And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of the day, and ceased saying her permitted say. Then quoth Dunyazad, “O my sister, how pleasant is thy tale, and how tasteful, how sweet, and how grateful!” She replied, “And where is this compared with what I could tell thee on the coming night if the king deign spare my life?”
With the stage now set for Shahrazad to tell her stories to save her life, The Thousand Nights and One Night opens with tales of naive traders, wrathful jinnis, murderous wives, and magical brides-to-be.
The format of the stories often go quite ‘meta’, that is becoming a story within a story within a story (I found myself reading a story about Shahrazad reciting a story about a chieftain telling a story about how a girl told him how he ended in so much trouble at one point). This is part of the charm and beauty of this multi-layered tome. It never really “ends”, much like Michael Ende’s Never-Ending Story. Like King Shahryar, we are compelled to continue to the next section or chapter to get the conclusion of Shahrazad’s fabulous tales.
Her technique is quite effective.
As always, there must be some allowance given to the text (not the translation itself) for the “treatment” of women and people of color. This story dates back to the 1300s, and that the women––in particular––have this much autonomy is quite astounding. Their ability to make decisions, control their fate (to an extent), and in many ways be the driving force of the story (for good or ill) makes them stronger, as pieces of fiction, than nearly two decades of film out of Hollywood after the induction of the Code. In many ways, the writing reminds me of classical Eastern literature. But, since I’ve enjoyed Story of the Stone and The Tale of Genji so much, it’s no surprise that I’m really enjoying this, too. Of course Burton’s copious notes are helping with that.
In any case, on to the stories!
The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni
The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni take up the first three nights for Shahrazad, fulfilling the crucial function of hooking King Shahryar into wanting to hear more.
While a truly in-depth summary of the tale can be found on Faith’s post at Beyond the Dreamline, I’ll offer one in brevity here.
A rich merchant, taking respite under a tree in the desert, accidentally throws the seed of a date so hard and at such an angle that it crushes the chest of an Ifrit’s son, killing him instantly. Burton mentions here that there was actually a saying in those parts of an inwá, a peculiar “jerking of the date-stone, which makes it strike with great force”. Well, Goliath was brought down with a pebble.
In any case, the Ifrit demands retribution by way of the merchant’s own life, and will not be appeased or deterred. In the end, the Jinni does agree to give the merchant a full year to liquidate his estate and say his farewells. And the honorable man that he is, the merchant returns to the very same tree a year later, on New Years, to meet his fate.
Lonely as he is, waiting for the dilatory Jinni, the merchant soon finds himself in a panic and begins crying. It is just then that a chieftain, a Shaykh, comes across him. He has in tow a gazelle, and after hearing the merchant’s predicament, offers to stick with him, both to witness the outcome of the strange story, and to provide comfort.
Yet, before the Ifrit shows up, two more elders arrive, one with two dogs at his heel, and the last with a “she-mule with a bright bay coat”. All offer the same as the first, and at this moment, the Ifrit finally arrives, “in hand a drawn sword , while his eyes were shooting fire-sparks of rage.”
“Arise that I may slay thee, as thou slewest my eldest son, the life-stuff of my liver.”
Another interesting note Burton leaves here is that in the Middle East, the liver was considered the center of passion in the body, so that quote might make a little more sense!
Before the merchant can be sliced into pieces, however, the three merchants rise to his aid, each asking (in turn) for a third the merchant’s blood share if they can impress the genie with the story of the animals in their care. The Jinni agrees.
The first Shahkh explains that the gazelle is actually his sorcerous wife (and first cousin through his uncle) who was cursed to have this form after turning his slave-concubine and son by her into a heifer and a calf, and half-succeeding in getting him to slay them to Allah. All of this after he had been married to her happily for 30 years, but had “no issue” by her. (One wonders why…)
The Ifrit admits that is a very strange story indeed, and so the second Shaykh takes the stage. His reveal is that the two dogs are his ungrateful brothers, who after receiving 1,000 dinars from him three times decided to throw both him and his new wife off a boat in the middle of the night. Luckily for this Shaykh his new wife was actually a benevolent Ifritah (which Burton notes are not always instruments of evil… so score one for women! 😛 ) who saved him.
Despite his ill treatment by his brothers, the Shaykh begs his wife not to kill them (the one-stop solution for most of the Jinnis in the story). In the end, it is the ifritah’s sister who dishes out the punishment, condemning the brothers to the form of dogs for ten years, which has consequently just concluded, and is why the second Shaykh is in the desert to begin with.
