Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sleeping Beauty, The Ninth Captain's Tale, and The Arabian Nights

As all of you regular readers know by now, I've been working on Sleeping Beauties for several months now. It is a collection of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales gathered from many sources.

One of the stories I found and decided to translate was "Histoire du prince amoureux" or "The Story of the Prince in Love." (I wanted to call it "The Lovestruck Prince," but didn't out of my desire to give as accurate a translation as possible. The tale is very bare bones and I wanted to keep the flavor of it.) The tale appears in Guillaume Spitta-Bey's Contes Arabes Modernes first published in 1883. Anyway, as I was translating it, I kept thinking it sounded a little familiar, but at this point in the process, it's very difficult to keep so many of these tales separate in my brain. So I dismissed my suspicions and kept working.

Now as I have been finalizing the list of tales to be included in the collection, I reread "The Ninth Captain's Tale" which appears on the internet in a few places in full text such as on Ashliman's site and again on this one. It was on my list to investigate further since the earliest version I've found was published in 1923 by Powys Mathers as an English translation of J. C. Mardrus's Arabian Nights, just shy of definite public domain limits. Although it is thought to be out of copyright by many, I wasn't sure. The tale appeared virtually nowhere else and was a little mystery of the Arabian Nights that I often try to avoid, not being well-versed in that area of scholarship.

Now Spitta-Bey had explained in his introduction to Contes Arabes Modernes that his tale was collected from his Egyptian cook, Hassan, who in turn had heard it from one of the many women storytellers during his childhood, such as his mother, aunts or their friends. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

The answer is quite simple actually. Mardrus was less than truthful about the sources for his collection of tales. Arabian Nights scholar Victor Chauvin states that Mardrus pretty much "lifted" many of Spitta-Bey's tales from Contes Arabes Modernes, embellished them with more literary touches and passed them off as Arabian Nights tales. After all, Mardrus must have reasoned, they came from Egypt, right?

So, for inquiring minds, there is a reason why "The Ninth Captain's Tale" is so obscure or unknown in most Arabian Nights collections. It doesn't belong there. It is an Egyptian tale collected from an Egyptian cook sometime prior to 1883.

This is not to dismiss the tale's inclusion as an ATU-410 Sleeping Beauty tale. It is a valid tale with an interesting composition. However, it is not an Arabian Nights tale and will not be discussed as such in most Arabian Nights studies. Trying to learn much about it through those sources will be frustrating and overall fruitless.

That said, my translation of "The Story of the Prince in Love" will appear in Sleeping Beauties. It is from Spitta-Bey's French text--his Contes offers both the Arabic and the French--and is very bare bones. Spitta-Bey even apologizes for such in his introduction, explaining his desire to be literal and accurate over literary and entertaining, for "elegance of diction was sacrificed for accuracy". He further explains that Hassan was illiterate, but highly intelligent with an excellent memory. Thus he didn't use literary phrasing in his storytelling, so his personal style was straightforward. Thus my translation is not flowery and almost painfully plain itself.

However, the Mardrus/Mathers version was embellished and is a prettier if less accurate version of the tale. The overall particulars are the same, but the manner of their delivery is different and overall more pleasing for entertainment and even understanding.  Mardrus was beloved in his time for his version of Arabian Nights although his work is usually considered "beneath" consideration these days by scholars due to his methods and casual hiding of them.

And that's the story of  "The Ninth Captain's Tale."  This is known by many Arabian Nights scholars but not necessarily the world at large for I didn't find an overall helpful explanation in this democratic world we call the internet.  Now it is here for people to find and learn more about it.

Now if only the questions and answers for Histoire de Tro├»lus et de Zellandine as well as Baudouin Butor's Le Roman de Pandragus et Libanor were nearly as easy...


  1. I remember G. Ronald Murphy's The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales having some interesting stuff on Sleeping Beauty. Including a Scandavian anti-Sleeping Beauty tale

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  3. This is really fascinating, thank you for the information! I always wondered why "The Ninth Captain's Tale" seemed so obscure. "Sleeping Beauty" is a particular favorite of mine and I've done a lot of research on it as well. I'm so eager to see your book!!

    There is an article from an issue of the 'Arthuriana' journal about 'Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine' - it's in French but there is a bit of useful information in it if that's at all helpful :).