‘The Ebony Horse’ is one of the most exciting and enchanting story from the Arabian Nights, also known as the One Thousand and One Nights. Indeed, the tale is interesting because it even borders on being ‘science fiction’ before the genre existed. It sees a cunning inventor design an ebony horse which is capable of flying. A prince uses the horse to travel to other lands, where he falls in love with a princess.
‘The Ebony Horse’: plot summary
In Persia, a king named Sabur has three beautiful daughters and a handsome son named Kamar al-Akmar. On two days of the year, the king holds a special feast at which he invites men to come before him with exciting gifts. One year, three men show up and present their gifts, and one of them – a Persian inventor and sorcerer – shows the king a wooden horse made of ebony which, he claims, can fly. This remarkable horse can cover in one day the same distance an ordinary horse can cover in a year.
When the Persian demonstrates how it works, the king is impressed, and gives the Persian his most beautiful daughter as a bride. But when the daughter sees how ugly and old her husband-to-be is, she cries and hides away in her bedchamber. Her brother, the handsome prince, asks her what’s wrong and when he learns of her unhappiness, he goes to intervene, asking his father not to marry his sister to the Persian.
But when the prince sees the ebony horse, he is interested in how it works, so the wily Persian tells him to climb on it and try it out. He shows him the button to press in order to make the horse fly, but doesn’t tell him which button while enable the horse to land. And so the prince flies off, higher into the sky.
Needless to say, the king isn’t too pleased with his only son being tricked in this way, so he promptly throws the Persian in prison.
Meanwhile, the prince, high up in the sky, manages to figure out which button which make the horse land, and he finds himself in a distant land, in the city of Sana’a. Landing the horse on the roof of the royal palace, he climbs down and into a bedchamber where the king’s daughter is asleep. It just so happens that she – like the prince’s sister – is to marry a hideous man she doesn’t love, but when she claps eyes on the prince, she falls in love with him, and he with her.
Unfortunately, the servants of the palace think the prince must be a genie or sorcerer, as he managed to make it past the guards and into the princess’s private chamber. The king doesn’t trust him, so the prince says he will prove his mettle by facing the king’s best men in a fight the next day. But before the fight can take place, he sends for his horse from the roof of the palace, insisting that he will ride it into battle against the king’s soldiers. But once he has mounted the ebony horse, he promptly flies off, leaving everyone thinking he must be a magician or a genie.
Arriving back home, the prince is greeted with joy by his father, who feared that his son had been lost to him forever. The king orders the release of all prisoners in the city, including the Persian who invented the ebony horse. But the prince misses the beautiful princess he left behind in Sana’a, so he mounts the horse again and flies back to her, carrying her back home with him so that they can be married.
But when they arrive, and the preparations for their wedding are underway, the cunning Persian takes the horse and abducts the prince’s bride-to-be on it, flying her away with him. When they arrive in a foreign land, they are apprehended and the Persian thrown in (another) prison, when the princess tells them she has been kidnapped by him. She then falls ill with shock, and heartbreak over being separated from her beloved.
The prince scours the surrounding lands for the princess, and eventually overhears some men describing a pair of people whose descriptions match the Persian and the princess. But in searching for his beloved, he attracts the suspicions of the guards, who have him thrown into jail as well. There he gets talking to the Persian (who doesn’t recognise the prince in the dark) and learns that the princess has fallen ill and the king is trying to cure her, having taken a shine to her himself. And the prince hatches a plan to get them both out of the kingdom and back home.
When he is presented before the king who has imprisoned them all, the prince tells him that he is a healer who can help to heal the princess. To do so, he must go to her and examine her. While doing so, the prince whispers his plan in the princess’s ear, and she agrees to play along. When the prince asks the king to send the ebony horse to him, so that he can banish the devil from it, the king is happy to oblige. But as soon as the prince has mounted the horse and pulled the princess onto it as well, he presses the button and they both ride off into the sky, leaving the king to stamp his feet at having been tricked.
Arriving back in his homeland, the prince promptly marries the princess, and they live happily ever after. The king, his father, destroys the ebony horse, so that nobody can ever fly it again. The prince writes to his bride’s father in Sana’a to tell him his daughter is married, and the king writes back from Sana’a with his blessing, sending the married couple gifts. Eventually, the prince succeeds his father as king and he and his wife rule justly for many years.
‘The Ebony Horse’: analysis
‘The Ebony Horse’ is notable among the Arabian Nights in that, rather than having a genie or jinnee who can grant wishes, or even a traditional evil magician figure, it has an inventor – or what we might even, now, term a ‘scientist’ – as its central antagonist. Rather than presenting the Persian as a sorcerer or magician who has ‘charmed’ a real horse into being able to fly, the storyteller offers us an inventor who appears to have used scientific means to construct a horse made from ebony, with buttons and some kind of bellows which inflates with air to make the contraption fly. This qualifies ‘The Ebony Horse’ as an early example of science fiction.
Indeed, we might also analyse ‘The Ebony Horse’ as an example of proto-science-fiction in that the ebony horse is the device – both literally and as a plot device – which drives the whole narrative forward. Its destruction at the end might even be considered as a kind of warning against the dangers of scientific invention and experimentation: see what happens when science enables people to travel across vast distances and meddle in foreign countries? Just as Doc Brown wants to destroy the Time Machine in Back to the Future when he sees the havoc his invention has unleashed, so the king wishes to prevent any further antics by destroying the ebony horse.
Of course, what problematises such a neat interpretation of the tale is the fact that the ebony horse has made the prince’s meeting with, and marriage to, the beautiful princess of Sana’a possible. So is the story a cautionary tale about how scientific innovation can cause mayhem, or a celebration of the power of technology to make unions between different nations and kingdoms possible? Is ‘The Ebony Horse’ a story about how intermarriage between cultures is a good thing? Could the story even have originated as a piece of diplomatic entertainment celebrating a royal wedding between Yemen and Persia (now Iran)?
Perhaps this is to read too much into a tale which was designed, first and foremost, as entertainment, full of adventure and love and danger and suspense. Indeed, we cannot be sure how old the tale is, since, like the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, the tale of the ebony horse was a late addition to the collection we know as the Arabian Nights, and was only added by Antoine Galland in 1709.
There are many similar stories found in different cultures around the world, and ‘The Ebony Horse’ is sometimes analysed as a variation of a common trope in folk tales known as the ‘Prince’s Wings’ motif. A prince is given the ability to fly – usually by magical means – and this skill allows him to woo and marry a beautiful princess. But what is curious about ‘The Ebony Horse’ is that this ability is made possible by mechanical, rather than magical, means.