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Surprising Facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

The story of Aladdin is one of the most familiar narratives in all of literature, a classic ‘rags to riches’ tale featuring a young hero who has to learn an important lesson; an exotic setting; a good healthy dose of magic; a beautiful heroine; and an evil villain (or two, depending on which version of the story you follow).

AladdinThere’s much about the Aladdin story that is universally known. The story is part of the Arabian Nights, or the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ told by Scheherazade, the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger: the story goes that she was one of the sultan’s concubines, and the sultan, after taking his pleasure with a woman, would have her killed. Scheherazade, in a cunning move devised to save her life, decided to start telling the sultan a story, but each night would break off in the middle of the narrative … so the sultan would keep her alive until the next night, when he would find out what happened at the end of the story. Hence the title, One Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Aladdin, along with the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most famous tales Scheherazade told.

Or is it? Is this true, or is this – as is so often the case here at Interesting Literature – actually only what we think is true?

For starters, where does Aladdin live? Not in the Middle East. In the earliest version of the story we have, Aladdin is a poor youth living on the streets of China. And he’s no foreigner abroad either: he’s a native Chinese boy, not an Arabian youth who’s ended up in China. (Nor is he an orphan: in the earliest versions of the story, Aladdin is not an orphaned street urchin but a lazy boy living at home with his mother.) As Krystyn R. Moon notes in Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (Rutgers University Press, 2005):

Aladdin, which most people today associate with Persia and the Middle East thanks to films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Disney’s Aladdin (1992), was one of the more popular nineteenth-century productions set in China because of its romantic and moralistic storyline and its potential as a spectacle.

Moon goes on to note that when the story of Aladdin first appeared in the Arabian Nights, it was set in ‘western China’, with some scenes in North Africa (though that’s not where Aladdin lives). She observes:

Composers and librettists sometimes chose Persia as the setting for the tale because One Hundred and One Arabian Nights was from that region of the world and, like China, was a popular imaginative space for Americans and Europeans.

Many people doubtless know this fact concerning Aladdin’s origins already – anyone who’s read the story of Aladdin will know it – but the point is worth making because the popular Disney animated film of 1992 makes Aladdin an Arabian boy and gives the impression that it was always thus.

Okay, so where does Aladdin (that is, the story) come from? Not from the One Thousand and One Nights. Or at least, not really. We associate it with that collection because the story has been added to the Nights in translation as a sort of honorary extra tale (or ‘orphan tale’, to use an apt phrase). The Aladdin story was added to the collection by a French translator, Antoine Galland, in the early eighteenth century. Although Galland heard the tale from an Arabian storyteller, the Aladdin story is firmly set in China (so not the Middle East at all, but the Far East). The tale had nothing to do with the original One Thousand and One Nights tales, and doesn’t appear in any of the manuscripts. But, since Galland added it to his version, it has become arguably the most famous story (not) in the Arabian Nights.

The reason we think of the story as one of the true-born Arabian Nights is that many of the characters in the tale of Aladdin are Arabian Muslims with Arabic names. But Aladdin is Chinese … at least, he is if you go back to the known origins of the story. Jasmine, Aladdin’s girlfriend, was an invention of the Disney film – at least, the name was. In the original story, Aladdin’s love-interest is called Badroulbadour (the name means ‘full moon of full moons’ in Arabic).

If you think that’s odd, then the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the story of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, are also not from the Arabian Nights, but were later additions by Galland, not found in the original manuscript. None of the three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights are actually, strictly speaking, from the Arabian Nights.

So, what stories were actually in the original One Thousand and One Nights? One notable tale is ‘The Three Apples’, which has been called one of the first detective stories – but, if anything, it’s more of an anti-detective story. In the tale, the body of a mutilated woman turns up in a wooden chest, and the sultan’s vizier is charged with solving the crime in three days, or he himself will be executed. The vizier fails to work out ‘whodunnit’, and makes little attempt to crack the case (hence the story’s status as an ‘anti-detective’ story), but the hapless vizier is saved from death when the real murderer shows up at the last minute and confesses.

