By Dr Oliver Tearle
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).
There’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 who led a fascinating life (which we have summarised in five curious facts here). 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.
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Aladdin and Jasmine by bubba-courtlz, on deviantart.com.