final thoughts on Aladdin

The story of Aladdin is only so well know because it happens to share a title with the Disney film. Little else is similar as we’ve discussed in class. Taken on its own merit, the story of Aladdin is lacking in several ways. Its plot has compelling moments, yet drags on for long stretches (well illustrated by Katherine’s graph), the characters are not nearly as interesting as others we’ve discussed and it has this strange almost trilogy structure.

The three main conflicts of the story; the first magician and winning the princess, the return of the magician, and finally the revenge of the magicians brother are somewhat contrived. The flow from one part of the story to another is much less natural than even some of the transitions between stories from the earlier parts of the Nights. They story almost seems tacked together.

Aladdin, as a character, changes dramatically as the story progresses, yet we had a hard time finding a reason for this change within the text. Such a dramatic transformation, from disobedient child to charismatic favorite of the sultan, is worthy of close analysis, yet this story doesn’t give us much to dig into, other than to inform us that it happened.

This story does not nearly hold up when compared to other stories in the nights which contain interesting character development and interesting plot structures. I believe a reasonable explanation for this is the difference in source for this story and the stories from the “Bagdad Core.” Galland’s source for this tale is sketchy at best, he may have in fact fabricated most of it himself. It lacks the layers of stories so characteristic of earlier nights tales. At the very least this story is of much different origin from the others, if not an inferior fabrication of Galland himself.

Chinese Aladdin

It’s interesting that Aladdin is explicitly Chinese within Galland’s tale, the first appearance of Aladdin within the Arabian Nights stories, when he is so often misattributed as an Arab character outside of the tales. Before reading the story, I had no idea he was supposed to be Chinese, as my only knowledge of Aladdin is Disney’s version from the early 90’s.

I attempted to do some research to look for adaptions of Aladdin in which he and his counterparts are what they are supposed to be: Chinese, African, etc. I found very few instances. One of the coolest versions (in my opinion) is an Aladdin pantomime. Pantomimes are musical comedies that were inspired by commedia dell’arte and masques, among older theatre traditions. There were designed for families and are highly participatory productions. Pantomimes have stock characters, which are often gender-swapped, so the principal male figure is played by a female and vice versa. Aladdin is easily translatable to the pantomime because there are few characters and those that are unimportant, as is tradition within the Arabian Nights, fade out when they become superfluous.  In pantomimes the stock characters are: the principle boy/girl, the villain, the dame (usually the protagonist’s mom), and the co-principle boy/girl. In the Aladdin pantomime, originally produced in London in the late 1700’s, the stock characters within the production were easily transferred to the story of Aladdin. The dramatized version of Aladdin by John O’Keefe retained many important characteristics to Galland’s version, including the ethnicities of the characters. In this particular production of Aladdin, the cross-dressing female playing Aladdin retained her femininity. The androgyny within the play, much like in Shakespeare’s plays (with Twelfth Night coming to mind particularly), leads to erotic confusions within the pantomime. I kind of love this element of blurred genders within plays. I think it makes for really interesting theatre.

My theatre history knowledge kind of took over this post. However, in my investigations, I found very few adaptations of Galland’s Aladdin that retained the ethnicities, the setting, etc., of the original tale.

Succession Crisis

Katherine, I really appreciated the graph of your reading enjoyment, and your note on Galland’s explications of the appropriate moral perspective to be gleaned from the tale, as described by Sheherazade. The implicit parallel that she makes between Aladdin’s post-palace peril and her own post-marital peril, with Shahriyar combining the roles of the powerful magician and his murderous brother did also jolt me out of my expectations around how this tale would end. For me the swift and tidy succession explanation concerning Badroulbadour and Aladdin brought the strongest flavor of cultural anachronism to this tale: though readers of the Nights have seen a female ruler (as king) in Qamar al-Zuman, they have not yet seen a female ruler share power with a spouse.