This too, the Ifrit admits, is a very strange tale, and now two-thirds of the blood-share down, the third Shaykh takes his turn, with what I personally think is the weakest of the three stories (but hits the closest to home for King Shahryar). After finding his wife in bed with a black slave, the third Shaykh’s wife turns him into a dog. Unluckily for her, he quickly finds a reversal of fortune at the home of the butcher, where his daughter (also mysteriously versed in the art of magic) not only turns him back into a man, but gives him the means to punish his wife––and so he now has the she-mule, which signs and nods is the case, when the Jinni questions her.
The Jinni finds this absolutely wondrous, and gives up the ghost, allowing the merchant and the three Shaykhs to return to their respective cities.
But, it is only the beginning of the third night, so Shahrazad needs to hook the King into another story too good to not hear the end of. She dangles the “wondrous” tale of the Jinni and the Fisherman in front of the King, and predictably, he can’t help but want to know what makes it so much more interesting than the tale previous….
The Fisherman and the Jinni
The story of the Fisherman is one of the best loved tales of the Thousand Nights, and is also quite long, with several stories embedded within. Again, the tale is very thoroughly and eloquently summarized on Beyond the Dreamline in two parts (read part one here, and part two here). It takes up nights three thru eight.
An old fisherman who dutifully casts his net exactly four times a day is having some pretty terrible luck. While it goes without saying that sometimes there are simply no fish to be had, he is is worried that he will have to go home hungry after netting himself a dead jackass, a jar full of mud, and then pot shards and broken glass. Each time before these catches he has praised the mercy of God, but by now he is begging, with sour tongue, that his last draw of the day produce something valuable, or at the very least, edible.
As Allah tends to do in these black moments of the story, the prayer is answered. On the fourth and final draw of the net, the old fisherman discovers a “cucumber-shaped jar of yellow copper (brass) with a leaden cap, stamped with the seal-ring of Lord Sulayman (Solomon) son of David. Wanting to sell it in market, the fisherman opens the cap and dips the bottle out… only to find that wherein was contained a Jinni as tall as the sky is high.
The Jinni promptly tells the fisherman that he is going to kill him, but the old man may decide how he will die (I would personally at this point say ‘of the oldest age of any in the country’, but hey, that’s just me.) The fisherman, obviously vexed that death is his reward for freeing the Jinni entreats the giant to reconsider. He won’t, citing that if the fisherman had only come a couple hundred years earlier, he might of gotten a bounty of riches. As it stands, the fisherman answered the call that promised imminent death. His loss.
The fisherman turns to cleverness.
Much like Gretel asking the witch how the oven works, the fisherman asks the Jinni how it is a giant being like himself ever fit into such a small pot. The Jinni can’t help but show off the skill of the move, and turns into smoke to show the fisherman how it is done. Obviously the fisherman immediately caps the container again.
All’s fair in love and war. And death threats.
The Jinni immediately changes tactics, and tries to silver-tongue his way back to freedom, but the fisherman is the wiser, and says the Jinni cannot be too unlike the Wazir that caused the death of Sage Duban.
The Jinni goes, “Who?” and so the fisherman relates the story:
The Tale of the Wazir and the Sage Duban
Once upon a time, there was a sultan who was stricken by leprosy that not even the sultan’s most gifted physicians could heal. However, there was a sage by the name of Duban, who knew much of many arts (including “leechcraft”), and after careful meditation devised a way he might heal the ruler.
He promptly goes to the palace, explains his plan, and the king, relieved, gives him rein to work his proverbial ‘magic’. Duban uses the medicinal wood of a polo stick, and tells the sultan to play this game until his skin is so soaked that it becomes imbibed with the drug. The king does this, afterward taking the order to bathe, and lo and behold! he finds himself free of his leprosy. He rewards the sage handsomely.
But the Wazir, envious of the sage’s treatment, immediately accuses Duban of plotting to murder the sultan. The sultan refrains, at first, in simply accepting the Wazir’s council and calls him out on his jealousy, making an allusion to the story of King Sindibad and his Falcon. So, we go ‘deeper’, with another segue into:
King Sindibad and his Falcon
This is a tale with many incarnations in India, the Middle East, and even upwards through Europe. Most people have probably heard some version of it at some point.
