Friday, April 19, 2013

History of Aladdin

Out of all the tales of the Arabian Nights, only a few are familiar with modern audiences, and out of those the most well-known would undoubtably be "Aladdin". The story was very popular among adults and children of the Victorian age as well as today. Somewhat sadly, though, the reason for this popularity can be boiled down to the fact that those tales are the least authentic.

Image from here
Arabian Nights (or 1001 Nights)  is a collection of anonymous tales, most of which were orally circulated folktales in the Middle East before being published in the collection. Certain stories, however, were most likely written by one of the French collectors and editors of the tales, Antoine Galland. Other stories that were most likely his creations are "Ali Baba" and "Sinbad," some of the few tales in the Nights average people today could actually name off the top of their heads.

These tales have no known precedents before Galland, and also bear characteristics that are closer to Western fairy tales than the other tales in the Nights. Westerners love their stories to feature protagonists of low birth and status, who find themselves part of an undeserved high destiny which includes marrying outside of their status, and ultimately overcoming their poverty. The multiple scenes and locations of Aladdin also make the story entertaining as the plot keeps changing, and therefore also well suited to the stage, where it was a popular story in Victorian times, as the public loved the spectacles of Oriental scenery and the showmanship of the magical stage tricks.

Image from here
Galland's original Aladdin story was 118 pages long, and Marina Warner calls it "one of the key works in the history of exchange between literature of the East and West." However, Robert Irwin criticizes Galland's version for being too long-winded, "hypocritical French moral didacticism," and anti-Semitic. Irwin approves of the Disney version's changes to the story, (which is an unusual academic perspective when dealing with fairy tale history, to like the Disney movie better than the original)-he said it was "less vulgar than Galland's, less obsessed with opulence, less sexist, and not at all anti-Semitic."

Warner points out one very interesting feature of the story and possibly its popularity: the issue of slavery. Aladdin finds himself in posession of a magical ring and a magical lamp, both of which have several genie slaves which then must serve Aladdin. When she first pointed this out, I was reminded of "Beauty and the Beast", and the role reversals found in each: in "Aladdin", the poor boy suddenly becomes the master of powerful slaves; in "Beauty and the Beast", the poor woman is told by a powerful male Beast that she is the mistress of his castle, upsetting gender and social status. It's not surprising to find this similar theme, which was a popular one of Galland, Villeneuve, and their French salon contemporaries.

Edmund Dulac

However, Warner also points to a connection with abolitionism. For a while, versions of the story ended with the genie slaves being freed and the villain who imprisoned them punished (as is also how the very American Disney film ends). In Warner's words, "The concept of an utterly subjugated, volitionless but powerful spirit communicates the soulless, dehumanised condition of enslavement decried by abolitionists."

*Information taken from Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

1 comment:

  1. I´ve read two versions of the 1001 nights, the first one in the Robin Hood collection, the next one an original translation, it´s a huge book I have with me right now, in English. I surely enjoyed the one I´ve read as a child more....