The conclusion to Galland’s Aladdin relates––in one sentence––that the sultan’s throne passes to Badroulbadour after his death, because he has no male children and she is the lawful heir to the throne. The tale of Budour’s competent but aborted royal reign in Qamar al-Zuman–which she was compelled to assume as a king, rather than a queen––immediately come to mind as a cultural counter-example to the seemingly self-explanatory speed with which Badroulbadour’s sovereignty is established. Galland has already told us that the sultanate has been referring to Aladdin as a prince since his marriage, but in Qamar al-Zuman, the drama surrounding a princess as sovereign begins with Budur’s refusal to marry as a means of safeguarding that status. Both princesses are said to have given some part of their power to their husbands. Budur abdicates in the course of revealing her disguise, upon which Qamar becomes king, and she becomes his second wife, but once Galland’s Badroulbadour has conveyed power to Aladdin, she “reigns together” with him. This model of government may have had precedent in Galland’s Europe with Elizabeth I, William & Mary and Ferdinand & Isabella, but we haven’t read anything like it in the Nights yet.

Reading for Pleasure/Reading as Chore

So, I read Aladdin in one sitting on Saturday.  I didn’t choose to do that for any special reason – just thought to myself, “Hey, Katherine, you have a chunk of time this morning that you probably won’t have next week – why not do all this reading/notetaking today?”  What I didn’t realize was that reading the whole story at the same time would allow me to do something that I haven’t consciously done with all the other stories: track my enjoyment of the reading. Some of the other stories we’ve done are too short, or I’ve read them in chunks on different days – but the Aladdin the story was long enough that I could actively track how I was feeling about the reading the whole time I was doing it.

The only reason this even merits a mention, I think, is because usually I enjoy everything I read pretty consistently.  With Aladdin, the enjoyment I got out of the reading fluctuated up and down.  In fact, if I were to graph it, it would look like this:

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I just want to touch on the SO BOREEED section, because that’s weird for me, and I honestly spent some time wondering why I felt like that.  The whole section where everything is going well for Aladdin, and where we hear what seems like every last detail of his daily life, left me struggling to keep reading.  It probably took me twice as long to get through that as it did for me to read the other sections.  I think partially this might be due to my own expectations – I had the idea in my head from all the other versions of Aladdin I’d seen and heard that Aladdin could only get a certain number of wishes, and I expected that to cause a conflict.  Once I realized he could actually just ask for anything he wanted as many times as he wanted, I lost the sense that there was any conflict at all, (at least until the magician showed up).   And does anyone have any thoughts on how much detail we got about the palace and the parade, and especially the windows?   Why was so much time devoted to the story of that one unfinished window – to how Aladdin wanted the sultan to finish, then changed his mind and did it himself…?  I kept thinking it was going to come into play later, but it didn’t. 

The last section at the end with the second magician felt strange to me, as well.  After the saga of the first magician’s cunning plan to exchange new lamps for old ones, this second magician felt almost tacked on, and I’m wondering what his purpose was.  The first magician’s plot seemed so much more clever to me that I wonder now what the second magician really adds to the story, and how some parts of the story add up.  For example, why did the disguised magician suggest a roc’s egg be hung from the ceiling?  What would that have accomplished for him?  Why does the genie finally have something new to say only in this section of the story, other than the fact that saying something extra is the only way the genie can solve Aladdin’s problem for him?  Or was it that the second magician was trying to get the genie angry at Aladdin for making the request about the roc’s egg, and his plan just backfired miserably? 

The Ending(s)

One of the things about the Nights that most interests me is the conclusion of the frame story, because it provokes the same feelings in me that I get from any book without an ending – fascination and frustration.  Whether it’s a novel abandoned by an author before completion or a series whose author died before they could finish writing it (Austen’s Sanditon, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series), I’m always consumed by this intense curiosity of “but what HAPPENS to everybody?”

In the Nights, we don’t really know for sure the “original” ending any more than we have a true original version of the text.  The Syrian text our book is based on doesn’t have an ending, but as we saw in class on Thursday, Galland’s version does, albeit one that varies significantly in style from much of the rest of the Nights.  (As a side note, it’s interesting to me that Galland finds the frame too tedious to be included as Night breaks, but important enough to be concluded at the end, even when the source material doesn’t necessarily have a conclusion.  I wonder how effective Galland’s conclusion would be for me if I’d arrived at it after reading his entire version – I feel like I might have almost forgotten the frame!  Anyway, subject for a different post, perhaps.)

