Nights 482 to 536: Talking Snakes

482—536 Hasib Karim al-Din and the snake queen • 486—533 The story of Buluqiya

After so many short tales of piety, the story of Hasib Karim Al-Din feels like a ‘proper’ Arabian Nights tale. It’s full of the best tropes that the book has to offer: a long-yearned-for child; a mysterious trap-door with a huge ring in its centre; abandoned palaces made of diamond… and armies of jinn.

That said, the story goes beyond the formulaic and becomes its own thing. It introduces several new kinds of character into The Arabian Nights universe, which takes this story to places we have not been before, both geographical and conceptual.

The titular Karim is the son of the prophet Daniel (who we met as a small boy in a tale on Night 394). Daniel is a man of learning who amasses a great library, but while he is transporting it, he is shipwrecked and all is lost, save five pages of a single book. These are bequeathed to Karim as a meagre legacy before Daniel dies.

Following his father’s death, Karim seems unable to hold down a job or learn a trade. But unlike characters we have met previously who fell into similar spirals (such Abu Muhammed ‘the sluggard,’ or Ali the Cairene Merchant), Karim’s mother seems to have a healthy influence over her son and press-gangs him into a wood-cutting apprenticeship.

Out in the forest with the other cutters, Karim manages to discover a cellar full of honey, which he and his compadres start selling back in the town. But they double-cross him, shutting the door to the secret chamber and stealing Karim’s share of the profits.

The short-sightedness, or perhaps the lack of inquisitiveness, on the part of everyone involved (including Karim) is laughable. Why not ask who built the cellar? And why are they storing honey? At worst, the honey could be enchanted, or cursed, an offering to a monster, or past its ‘use by’ date. At the very least it belongs to some kind of honey bootlegger, who would surely not take kindly to the pilfering of the cache. When Ali Baba and his brother Qamar availed themselves of treasure they stumbled upon, Qamar met a sticky end and Ali Baba had assassins after him for months… so the platoon of wood-cutters should have been far more circumspect.

Abandoned and trapped, Karim goes exploring the chamber and eventually happens across the Snake Queen. She never owns up to whether the honey was hers or not. The condiment is revealed as a sweet, sweet Macguffin, enough to draw Karim to the Queen and to the sub-stories she narrates, while he stays in the cave as her guest.

Talking snakes! This is not actually the first time they have appeared in The Arabian Nights, but previously (the story of Abu Muhammad ‘the sluggard’ again, Night 303) they were a tribe of jinn, which is not, I think, the case with these snakes. Instead, the Snake Queen is a sui generis monarch, a teller of fortunes and of stories.

She is also someone who weirdly operates with far weaker security than is sensible for a ruler of a kingdom. Twice in the narrative she is taken prisoner, when both times she really should have made sure that one of her larger serpents gobbled up the invaders. What’s the point in having “a snake as big as a mule” around if you’re not going to set them upon those who would do you harm?

This is not naiveté however. The Snake Queen seems transcendental. As someone who can predict the future, she sits firmly in the determinism camp in the age-old battle with free will, and seems, if not blasé, then certainly resigned to her fate.

Initially, the Queen asks Karim to vow not to ever visit a public baths, because that will somehow fulfil a prophecy. But when he stupidly breaks that promise (under no greater pressure than social awkwardness at emotional blackmail) she almost instantly forgives him. As she is carried to her death (her body is a required ingredient in some medicine required to save king Karazdan’s life) she passes on secret wisdom and guidance to Karim which he later uses to save himself from a poisoning.

The Queen seems aware of the part she is playing in the narrative. She knows that she is not the protagonist, but merely an aged mentor to Karim, one who must be sacrificed if he is to achieve a grand destiny. This is classic Hero’s Journey stuff.

Illustration by Albert Letchford
The Queen of Serpents — There came up to him a serpent as big as a mule, bearing on its back a tray of gold, wherein lay another serpent which shone like crystal and whose face was as that of a woman and who spake with human speech. Illustration by Albert Letchford

Not only that, but she is a Narrator too. With Karim a (literal) captive audience, she relates the tale of Buluqiya, an Israelite king who discovers a book about Muhammad in his late father’s belongings. Buluqiya is so inspired by the tale of the prophet that he decides to renounce his throne and wander the earth in search of Muhammad (an odd quest, given the book must surely have made it known that the Prophet was dead). He boards a boat, carelessly finds himself marooned, and encounters the Snake Queen herself on the island—a rare, or perhaps even unique example of a sub-storyteller inserting themselves as a character into a third-person narrative.

After visiting with the Snake Queen, Buluqiya visits Jerusalem where he falls in league with a polymath named ‘Affan. Together they embark on a quest to find the tomb of Solomon, plunder a signet ring and (so the legend says) “command the obedience of all the men and jinn, birds and beasts.” The land they seek lies across a body of water that cannot be traversed by boat, so Buluqiya and ‘Affan resolve to manufacture a potion that will help them walk on water. To this end, they kidnap the Snake Queen, in order that she may tell them where the relevant magical herbs grow. She does this, and so they release her, but one wonders why they didn’t just ask her. She is an amenable type, but perhaps they assumed the worst of her because she is a reptile?

This rather careless and selfish attitude eventually catches up with Buluqiya and ‘Affan. When they find the tomb of Solomon, ‘Affan is so intent on reciting his incantations and edging closer to the signet ring, he does not heed the giant fire-breathing snake guarding the tomb. He is thus incinerated. It is a scene that would fit right into an Indiana Jones film, where the learned but arrogant bad guys become so enthralled by their own discoveries, that they let their guard slip and are consumed by supernatural forces.

