The New Arabian Nights
Robert Louis Stevenson
Fiction, 186 pages
The "Arabian Nights" first appeared during the 10th century before evolving into its final form during the 14th. It’s said that this lengthy work is the greatest expression of fiction from the Islamic Golden Age, an age which arose during the reign of Baghdad caliph, Harun al-Rashid who ruled from 786 until 809. This golden age ended when Mongols overtook Baghdad in 1258. Harun al-Rashid had been dead several centuries by the time he was fictionalized as a ruler who intervenes anonymously in the lives of his subjects.
Robert Louis Stevenson created a more modern version of Harun al-Rashid in his Prince Florizel of Bohemia. The prince appears in stories set in France and England, and told in a mystery/espionage tone. The tale of the Suicide Club begins two cycles of stories involving the prince. After those stories, Stevenson addresses other characters and themes. In one story a scholarly scoundrel eaks out his living during the Middle Ages,
“The poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks. He carried his four-and- twenty years with feverish animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord;”
While the story cycles featuring Prince Florizel resemble the mystery/espionage genre, the collection overall is genre free — or perhaps hinting of genre without being confined by it. The stories also have a fairytale-like quality as do the original Arabian Nights. However, fairytales tend to generalise, but these tales come with the details filled in. Still, like fairytales, they tug at the corners of reality enough to matter. Each story finds an unexpected destination, yet one that evolves naturally from what comes before.