Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) draws our attention to a story most of us are familiar with but as Persian’s ancient legend of Aladdin.
The original tale of “Aladdin” is part of the famous story collection from West and South Asia, One Thousand and One Nights, which is itself part of a Persian work from the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th centuries).
Scheherazade, married to a brutal king, saved her life for a thousand and one days by telling her husband a story every night of their marriage, but always stopping just before the dawn so that the curious king would not kill her, but let her live another day to hear the ending of the tale.
However, “Aladdin,” unlike many of the other tales in the collection, does not actually have a clear Arabic text source. Its first appearance is in the 18th century French translation by Antoine Galland who attributed the story to an oral tradition from a Syrian storyteller. Even more surprising? The original tale isn’t set anywhere in the Middle East — it’s set in China.
In the earliest version of the tale and its subsequent direct translations, Aladdin is a poor boy living with his mother when he is recruited by a North African sorcerer who claims to be Aladdin’s uncle.
The sorcerer’s true desire is to get Aladdin to retrieve a magical lamp from a hidden cave, which only Aladdin (for reasons unknown) can achieve. He gives Aladdin a magic ring as a protective talisman and sends him into a cave. When Aladdin retrieves the lamp — as well as some fruit from the gardens within — the sorcerer becomes angry that Aladdin needs his help and won’t throw the lamp to him, so he traps him in the cave.
Aladdin inadvertently releases a genie from the magic ring, who gets him out of the cave. Later, as he and his mother clean the lamp, another, more powerful genie appears. Aladdin first only wishes that he and his mother not go hungry, but in time, he sells the silver plates that the genie’s food arrives on and becomes rich.
He spots the Princess Badr al-Badour, the daughter of the sultan, and presents himself as a suitor. The sultan double-crosses them and tries to marry her to his vizier’s son, but Aladdin and the genie stop the plan and persuade the princess to marry him instead and live in a palace that the genie conjures.
The sorcerer hears of Aladdin’s rapid rise and returns. He tricks the princess into giving him the lamp and, as the genie’s new master, orders him to transport the palace and all its valuables to his home in Africa.
Aladdin summons the genie of the ring, who sends him to Africa, too. Aladdin and Badr al-Badour work together to defeat the sorcerer. Even when the sorcerer’s brother attempts to avenge him, Aladdin foils the plan, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Note: Is Aladdin Arab, Persian, Indian, or Chinese? The work, One Thousand and One Nights, was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central and South Asia, and North Africa. Some tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval: Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Mesopotamian folklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk stories from the Abbasid and Mamluk eras, while others, especially the frame story, are most probably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hezār Afsān (Persian: هزار افسان, lit. A Thousand Tales), which in turn relied partly on Indian elements.
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