So I confess that when ‘Affan met his demise I thought ‘good!’ He was a bad influence on Buluqiya and an unworthy travelling companion for a protagonist of The Arabian Nights.

Illustration by Albert Letchford
And they saw lying at full length upon the throne our lord Solomon … his right hand was passed over his breast, and on the middle finger was the seal-ring whose lustre outshone that of all other gems in the place. … Then he (Affan) went up to the throne, but as he drew near unto it, lo! a mighty serpent came forth from beneath it and cried out at him with so terrible a cry that the whole place trembled and sparks flew from its mouth.

Once he is rid of ‘Affan and the distraction of the signet ring quest, the rest of Buluqiya’s story becomes a travelogue rather than an adventure. He still has access to the magic water walking ointment, which he uses to plod from island to island. We are treated to a rich description of ever more fantastical landscapes, a refreshing change from the realism of recent stories. On Night 491 for example, this surrealist scene:

He walked for a time until he came in sight of two peaks covered by quantities of trees whose fruits looked like human heads hanging by their hair. There were other trees to be seen whose fruits were like green birds suspended by their legs, others that burned like fire, with fruits like aloes, a single drop from which would consume anyone on whom it fell, and others that wept or laughed.

There are also mermaids, giants and most importantly, angels. These are not the winged men, familiar in the western tradition, but mutant animal forms, shaped like wild beasts, birds and bulls.

The cumulative effect of these encounters with increasingly novel flora, fauna and angeli is a renewed conception of the world as a near-infinite menagerie. Buluqiya’s journey is layered thick with the sense that the human world is a very small part of God’s domain. The known world is a backwater, a side-hustle, and not even the best bit. As Horatio says to Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of by your philosophy.”

Humans are not only outnumbered, but dwarfed and confined. When Buluqiya encounters the various angels, one thing they are always eager to do is to describe the sheer enormity of creation. We hear about the thousand mountains of fire, each with seventy thousand valleys that contain seventy thousand forms of torment; and dominions beyond the human earth that stretch for “five hundred years journey.” Even Jesus is roped into the project: According to one of the angels, Jesus witnessed a bull, whose head alone was “three days journey” in length. The bull stands on top of a fish (which must, therefore, be even bigger) and Almighty God makes forty of those fish every day.

All of these are variations on the same literary challenge: An attempt to convey the enormity of an eternal God in language and concepts that the human mind can understand. It is of a piece with the Brothers Grimm story ‘The Shepherd Boy’ which tells of a bird pecking at a mountain, in which a single second of eternity is defined as the time it takes the bird to peck away the entire thing. I also think of those Carl Sagan inspired YouTube animations that compare the sizes of celestial bodies. A big thing is described as a multiple of some other big thing, in the hope that one’s mind might be boggled but not blown.

To be continued: The Snake Queen’s tale of Janshah

Stray observations

  • I don’t see how the Daniel mentioned in this story can be the Old Testament prophet, when this narrative also mentions the existence of Muhammed. This story must be set much later than the Hebrew Book of Daniel.
  • Here is how Buluqiya discovers the book about Muhammad, while looking through his dead dad’s stuff:

    In one of them he came across what appeared to be a door, and when he opened this and went in he found himself in a small chamber where there was a white marble pillar with an ebony box placed on its top. Buluqiya took it and opened it, only to find inside it another box, this one made of gold. When he opened it, he discovered in it a book…

    I enjoyed how the book is hidden within successive chambers, not unlike a set of Matryoshka dolls, or the nested structure of The Arabian Nights itself.

  • It is surprising and interesting to read of angels who take on a form other than the traditional Man-With-Wings. Western culture sets certain expectations of what these, and other extra-natural beings like jinn, should look like. In yet another small way, The Arabian Nights confounds and expands our expectations.
  • Regarding men-with-wings: I’ve noticed that many of the antique illustrations of The Arabian Nights depict the jinn as very similar to angels.
  • One of the circles of hell described on Night 493 is Jahannam:

    … a thousand mountains of fire, in each of which there are seventy thousand valleys, each containing seventy thousand cities of fire. In each of these there are seventy thousand firey castles, with seventy thousand furry rooms in each, and each room contains seventy thousand couches of fire, with seventy thousand forms of torment in every one of them.

    1,000 x 70,000 x 70,000 x 70,000x 70,000 x 70,000 x 70,000 = 1.17649 x 1032

    That’s a lot of torment. But a ‘couch of fire’ sounds like a pretty cool interior design choice, tbh.

  • Night 497 includes this passage:

    In the course of his journey, he caught sight of a handsome young man who was also walking by on water. He approached the man but left him after they had exchanged greetings.

    I struggle to recall a more intriguing and enigmatic passage in the whole of The Arabian Nights. Another water walker?! His story must surely offer crucial insight into what lies ahead for Buluqiya, and perhaps into the meaning of his wanderings. Who is he and what is he doing? The Snake Queen doesn’t tell us, and the description quoted above is all we ever hear of him.

  • I was disappointed that there was nothing of interest to read in Karim’s inheritance, the five pages from Daniel. Since this story relies so heavily on fate, it would have been apt and elegant if the surviving pages had perhaps yielded some meaning to Karim. Since he had been through fantastical adventure of his own, and has heard the tales of Buluqiya and Janshah, perhaps the rescued pages could have contained something valuable to those who had heard the story, such as directions to one of the mysterious castles mentioned by the Snake Queen.

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