By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ is the most famous story from the Arabian Nights collection of stories, also known as the 1,001 Nights. However, the story’s origins are surprising, and in fact for many centuries it wasn’t part of the Arabian Nights at all. But before we come to the question of textual analysis or the story’s complex history, let’s summarise the plot of the story of Aladdin.
‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’: plot summary
Aladdin is young boy living with his mother in poverty in a town in China. His father died recently, having tried unsuccessfully to persuade his son to knuckle down and learn a trade. Aladdin, however, prefers to go off and play with the other boys in the street.
One day, a sorcerer approaches Aladdin, claiming to be his uncle. He convinces Aladdin to work with him, telling Aladdin that if he does what he tells him, the boy will grow up to be rich. Aladdin’s mother, who has never met the sorcerer before, is initially suspicious of his claim to be a long-lost relative but she becomes convinced that the man is genuine.
The man shows Aladdin gardens full of beautiful riches, before leading Aladdin down into a cave, telling the boy to fetch an oil lamp found inside. He gives Aladdin a magic ring that will protect him while he searches for it. But when he finds the lamp, Aladdin refuses to pass it up to the sorcerer before he is out of the cave, so the sorcerer seals Aladdin inside the cave with the lamp!
But Aladdin, while rubbing his hands together to pray for help, accidentally rubs the ring the sorcerer gave to him, and a genie appears. The genie asks what he can do for Aladdin, and Aladdin says he wants to go home. And so the genie grants Aladdin’s wish.
Aladdin takes the lamp home with him, and tells his mother all about what happened, and about how his long-lost ‘uncle’ isn’t in fact his uncle at all, but a sorcerer. When cleaning the lamp, the mother rubs it and another genie appears. Aladdin and his mother ask for food, and their wish is granted. For several years, they both thrive, thanks to the genie’s help.
Then one day Aladdin catches sight of the beautiful sultan’s daughter, Lady Badar al-Budur, and vows to marry her. He persuades his mother to go to the sultan and request Lady Badar al-Budur’s hand in marriage for Aladdin, giving her some precious jewels Aladdin has obtained thanks to the genie. Sure enough, the sultan is sufficiently impressed by the jewels to grant Aladdin’s wish.
However, the vizier – the sultan’s chief adviser – is not happy with this plan, because he had planned for his own son to marry Lady Badar al-Budur. The sultan gives the vizier’s son three months to come up with an even better gift; if he can do so, then the sultan will let the vizier’s son marry his daughter instead.
But before the three months have elapsed, Aladdin’s mother learns that the vizier’s son has married the sultan’s daughter, and Aladdin assumes that the sultan has gone back on his promise. He is determined to prevent the marriage from being consummated, and sends the genie to throw the bridegroom in the toilet and transport the sultan’s daughter, and her bridal bed, to Aladdin’s home.
He lies with the bride, guarding her all night, while she lies there, understandably terrified. In the morning, the genie returns the bride to her groom, who is released from the privy.
This merry dance is repeated over several nights, until the sultan calls an end to the festivities and declares the marriage null and void.
When the original three-month period is over, Aladdin’s mother reminds the sultan of his promise, and so the sultan allows Aladdin to marry his daughter – but only after he (egged on by his envious minister, the vizier) has been tasked with producing a dowry of forty platters of gold. With the help of the genie, Aladdin manages to produce such a gift, sending his mother to the sultan’s palace with the platters, and the sultan demands to meet the man who will become his son-in-law.
When the sultan meets Aladdin, he is impressed by how wealthy the young man is, and welcomes him into his family – especially when Aladdin builds (or, rather, commands the genie to build) a huge pavilion next to the sultan’s palace, for him and the princess to live in.
Meanwhile, using his magic and divination, the sorcerer learns that Aladdin survived in the cave and kept the lamp, using it to become fabulously wealthy and marry the princess. So one day, when Aladdin is away hunting, he travels to the pavilion disguised as a merchant who is trading new lamps for old ones. The sultan’s daughter, seeing the old magic lamp lying around the pavilion and unaware that it’s magic, orders her servant to give the sorcerer the lamp. He then summons the genie of the lamp and orders him to transport the pavilion – complete with the princess – to his home in Africa.
When Aladdin returns and discovers his pavilion has gone, he is as shocked as the sultan, who decides to cut off Aladdin’s head. However, because Aladdin is popular with the people of the city, he accedes to Aladdin’s request for a stay of execution, asking for forty nights to try to track down and rescue the sultan’s missing daughter.
So Aladdin sets off, unsure of how he will ever recover the pavilion and his wife. Then, as he is thinking, he rubs the magic ring he still wears, and the genie of the ring appears. The genie is unable to override the genie of the lamp and so cannot restore the pavilion to Aladdin, but he agrees to transport Aladdin to the place where the pavilion now stands.
