Aladdin the Selfish

The Story of Aladdin; or The Magic Lamp

Late in the project, I’m going off-piste. The story of Aladdin, translated by Ursula Lyons, sits at the very end of Volume III of my Penguin Classics edition. The tale is not part of the Calcutta II text, but the publishers have included a version anyway. This is presumably due to its popularity and cultural impact.

However, I am reluctant to read it after I have finished the main work. After so many Nights in the world of Shahrazad, I would like the conclusion of her story to be the finale to my reading experience. So this week I skipped ahead to Aladdin. My next recap will return to the proper sequence, and the last set of stories before Shahrazad finally falls silent.

Illustration by Charles Folkard
Illustration by Charles Folkard

Throughout this endeavour, I have almost always come to any given story as a complete naïf. I had no expectations about the direction of the narrative, or preconceptions about the characters. That’s obviously not true about Aladdin. I’ve seen the Disney films (both the 1992 animation and the 2019 live-action remake), and read several children’s book versions. It was even the pantomime at my local theatre last Christmas. So reading the ‘original’ Aladdin tale for the first time is an exercise in spot-the-difference, between how Galland presented it to the French court, and the version that has percolated into our cultural subconsciousness.

It’s not all that different, actually. Most of the panto plot points are there. The magician who forces Aladdin into the cave; the twin jinn of the ring and the lamp; and the hero’s deployment of the jinni’s powers to win the hand of a princess. The magician’s devious scheme to reacquire the prize by posing as a peddler advertising “new lamps for old” is also present. Thankfully, the Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washy are absent, replaced instead by an unnamed but entirely loyal mother who acts as an emissary between Aladdin and the sultan.

And yet there are some elements of the original that have not made it through to the modern versions. The most startling of these is that Aladdin not an immediately sympathetic character, with “many depraved tendencies.”

He was wicked, stubborn and disobedient towards his father and mother who, once he became a little older, could not keep him in the house.

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His fecklessness actually results in death of his father, who develops a stress-related “persistent illness.” So like Ali the Cairene Merchant (who came into a jinn-guarded fortune despite being a drug addict) it is unclear from the scene-setting why Aladdin deserves our support.

But isn’t he a chosen one? A ‘diamond in the rough’ designated as the only personal able to retrieve the lamp? Nope: that’s an invention of the Disney screenwriters. When the evil magician arrives from ‘Africa’ we learn that there is no prophecy behind the geomancy. Aladdin has no particular value in himself, only as an able-bodied and expendable grunt to send into the cave. This is a contrast to Judar (Night 606) who was always named in the prophecies as being the only person able to enter the cave in that story, and whose generous and forgiving personality made him ideally suited to the rewards it offered.

Now I come to think of it, I cannot think of a single purely selfless act performed Aladdin in the entirety of this story. He shares his food and riches with his mother, but as much out of duty as anything else. He also rescues Princess Badr al-Badur when, in the third Act of the story, she is kidnapped by the magician. But that is for his own gratification, part of his attempt to restore himself to the social heights he had previously attained. Even his stunt of throwing gold coins at the assembled crowds is just a form of showing off. When you have a literally infinite supply of gold, giving some of it away no longer entails the kind of sacrifice that our idea of generosity demands.

Crucially, Aladdin does not seek to form any kind of relationship with the jinn. They describe themselves of ‘slaves’ of the ring and the lamp, and he treats them as such. He has no interest in releasing the jinn from their servitude, which is a theme in the Disney Aladdin and (according to Marina Warner) something touched upon in some nineteenth-century versions i.e. around the time when slavery was abolished.

There one curious scene near the end of the story, where the jinni refuses to do Aladdin’s bidding with regards to a piece of interior design. Apparently, suspending a rukh’s egg from the middle of the chamber would be tantamount to imprisoning the master of the jinn (it’s not explained how). I did hope that this request might lead to some kind of down-tools protest by the jinni, which would have been an interesting way to get to the plot-point where Aladdin loses access to the lamp.