The most famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – English translation of the Arabian Nights is undoubtedly that by Richard Burton – that is, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century explorer. Far from toning down the sexual suggestiveness of the Nights for his Victorian readers, Burton actually added information, including footnotes explaining Oriental sexual customs for his readers (fittingly, Burton also translated the Kama Sutra into English). As a result, his translation had to be privately printed for paying subscribers, rather than published in the conventional manner. Burton was also purportedly the inspiration for Dr Henry Jones Sr, played by Sean Connery, in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy our interesting facts about Robin Hood, our analysis of the meaning of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and our fascinating Harry Potter facts.

We’re delighted to learn that Penguin Classics have published an English translation of the complete Arabian Nights in three volumes, beginning with The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights: Volume 1 (Penguin Classics). It’s a fantastic edition and well worth investing in, as a way of discovering some of the many other captivating tales of magic and adventure contained within the 1,001 Nights.

Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.

Image: Aladdin and Jasmine by bubba-courtlz, on deviantart.com.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on January 30, 2013, in Children's Literature, fantasy, History, Literature, Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 99 Comments.

  1. Cool! I was never particularly taken by the tales of Aladdin & co. but the backstory you’ve revealed to us is really fascinating! Once again, thanks for all this insight into the history behind the story. That’s probably why I studied history and not literature!

  2. Thanks for such fascinating articles each time! Do you know when the Aladdin story was told and by whom? That question may be a dead end, folk stories’ origins aren’t always the most specific are they? :)

    • That’s a very good question, and, alas, one we cannot answer… The most we know is that Antoine Galland claims he heard the tale of Aladdin from an Arabian storyteller during the early eighteenth century. But as for its origins prior to this, I’m afraid, indeed, we’ve hit a cul-de-sac… But would love to hear from anyone in the comments below who has any thoughts!

    • it s arabic , but many persian / arabian tales set in China or in India , in Asia , because they had a lot of ( early ) commercial relations with them
      For example , the man who allegedly have been in America centuries before Christopher Colombus is a muslim chinese , Zheng He .

  3. Nice post, IL. always interesting how good stories travel great distances and change in the process. We have a way of making them our own – and changing and the setting is often essential, particularly if the tale is commissioned by someone who doesn’t want to hear some story set in China, for example. Plus, I imagine the stories were famous so if someone asking for a tale from the Arabian Nights and you’ve run out – I guess you could make another one fit the formula! Glad you found a way to incorporate Arabian Nights – or, rather, a “non”-Arabian Night!

    • Good point! It’s true of so much literature: Shakespeare, for instance, who drew on Italian tales (Romeo and Juliet), Danish chronicles (Hamlet), and the Roman writer Plutarch (Antony and Cleopatra), among many other sources, but now we cannot hear ‘Hamlet’ without thinking of Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, and so on. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Yes! You caught my attention again. Thoughtout time so much has been distorted. Sometimes it is challenging to discover truths. Great detective work. Thank you.

  5. What? Disney did not have it right? I also wondered how Richard Burton could write so well between acting jobs and bouts of drinking! Thank you so much for the truth-be-told re Aladdin & The Arabian Nights.

  6. All school kids know Aladdin was Chinese … and his mother was Widow Twanky. Or have I gone off on one again …

    P.S. Do Americans understand panto, do you think, IL?

    • Good point about the pantomimes – there again, the pantos tend to play rather fast and loose with ethnicity/setting at the best of times (often the pantomime is set in London!), and given the tale’s association with the Arabian Nights, the abundance of characters in the tale who are Middle Eastern, and the Disney film, we thought it worth mentioning Aladdin’s Chinese origins…

      As for whether Americans understand the strange phenomenon of panto, I leave it open to our transatlantic comrades to answer… (The comments floor is yours, American cousins!)

  7. As usual, fascinating. I had no idea Aladdin was Chinese…

  8. Andrés Torres Scott

    Cool. One question, what’s the real or original name of the Chinese Aladdin’s tale?

