By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The tale of the Three Apples is not quite so familiar to Western readers as, say, the story of Aladdin or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but it is a more authentic tale in that it was included in the original medieval collection known as the One Thousand and One Nights (whereas Aladdin and Ali Baba are both ‘orphan tales’, added centuries later). Indeed, this story is present in the oldest known manuscript of the Arabian Nights.
The story of the Three Apples is also noteworthy because it can be analysed as a precursor to modern detective fiction. The tale takes the form of a mystery or ‘whodunnit’. But who did do it? And what did they do?
Let’s take a closer look at this classic Middle-Eastern tale. But before we offer an analysis of its significance, here’s a quick summary of what happens in the story.
The Three Apples: plot summary
When the body of a murdered young woman is found chopped up in a wooden chest at the bottom of the river, the caliph gives his vizier, Ja’afar, three days to find the guilty man and bring him before the caliph to face justice.
Ja’afar doesn’t even know where to start looking for the murderer, and so when the three days are up, the caliph sentences his minister, and all of Ja’afar’s kinsmen, to be executed. But before the hanging can take place, a young man steps forward from the crowd and tells the vizier that he murdered the damsel. Then an old man steps forward and says he is the murderer.
The young man, however, tells the caliph the whole story. The murdered woman was his wife. When she fell ill, he had told her he would do anything to please her. What she wanted more than anything was some apples, so the young man travelled to a garden where they grew and bought three apples, which he took back to his wife. She was still too feverish to eat them, so he had left them by her bedside and then gone back to run his shop.
While he was at work, a slave appeared with an apple. He told the young man his mistress had given him permission to take it as she lay ill in bed. Rushing home, the young man discovered that, sure enough, one of the apples he’d bought was missing from his wife’s bedside. When he asked her what had happened to it and she told him she had no idea, he killed her in a fit of rage, before disposing of her body in the river.
But shortly after this, the young man learned from his son that he had taken the missing apple while his mother lay sleeping. The slave had seen him with the apple and stolen it, after learning where the boy had got it. The young man is filled with remorse for what he did. The old man is the boy’s uncle, who had learned the sorry tale and wanted to take the blame on behalf of his young nephew.
The caliph decided not to execute the young man, but instead gave Ja’afar three days to find the slave who had stolen the apple and thus caused this sorry business. Once more, Ja’afar despaired of finding the guilty slave, and hid himself away at home, drawing up his last will and testament and saying his last goodbyes to his family. He was resigned to die.
But on the last day, when he was bidding farewell to his daughter, he saw that she had an apple. Asking her where she got it, he learned that she had bought it from Ja’afar’s slave, who had taken it from the boy (the son of the young man who’d murdered his own wife). The mystery was solved, and Ja’afar took his slave to the caliph to face justice.
Ja’afar was not keen on his trusty slave being executed, however, so he pleaded with the caliph for the man’s life. He said that he would tell the caliph a story which is even more remarkable than what had happened – the tale of the three apples – and if the caliph agreed it was a more wonderful sequence of events, he should spare the slave.
The caliph agreed to this, and Ja’afar told his caliph the story of the Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan. At the end of the story, the caliph agreed that it was a fine tale, and spared the life of Ja’afar’s slave. He also gave the young man one of his concubines and the young man and the caliph became close friends.
The Three Apples: analysis
The story of the Three Apples is a kind of mystery story, whose premise or setup will be familiar to any regular readers of crime fiction: a body is discovered in a gruesome state, and the murderer is sought. Who could have committed such a terrible crime?
But in some respects, the story is flawed as a ‘detective story’. First of all, the actual mystery of who murdered the poor woman is cleared up quite quickly, when the young man confesses to the crime. This does, of course, give rise to another mystery – the whereabouts of the slave whose theft of the apple led to the murder – but the actual ‘murder mystery’ is solved relatively early on in the narrative.
Second, the detective himself is hopeless. Rather than set about trying to locate the guilty parties or at least delegating that responsibility to his subordinates (as a vizier, doesn’t he have servants or lowly assistants he could send out to make enquiries?), on both occasions when his life is under very real threat Ja’afar hides away at home, wringing his hands and seemingly resigning himself to his fate from the outset.
He is saved from death twice by the honest actions of the real murderer (in the first instance) and a piece of good fortune whereby he catches his daughter with the apple (in the second). How lucky can one man be?
And to modern readers, the notion that the slave is somehow directly responsible for the death of the victim is likely to strike us as a brazen example of shifting the blame onto someone lower down the food chain. The slave lies about stealing the apple from the young boy to save himself from a whipping (or, given the story’s setting of medieval Baghdad, probably a worse punishment), and the young man readily believes the man’s story, killing his wife in a rage when the evidence to support the slave’s story is tenuous, at best.
And for this act of violence, he is not punished, but rather rewarded with a beautiful concubine from the caliph’s own harem. He also moves up the social ladder, becoming good friends with the caliph. All because he murdered his innocent wife!
Of course, such a sequence of events betrays the story’s medieval origins: it came out of a society in which women were the property of their husbands and a man could supposedly kill his wife for (being suspected of) dishonouring his family.
And the device of the inset tale, whereby Ja’afar finally redeems himself by saving the life of his slave by telling a story, reminds us of the ingenious narrative structure of the Arabian Nights, whereby Scheherazade, the arch-narrator of the collection, tells many tales in order to save her own life (her husband plans to put her to death but she tells him so many magnificent tales that he instead spares and even rewards her).