Illustration by Willy Pogany
Illustration by Willy Pogany

One of Aladdin’s first meaningful uses of the lamp is one of the most selfish, but also the funniest. He falls in love with the princess, after seeing her face in the steam-house, Aladdin is dismayed to learn that she has been married to the vizier’s son. On the newlyweds’ honeymoon night, Aladdin commands the jinni of the lamp to transport the princess away from the palace and into the modest hut where he lives with his mother. He further commands the jinni to lock the frightened bridegroom in the commode! At the end of the night, the jinni returns them to the palace, but Aladdin demands a repeat of the kidnapping on the following nights. Through this act of supernatural cock-blocking, Aladdin ensures the marriage is never consummated. The vizier’s son quickly seeks to have the marriage annulled.

With that inconvenience out of the way, Aladdin relies on his mother to get his own introduction to the sultan. She waits in the petitioners’ queue every day, and eventually her persistence is rewarded when the sultan asks her what she wants. She makes the marriage proposition on Aladdin’s behalf, and the amused sultan sets an impossible dowry price for his daughter, expecting that will be the end of the matter.

There are echoes here of the way that Garib was treated by the kings he met in the long story beginning on Night 624. The nobles treat the underclass as a joke, and are surprised when the young men are able to keep to their side of the bargain. Its always a delight, in film and literature, to see the snobs hoisted by their own petard. In this case however, the sultan does take delivery of forty bowls of jewels with a side order of precious metals. This helps him overcome his dismay at having promised his daughter to an unknown and unseen young man from the poor part of the city.

A picky reader might wonder why Aladdin doesn’t just short-circuit the whole process by simply expressing his wish to “possess” (p.786) the Princess directly to the jinn. Could they not sort out the whole thing with magic?

It’s never spelt out in the text, but I suspect every reader knows the answer to this, buried in their subconscious: love matters. Free will matters. It simply would not do to force love onto the Princess; it must happen as a result of the hero’s own virtues. So the specific task of the jinni is to clear the obstacles of geography and social class that might prevent the lovers from meeting. The slave of the lamp sets up the opportunity, but it’s Aladdin who must take the shot.

I think that this, in turn, gives us an insight into why we find the idea of Aladdin’s lamp so compelling. It does not simply deliver up one’s desires. Instead, it removes all the barriers to achieving those ambitions of one’s own accord. The granting of wishes offers a deeper, personal fulfilment. In our mind’s eye, we flatter ourselves that if only material things were taken care of, we would do great things.

Illustration by Brian Wildsmith
Illustration by Brian Wildsmith

Stray observations

  • Although the provenance of this tale is questionable, it’s good to see the presence of some of the familiar tropes from the mainwork, such as a brass ring on a trapdoor.
  • Aladdin asks the jinni to supply the gold and jewels demanded by the sultan. But he also asks that they are transported to the palace by a phalanx of slaves. So my question is this: where do these slaves come from? Does the jinni spirit them away from some other slave dungeon? Or does he conjure them up from nothing? If it were the former, then wouldn’t the slaves be surprised by their new surroundings? But if it’s the latter, and the jinni has the ability to create human life at the behest of his master… well, that presents some pretty profound theological questions. My mind is drawn to thoughts of Dr Manhattan from Watchmen and Elsa from Frozen—two characters that can casually create life as a by-product of physics-bending power.
  • This is a wonderful, intriguing sentence: “But magicians are so used to disasters and to events turning out contrary to their desires that all their lives they forever feed their minds on smoke, fancies and phantoms.” Baddies in fantasy stories are very often portrayed as hyper-competent and used to seeing their plans come to fruition. It is only when they encounter a (super)hero that they experience a reversal. But not so here: the magician is apparently familiar with setbacks, and when he fails to retrieve the lamp he accepts this with admirable stoicism.
  • A round of applause for Ursula Lyons use of alliteration in that sentence, too.
  • There’s a lovely description of Chinese rural areas on p. 744, where Shahrazad notes that fields owned by different people are separated by ditches rather than fences, “such was the mutual trust the inhabitants of the city enjoyed that there was no need for any other boundaries to guard against them harming each other’s interests.”
  • The magician is described as coming from Africa, “where magic persists more than any other.” This short phrase evokes a world that is changing. Magic is on the wane. It’s a nod to the decline of the old beliefs and the beginnings of modernity.
  • I laughed at this slightly robotic description of Princess Badr al-Budur on p. 760: “in a word, the regularity of all her facial features was nothing short of perfection.”
  • I had expected to include a ‘sexual metaphor watch’ entry here. But the text is surprisingly coy about Aladdin and Badur’s wedding night (p. 796)—a reminder that this text originated from Galland, not the earlier, less prudish storytellers.

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