the 9th century and are told in a unique form. A “frame story” centers around the sultan, Shahrayar, who swears to marry a virgin every night and execute her in the morning after his first wife had betrayed him. The daughter of Shahrayar’s vizier, named Shahrazad, eventually volunteers to wed him. She plans to tell an exciting tale each night, ending it before dawn so the sultan will allow her to live so she can finish her story the next night. This goes on until he eventually overcomes his paranoia of women and spares Shahrazad’s life indefinitely. The meaning behind this frame and the subsequent tales Shahrazad tells have enchanted many people since they were first told hundreds of years ago.


Literary Worth & Cultural Meaning

Sultan concubine
Interior Scene with Sultan and Concubine by Thomas Buchanan Read, n.d. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


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“The power of stories to forge destinies has never been so memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner’s sword lies on the storyteller’s neck” (Warner, 2011). The prominent motif of the power of storytelling is joined by many others, too. Fate, magic and the supernatural, eroticism, sexuality, and the role of women in society are all portrayed throughout the tales. In many ways, these are adult themes, and the complexity with which they are explored is often in deep contrast to the delegation of the Arabian Nights as children’s literature today.


For all this, the tales were not as appreciated as highly in the Eastern regions of their origin as they were in Europe. At least, not until the middle of the 19th century, when Arabic writers began to be more influenced by the structure and language of the collection. Before then, they were seen as entertaining stories but “not worth serious attention” (Warner, 2011) by those in the East. However, once they were introduced to the West at the height of “Oriental fever,” people were captivated by the stories. And their enchantment lasted throughout the ages, inspiring many important authors, including William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Marcel Proust.


Westward Ho! 

Carpet Seller Robertson
A Carpet Seller, Cairo by Charles Robertson, n.d. Source: Sotheby’s


Just how did the Arabian Nights come to the attention of the West? At one time, the Ottoman Empire stretched far and wide. Most of the Arab world was under its control throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, as was much of Eastern Europe. The influence of the Ottomans also reached Western Europe, though they held a precarious position as both opposition to Christianity and political allies for some countries. Since all three major Abrahamic religions sprang from the Middle East, they shared a tradition but often violently clashed with one another. Despite this, Western cultures became enamored with Orientalism, which was only cemented once the Arabian Nights found their way across the desert to Europe in the 18th century.


The scholar, linguist, and French orientalist Antoine Galland published the first Western translation of the Arabian Nights beginning in 1704 in his native language. This was followed by an English translation of his work, which marked a turning point in Eastern influence in English literature. Galland’s Les mille et une nuits was based on a Middle Eastern manuscript, yet he added much of his own writing to flesh out the tales. In fact, some of the most popular stories in the West, including “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” are considered his inventions. In any case, Galland sparked great interest with his publication of several volumes and motivated many future translators.


Reception Among the Victorians

Maruf Cobbler
Illustration from “Maruf the Cobbler,” a story in One Thousand and One Nights, by Carl Offterdinger, 1890. Source: ZU_09 via iStock


The Victorians were especially enamored by the Arabian Nights, which complemented and coincided with their obsession with the land of Egypt. Indeed, the 19th-century Egyptian explorer Edward W. Lane published a translation of the stories from a manuscript he found in Cairo. Forty years later, in the 1880s, traveler and orientalist scholar Richard Francis Burton put out his own translation. Many writers of the Victorian period alluded to the tales or borrowed their form or themes. The poet Leigh Hunt even remarked that it was “the most popular book in the world.” But why was this particular society so drawn to the Arabian Nights?


Burlesque poster
The Arabian Nights, Courier Company, Joseph Brooks, Alfred Thompson, and Imperial Burlesque Co. 1888. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


The Arabian Nights opened a door to the fantastical and allowed people to tap into their imaginations. This was especially obvious coming out of the Age of Reason and entering the Romantic era. Furthermore, it planted a “land of pleasure” safely in a distant region—one considered, by and large, to be inferior to England. Even though Islamic cultures were just as, if not more, strict regarding sexuality and modest behavior, the Arabian Nights depicted a more free-thinking view of lust and promiscuity to English Victorians (Warner, 2011).


The Middle Eastern stories were also tremendously popular in the United States, where the tales inspired the American Dream’s rags-to-riches trope. Moreover, it provided a unique narrative style and format that inspired many other creatives. Yet even as many adult writers used it as a springboard for creative expression, the stories appeared in a watered-down form for children.


From Then to Now

Dulac illustration
A city among the isles named Deryaban, from Stories from the Arabian Nights, by Edmund Dulac, 1908. Source: The Victorian Web


Many great works of literature have been transformed into texts for children, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Both of these works count the Arabian Nights among their inspirations, which in itself became popular among young readers. Over the years, many different versions, adapted especially for children, became available, including the celebrated 1906 publication that was illustrated by Edmund Dulac. The accomplished author and essayist Jorge Luis Borges was especially influenced by the tales, having encountered them first as a child and later including many allusions to them in his own work.


In fact, the Middle Eastern stories can be seen as “the begetter of magical realism” (Warner, 2011) altogether. However, the impact of the Arabian Nights stretches much wider than that. During the 19th century, poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth referred to the tales, and fiction writers Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote fiction that was directly inspired by them. As new genres of English literature appeared, such as the science fiction, horror, and graphic novels of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Arabian Nights were directly or indirectly referenced in those, too. And other artists were just as taken by the adventurous stories.


Beyond the Realm of Literature

Arabian Nights movie poster
Film poster for Arabian Nights, 1942. Source: The Movie Database


Shahrazad, the sultan, and other characters in the tales have made just as many appearances on stage, in films, and on television as they have in books and short stories. Many operas were crafted around the stories, particularly throughout the 1800s. The Broadway musical Kismet, also based on the Middle Eastern fables, won three Tony awards, including Best Musical. Arabian Nights, an Emmy-winning television miniseries aired in 2000, was based on Richard Francis Burton’s translation. And then there is the big screen.


There have been many different film adaptations of the Arabian Nights, beginning with The Thief of Bagdad, which came out in 1924. Starring Douglas Fairbanks, it was one of the most expensive silent films made and had a lasting impact on American cinema. Disney’s 1992 animated feature Aladdin and its 2019 live-action counterpart are even more prime examples that have seen worldwide popularity. Yet it is not just Western media that has adapted the stories, either. Bollywood films, Japanese anime and manga, and sculptures by the Iraqi artist Mohammed Ghani Hikmat all borrow from the Arabian Nights. It has truly become a global phenomenon.


The Arabian Nights: A Lasting Influence

Magic Gathering card
A Magic: The Gathering illustrated card depicting Shahrazad that sold for $72,000, Kaja Foglio, 1993. Source: Art Daily


Today, the characters and motifs of the Arabian Nights are regularly present and familiar to people all over the world, even if they have never read the stories. Besides films, art, and books, they show up in casino slot machines, card games, board games, and video games like Prince of Persia or Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. References to them can also be found in many songs, from classic to contemporary. The West’s fascination with the Arabian Nights paved the way for it to become iconic, and the marvelous astonishments—the ‘aja’ib’ if you will—continue to enchant each new generation of artists.




Warner, Marina. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Harvard University Press, 2011.

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By Katrina JeffersonMA Secondary English Education, BA Studio Art Katrina is a professional writer and editor living on the eastern shore of Maryland in the US. She holds a master’s degree in Secondary English Education from St. Joseph’s University and taught Literature, Journalism, and Creative Writing classes. Her bachelor’s is in Studio Art with an English minor from Rosemont College. In addition to fine art and literature, she has a deep love of comic books, animated films, and ancient history.