To write a book about a work as multifarious as The 1001 Nights requires one to say exactly what one means by The Nights, since there is some disagreement about exactly which stories and which texts constitute The Nights. A foray into its literary history is required in order to answer.
The first appearance of The 1001 Nights in 1704 in Europe was not unlike the uncanny appearance of the jinn in the first story Shahraz‚d tells. The jinn is a paradoxical being, now tiny and now enormous; he towers over the merchant and yet his son is so small that the merchant's date pit has killed him. A similar sort of paradox attached to Antoine Galland's French translation of an Arabic manuscript. The book immediately enjoyed huge popular success, yet as Georges May points out, it drew scarcely any critical or scholarly attention. 1 That disparity between popular success and critical attention has waxed and waned over the course of almost three centuries, but has never entirely disappeared -- a fact all the more problematic when one considers that the publication of Galland's translation is an early landmark in what Raymond Schwab was to call 'The Oriental Renaissance.' It is, one soon discovers, a book very often referred to, but less often actually discussed at any length. Perhaps the reason for this relative neglect is that, like the jinn in the first story, the book is notoriously difficult to pin down. As I said, the serious scholar must first decide which book he is going to discuss -- a possibly complicated matter if he has no knowledge of Arabic, and not necessarily a simple one even if he does. For ever since Galland's translation the book has led a strange double life in Europe and the Arab world. Indeed, to speak of 'doubles' here merely hints at the complicated relations between various Europeans translations and Arabic editions. And this is only to speak of the history of the work since Galland.
For prior to its debut in Europe, there is the obscure career of The 1001 Nights in medieval Arabic literature where its humble reputation made it the sort of book that might very well have been lost in a manuscript culture. It should be said that the work has not completely shed that poor reputation in Arab countries even today. The reader unfamiliar with medieval Arabic literature may be surprised and even puzzled by such opposed opinions of its literary worth, and for this reason too some account of development of that literature and the relation of The 1001 Nights will be useful, since it may explain the contradictory views.
The first thing to be said is that The 1001 Nights is a rather exceptional work in the context of medieval Arabic literature. It happens sometimes that a person takes up the study of a language because of his love for a single work, but if someone were tempted to begin the task of learning Arabic because of his love of The 1001 Nights, he should be cautioned at the outset that it is sui generis. He will really find nothing else like it in the literature, one reason being that The Nights seems to have absorbed a good many of the works that were like it. Hence its size. Unfortunately, in the case of The Nights, this singularity has also worked to veil its history in a good deal of obscurity. Indeed, in recounting its history in the medieval period, there is no need to summarize; a fairly complete account will read like a summary, since most of its medieval history is unknown and is likely to remain unknown. Given the territory that lies ahead, I cannot resist the analogy with an unconscious thought that only infrequently and briefly makes its presence known in conscious thought, and then quickly vanishes again beneath the force of repression. To retell the story we will switch metaphors; I have compared the book to a jinn, let us now think of it as a piece of architecture -- a palace as Borges calls it.