A Tale of Arabia
by F. Marion Crawford

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Macmillan: London,    1891;  2 volumes, 230 & 235 pages
Macmillan: New York, 1891;  258 pages

collected in —
Delphi Complete Works of F. Marion Crawford

March 2021

As though by Scheherazade at the top of her form

F. Marion Crawford's novel Khaled could stand among the best stories of the sprawling Middle Eastern anthology, The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). It is a strong adventure, based on piety, interesting characterizations, vivid descriptions of people and places, and plenty of mayhem.

The introductory scene is ornate:

Khaled stood in the third heaven, which is the heaven of precious stones, and of Asrael, the angel of Death. In the midst of the light shed by the fruit of the trees Asrael himself is sitting, and will sit until the day of the resurrection from the dead, writing in his book the names of those who are to be born, and blotting out the names of those who have lived their years and must die. ...

Asrael knew Khaled, who was one of the genii converted to the faith on hearing Mohammed read the Koran by night in the valley Al Nakhlah. He wondered, however, when he saw him standing in his presence; for the genii are not allowed to pass even the gate of the first heaven, in which the stars hang by chains of gold, each star being inhabited by an angel who guards the entrance against the approach of devils.

Asrael looked at Khaled in displeasure, therefore, supposing that he had eluded the heavenly sentinels and concealed an evil purpose. But Khaled inclined himself respectfully.

‘There is no Allah but Allah. Mohammed is the prophet of Allah,’ he said, thus declaring himself to be of the Moslem genii, who are upright and are true believers.

‘How camest thou hither?’ asked Asrael.

‘By the will of Allah, who sent his angel with me to the gate,’ Khaled answered. ‘I am come hither that thou mayest write down my name in the book of life and death, that I may be a man on earth, and after an appointed time thou shalt blot it out again and I shall die.’

Asrael gazed at him and knew that this was the will of Allah, for the angels are thus immediately made conscious of the divine commands. He took up his pen to write, but before he had traced the first letter he paused. ‘This is the night Al Kadr,’ he said. ‘If thou wilt, tell me therefore thy story, for I am now at leisure to hear it.’

‘Thou knowest that I am of the upright genii,’ Khaled answered, ‘and I am well disposed towards men. In the city of Riad, in Arabia, there rules a powerful king, the Sultan of the kingdom of Nejed, blessed in all things save that he has no son to inherit his vast dominions. One daughter only has been born to him in his old age, of such marvelous beauty that even the Black Eyed Virgins enclosed in the fruit of the tree Sedrat, who wait for the coming of the faithful, would seem but mortal women beside her. [And lots more about her lovely appearance and virtues.] ...

A djinnee as mortal man

From here on we descend in smooth transition from divine to human realms, where we spend the bulk of the novel. The extremely long-lived djinee, Khaled, has fallen in love with the mortal princess Zehowah, beset by many unworthy suitors but so far rejecting all previous ones. However, the most recent suitor, although a handsome prince of vast riches, only pretends to be willing to convert to the faith; so Khaled flies in, secretly extracts and kills him.

After this, as described above, Asrael grants Khaled's wish to make him mortal so he himself may woo the lovely and virtuous Zehowah; but Asrael does not grant Khaled a soul. To earn this, he must win her love. Love and courtship, loyalty, betrayal, and skulduggery, conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, and much fighting ensue.

A better Night's tale

One of the truly unfortunate factors in The Thousand and One Nights is over-the-top nastiness in some of the characterizations. One never knows when an adventure is going to turn into a vicious diatribe. Khaled is free from such authorial loss of control. If you like fantasy, and don't mind a lot of mayhem in the course of the plot, you'll find this an exotic, interesting, and enjoyable novel. I've read it several times.

Djinn and human love; the Red Desert

Personal notes: I was charmed when I first read Khaled to find a couple of scenes set in the Red Desert, a place of sorts that already for years had been part of my developing science-fictional background (see for instance my novel Sphinx Daybreak. Crawford's Red Desert is a region in Arabia, whereas mine is — elsewhere.

On the other hand, while Khaled certainly isn't the first major story of djinn that I read, its intertwining of the created order of Djinn; djinn-human love; and mortality and immortality, all may have contributed to my successive adoption and development of these ideas in Sphinx Daybreak and beyond. In so far as these ideas may partially have been mined from Crawford and forged into that fusion, I'm quite grateful.


© 2021 Robert Wilfred Franson

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