    • Good question – first we know about it is the oral tale which Antoine Galland heard from an Arabian storyteller in the early eighteenth century. Will scout around and see if we can find out anything further, though…

  9. Your Aladdin post reminded me of something I remember reading in Graham Anderson’s excellent ‘Fairytale in the Ancient World’ (Routledge 2000). While acknowledging that Galland added this tale to the original Arabian Nights collection, Anderson points out that some of the folktale motifs in the story have been around in European tradition for many centuries.

    For example, the ring of invisibility recovered from under the ground and the defeat of the rival suitor for the hand of the royal female are told about Gyges of Lydia by no less than Plato himself (for the ring element) as well as by Nicolaus of Damascus (for the rival suitor motif). If you can obtain the study, Anderson’s discussion is mainly on pages 105-7; I can certainly recommend the whole book itself for interesting discussion, loads of examples and convincing conclusions.

    Another great post, I should add!

  10. Great results from your investigating work. I do like the Arabian Nights. And now you have made it a great topic for discussion. Thanks

  11. Thanks. Great stuff. I love The Arabian Nights, and have a gorgeous copy on my shelves that I was talking to the kids about the other day. And of course I told them the stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba were from it! Now I find I was wrong. I recently read multi-award winning Bill Willingham’s graphic novel version – a different take again, and not a bad one if you enjoy graphic novels. http://www.amazon.com/Fables-Arabian-Nights-Bill-Willingham/dp/1845762789

  12. Seems like I would be well advised to follow this interesting blog Thanks for visiting me.

  13. Thanks for the follow. This was a very interesting post! :)

  14. Love this post! Thanks for following my blog and I’ll be doing the same :)

  15. I love the Arabian Nights stories but more than the stories I love the music and art inspired by them. Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade is one of my favouite collections of musical works and if you don’t know the Itialian artist Sergio Toppie’s representation of some of the stories, try and find a copy of his ‘Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights’ published by Archaia, you really wont regret it!

  16. Very interesting and fascinating story! Thanks for sharing!
    And at the same time TA for stopping by my blog..

  17. Fascinating insights. How do you find your sources when sleuthing out your posts? When I am researching I sometimes find it difficult to find primary sources. I was writing a collection of kite tales and finding the original source often proved tedious.

  18. abandonedriddle

    Reblogged this on One reader A thousand lives and commented:
    This article brought back some childhood memories and to think I never knew these things about Aladdin

  19. I’ve read the thousand and one nights and also have the Burton copy. I didn’t know all the facts however. Thanks for the insight!

  20. Well, you must admit Badroulbadour is a dreadful name. It sounds like I’m talking with mashed potatoes in my mouth.

  21. Not long after I read this I was in a second-hand shop in Ely, NV and found a copy of 1001 nights from 1932. I wanted to get it so bad, but a) I was worried it would get ruined during our journey and b) we’re on a shoestring budget, and even the $10 seemed not to be a reasonable expenditure. But I wanted to let you know that your post has ignited my curiosity. Thanks for checking out the Library-A-Thon!

    • Thanks, Emma! Glad to have reignited your interest in the 1001 Nights. That 1932 edition sounds fantastic – a Richard Burton translation? Perhaps in the age of internet bookshops it’ll turn up again :)

  22. Nice…
    True the 1001 Nights are very sexual and sensual in nature,
    Note: in Arabic Badroulbadour would be (if pronounced correctly) Badralboudour (first spelling does not mean anything in arabic except for badr wich is moon) and it is full moon of full moons, Badr on its own (Moon) is usually used in Arabic to describe a beautiful woman so Badr Al Boudour actually means “the
    most beautiful of them all” , so when a women is called badr what an arabic speaker thinks about is beautiful and not moon.
    بدر البدور
    And Aladdin would if pronounced correctly it would be Alaa El Din which means the supremacy (closest word i found) of religion (referring here to Islam i suppose, as it is an Islamic name)
    علاء الدين