Once there, Aladdin speaks secretly with the princess, and they hatch a plan: she will encourage the magician (who has taken a shine to her), asking for wine when they eat together, and then use a drug which Aladdin has bought that will knock the man unconscious.
The plan works, and Aladdin then appears, disguised as one of the servants, and kills the sorcerer who had caused him so much trouble. He then recovers the lamp from the sorcerer’s body and demands that the pavilion be returned to its original location back in China. The sultan is overjoyed when he sees his daughter his safe and well, and when Aladdin explains about the evil wizard, the sultan and Aladdin are best of friends again.
However, although the sorcerer is dead, he has a brother who is even more evil and intent on avenging his brother’s death. So he disguises himself as Fatimah, a holy woman, concealing his beard behind a veil and gaining the trust of the princess, who wishes such a holy woman to come and live in her and Aladdin’s pavilion with them. He then tells the princess that the pavilion would be perfect if only they had a Roc’s egg hanging from the ceiling.
When the princess passes this on to Aladdin, he rubs the lamp and summons the genie, who flies into a rage when Aladdin requests the egg, because the Roc is the mistress who rules over the genie. The genie also tells Aladdin that he’s been tricked by a magician, and Aladdin kills the magician, having pretended to have a headache and claimed that he needs the holy woman’s healing hands on him. And Aladdin and the princess live happily ever after – with Aladdin becoming the sultan when the Lady Badar al-Budur’s father dies.
‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’: analysis
We’ve previously discussed how none of the three most famous stories from the collection we know as the Arabian Nights or 1,001 Nights was originally part of the sequence: the story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp were both added to the much older collection of tales in the early eighteenth century, by a French translator named Antoine Galland, who claimed he had heard the story from a Syrian storyteller named Hanna Diyab.
The story of Sinbad the Sailor was also a late addition to the 1,001 Nights, even though the story had been around – independently – for some time before the eighteenth century.
Despite being whitewashed (almost literally) for the 1992 Disney film, Aladdin is not some goody-two-shoes hero, and is far more interesting than many protagonists of other well-known fairy tales. He begins the story as a bit of a scamp, without ambition or loyalty to his parents, and is taken in by the first evil magician’s ruse and his promise to make the boy rich.
Thereafter, too, he can come across as greedy, someone who – thanks to the gift of the magic lamp, which he does little to earn – merely has to summon his loyal servant, the genie, to gain whatever he wishes. In the original story, he shows no interest in the princess’s personality or feelings: whether she wants to marry him or not doesn’t seem to cross his mind, as he has her bridegroom thrown into the damp privy and abducts her to his own home.
But this is partly explained by the setting of the story of ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ – although where that setting is precisely supposed to be has had critics and anthologists scratching their heads for some time. The story states that Aladdin lives in China, although ‘Aladdin’ sounds more like an Arabic name than Chinese, and the other characters in the story also have Arabic names.
Yet the evil magician is specifically described as living in Africa, as distinct from where Aladdin lives. (This is probably because the anonymous authors who passed down the story of Aladdin over the centuries weren’t too hot on geography, and merely wanted the setting of the story to be somewhere in ‘the East’ or ‘Orient’.)
But the environment of the story is clearly one which betrays its medieval origins: a world in which women are to be bought and sold by the highest bidder (the sultan is happy to have his daughter married off to either Aladdin or the vizier’s son, depending on which of them can produce the more expensive gift – and he grants Aladdin permission to marry the princess without ever having met the young man).
‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ shares a number of plot features with a later European fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in the nineteenth century: ‘The Tinder Box’. That story contains a number of common fairy-tale tropes: the magical device (a tinder box; a magic lamp and ring), a magic helper with the ability to grant wishes (a dog in Andersen’s story, rather than a genie), the ‘rags to riches’ motif, an evil magician (a witch in Andersen’s story rather than a male sorcerer), and a beautiful princess. We have summarised the plot of ‘The Tinder Box’ here so you can see just how closely it follows some of the key details of the Aladdin story.
The protagonist of ‘The Tinder Box’, like Aladdin, is not a squeaky-clean pure-hearted hero either, but someone who attains material advantage over others which enables him to marry the princess and acquire vast wealth. Both protagonists also lose everything at one point, until they recover their magic gift and are able to use it to regain their possessions.
What endears us to Aladdin is perhaps precisely his rough edges: the fact that he is poor but also somewhat wayward, rather than poor and innocent, so he is more relatable and realistic; and the fact that he uses not only the material advantage he acquires (the magic lamp) but his own pluck and ingenuity first to win the princess (by impressing her father with the right gifts) and then to win her back from the clutches of the evil sorcerer.