After our discussion of Galland’s ending on Thursday, I was really curious about the other ways various editions of the Nights have concluded the story, so I read one of the other articles in the back of the Norton book, Heinz Grotzfeld’s “Neglected Conclusions of the Arabian Nights: Gleanings in Forgotten and Overlooked Recensions” (starts on page 470 in the Norton).  Before reading, I hadn’t realized quite how much variety there is in the ways different editions and manuscripts close the frame story – some have Shahrazad bearing only one child, some two, some three; some don’t give her any children at all; in some, Shahrazad runs of out tales and asks for mercy; in another, Shahrayar gets bored and calls for her execution, only to change his mind when she presents him with the children she has born him. 

There was one ending in particular, though, that I thought was brilliant.  Before revealing her strategy to the king and before asking for mercy, Shahrazad uses her nightly storytelling time to start telling the story of Shahrayar, albeit with the names replaced by simple titles (“the king,” “the wazir,” “the wazir’s daughter,” “her sister.”)  Shahrazad catches on and, as Grotzfeld puts it, “comes to himself and awakens from his drunkenness; he acknowledges that the story was his own and that he has deserved God’s wrath and punishment, and he thanks God for having sent him Shahrazad to guide him back on the right way” (478). 

It may not be the original version, but I guess that’s part of the fun of a text without authors or a book without an ending – frustrating though it may be, there are still infinite possibilities left to be explored by continuators of the work.

Good, Bad, or Both?

In the article “Galland’s “Ali Baba” and Other Arabic Versions” by Aboubakr Chraibi, Chraibi describes Ali Baba as being “marginally good” compared to the other characters in the novel. Why is that? He stole, killed, and lied, what makes his crime less wrong? Chraibi says it is because Ali Baba is able to control his desires and doesn’t take much from the thieves, but he STOLE FROM THIEVES. Just because the treasure belonged to thieves doesn’t make it any less wrong. Looking back at the other tales we’ve read I found that while all the characters are duplicitous in some manner, we always deem one more ‘good’ than the others. For example, in the tale about the woman in the box, Shahrayar and his brother found pity on the demon because of his unfaithful bride. The didn’t seem to care that the demon kidnapped the woman or that he had locked her in a box. Both were wrong and deserved no sympathy from neither from the two kings nor from the readers. I’ve always been told that doing something bad doesn’t make a person bad, but shouldn’t that also be true in the reverse? Moreover, could a person be both good and bad? I don’t have an answer but they are questions worth asking.

Another post dedicated to Morgiana

To piggyback off of Jillian’s post, I am really interested in the character of Morgiana. I feel like she is one of the only women we have encountered in the text so far that has some semblance of agency. Being a slave, I originally assumed she would be a secondary character, of no more substance than her slave title allows. However, she is cunning and resourceful despite her alleged cultural oppression. She notices the markings on Ali Baba’s door and repeats them on the neighbor’s doors because she senses they mean something more foreboding. She single-handedly kills the thieves, and eventually the captain of the gang. Even with her slave status, because she’s so cunning and able, she is married off to Ali Baba’s son. Her story seems singular within the tales in relation to other women we’ve seen in the Arabian Nights. I am thinking within the tales and not the frame story, where Shahrazad is clearly an astute and resourceful female as well.

I too am curious whether there is some relation to her and Morgana from the Arthurian canon (also known as Morgene le Fay in the French cycles or Morgan Le Faye in English texts). The name Morgan derives from Morgens, which are these Breton (tales originating in Brittany, now France) and Welsh spirits that reside in water. They are known for their magical abilities, which they use to deceive and drown men. These fairy spirits were really cunning and resourceful because they had to be able to lure men into the water in order to kill them: death by drowning. In early cycles of the Arthurian tales, Morgana is no more than a supernatural being. She is given human form in versions of the tale in which she may have derived from war goddesses (Celtic) or from Modron in the Trioedd Ynys Prydien (the Welsh Triads). I am curious about the Celtic and Welsh cyclic and heroic tales, and their (possible) connections to the Arabian Nights.

On a completely different note, I mentioned a Salman Rushdie book (Haroun and the Sea of Stories) in a previous blogpost and for those of you who may read this post between now and tomorrow night, Salman Rushdie will be the keynote speaker at the Boston Book Festival this Saturday night (7pm, tickets for $10 at the door.) Consider going simply because he is a spectacular writer.