    Great Blog and Thanks for the visit

  23. This is inspiring, you really got to the bottom of childhood stories. :)

  24. Having grown up watching the Disney movies, I guess I had my facts wrong… ;) This post was an eye-opener :)

  25. How interesting! Never knew Aladdin was Chinese. I own a copy of the Arabian Nights gifted to me by my mother when I was 10 years old. My favorite was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves! Is that an original Arabian Nights story? Anytime I fell sick, this was my “go-to” book, kind of like an old sweater that was comfy. Originally from India, I grew up on a diet of the stories in this book. Your research is amazing and I already know I am a fan of your writing! Look forward to more.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment! And I hope this doesn’t dash any childhood memories for you, but Ali Baba is ALSO not from the Arabian Nights originally – nor is Sinbad the Sailor. Strange that the three most famous tales are all ‘orphan tales’! They’re part of the fabric of the Nights now though, and I agree – they’re great stories. Did you know the young Dickens was also an avid reader of them? Many 19th-century writers were raised on them. It’s superb storytelling.

      I’d be interested to hear what you thought of some of the other Arabian Nights stories (which, as far as I know, are bona fide original 1001 Nights stories!). I’m thinking of writing a follow-up blog post on them and would love to know which ones you’d like me to focus on in particular.

  26. I loved all of the stories and as a kid I took the idea of flight seriously or … magic! A visit here one there like how if you look pyramids look quite similar no matter what country you’re in – love your information, I definitely will be back

    • I agree, there’s something magical about the 1001 Nights stories – I’ll definitely be writing a follow-up post since this one’s proved so popular. Thanks, do drop by the library here again! :)

  27. Very much like your posts…. and especially this one on Aladdin. Thank you.

  28. I love this

  29. Neat! As a boy, I had a Caedmon record about Scheherezade, and found it fascinating. The story of Maroof was the primary subject, and there was a character named Jasmine in that story, but Princess Badroulbador was mentioned on the record, and Scheherezade ‘s own story was compelling. I am not sure if I knew Aladdin was from the Far East. I was delighted by the tale of Ali Baba. Thanks for this interesting background.

  30. Wow! I am intrigued to find out so many things are never true as they are told. Is this or could this be about 2 different races being mixed in together like animals are?
    Rodney

  31. The name Alaadin is arabic and so is Ali baba… the tale even if originated somewhere else became arabic once it gained fame by the names chosen. Otherwise if someone were to say… for example Chang Chong and the fourty thieves it wouldn’t ring a bell or mean anything. The concepts of the story is also arabic despite what your article conveys. The Jinn..(genie) the lamp, are all arabian concepts. Additionally none of these concepts exist in China modern or ancient. However the 3 famous stories you mention in the article do exist in the oldest version of the arabic 1001 nights.

    • Our sources for this are impeccable, Ali: see John Payne, Alaeddin and the Enchanted Lamp and Other Stories (London 1901), which gives details of French translator Antoine Galland’s encounter with Syrian merchant ‘Hanna’ in 1709 and of the discovery in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris of two Arabic manuscripts containing Aladdin and two more of the added tales (Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor being the two in question). You’re right that Aladdin (and these two others) are Middle Eastern folk tales, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they were later additions to the 1,001 Nights, first included in a French translation, Les Mille et une nuits, by Galland in the early eighteenth century (1704-17), or that Aladdin is a Chinese character living in China. (The fact that Aladdin, and many of the other character names in the tale, are Arabic is simply proof that the tale was developed in the Middle East; it doesn’t prove that it was meant to be set there, not that it was included in the original manuscripts of the Arabian Nights.) See also Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Tauris, 2005), p. 17; and Robert Stableford’s The A to Z of Fantasy Literature (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2005), entry for ‘Antoine Galland’, pp. 163-4. As Robert L. Mack puts it in his ‘Introduction’ to the OUP edition of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 2009), ‘the most frequently reprinted tales in the West’s Arabian Nights traditions may well not have been part of the East’s Alf Laylawa Layla at all’ (p. xv). Mack mentions Aladdin and Ali Baba specifically here.

      Best, OMT

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  33. In school (as a boy) we knew it as a story with Far East origins; it is somewhat disappointing yet not surprising that with time and Hollywood fervor the truth would reinvent itself. I’m happy to see your crew taking time and effort to throw some facts back in the fray. Cheers.

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