The story starts with King Sindibad, who heartily enjoys the relationship with his falcon, going hunting for gazelle. When his party corners one, he warns that any who let it free will be slain–yet the creature makes to kiss the earth before him, and when he bows in acknowledgement, she kicks off her hind legs and jumps clean over him. Obviously the rest of the hunting party is quick to remind him that ‘thou didst proclaim that whoso alloweth the gazelle to spring over his head shall be put to death.’
The king promptly goes to find the damned gazelle.
He does get his catch, but finds himself thirsty afterward, and pulls a cup that was attached to his falcon up, to first offer the bird a drink from the dew of a tree branch. The falcon flips the cup over violently, even when the king repeats it again for the bird, then for the horse, and finally for himself. Furious, Sindibad strikes the falcon’s wing clean off.
Only then does the falcon toss its head to draw attention to what is creating this miraculous water flow down branches: a nest full of vipers!
Horrified, the king ignores his thirst and goes straight home, but unfortunately, right after he finally relaxes and orders the gazelle to be cooked for dinner, the falcon dies.
And yet, this tale is still not enough for the king to make his point, so he launches into another anecdotal story (the Wazir does not even get the chance to speak between them):
The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot
Far shorter, and easily summarized, The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot starts with a man, who has just married a comely wife, buying a parrot to watch her every move while he is on a trip abroad. The bird functions like a duenna (a governess), never forgetting all she hears and sees.
Well, naturally, the wife has taken a Turkish lover, and while her husband is away, she lays with him every night. Upon his return, the parrot spills all, and the merchant beats his wife “severe enough for anyone”. Again, he goes away, and the wife, upon discovering that it was the parrot who betrayed her, has her servants distract the animal with flashing metal and grinding stone.
When the merchant again returns, the parrot says that she could not hear or see a thing, on account of a terrible storm of lightning and thunder–but, it being the height of summer, the merchant thinks the bird has lied about all. The merchant promptly dashes the poor feathered animal against the floor of his home, killing it.
A servant later admits the whole truth, and then once the merchant sees his wife’s Turkish lover leaving her chambers, he kills both him and his cheating wife. Forever after he mourned the bird.
Here, the Wazir finally interjects, and promises that all he has said is for the king’s own good. Now, it is his turn to relate a story that shows his good faith:
The Tale of the Prince and the Ogress
This being a very short (one-page) segue, The Tale of the Prince and the Ogress is more ‘on point’ with the Wazir’s needs. In the story, a prince is misled by his Wazir to become lost in the desert. While there, he happens across a girl who claims to be a princess separated from her party. Decent and kind, the prince takes pity on the woman, and leads her on his horse.
At the site of some ruins, the woman begs to relieve herself, which he allows, but she is gone so long that he worries she is dawdling. Following her, he discovers she is a Ghúlah, an ogress, and she is plotting to feed him to her children.
So petrified he can’t move fast enough to get away, eventually the ogress returns to his side. Noting his supreme terror, she asks him what is wrong. He vaguely suggests that there is a foe out for his life. She advises him to pray to Allah to conquer his foe (oddly) and he does so–and no sooner does he finish his prayer does she turn away from him, and he is free to go back to his father and rat out the wazir, for the good of all.
Strangely, this tale doesn’t make the king more suspicious of the Wazir, but rather sways his feelings on Duban. He summons Duban to stand before him. Duban is obviously confused to learn he is being summoned so that sultan can behead him, and begs the king to speak of whatever ill he has committed. Much like the fisherman and the jinni, the sultan will not be swayed, even at the warning that should he kill Duban, surely Allah will kill him, too.
The sultan, unfazed, orders the executioner to prepare Duban for beheading. Duban recites a string of curses (I think more to force his will to fruition than for the verse), before decrying the sultan for giving him nothing but crocodile-boon.
But what is that story? the sultan asks.
Well– no, just kidding. Duban refuses to utter a word of the tale unless he is removed from the block.
This, unfortunately, does not give him the same outcome as our heroine. The sultan doesn’t care enough about the story and orders the beheading to continue. Duban again and again repeats his curse, until at last he sees there is no hope for it, and begs enough time to settle his affairs. If this is done, he says, he will gift the sultan a magical book that will enable his detached head to answer any questions the sultan may have.
The sultan, gullible as a guppy, agrees to this, and once Duban makes his many preparations and explains how to place his head on a tray, the execution is carried out. The sultan follows these instructions, opening the book as he was told, three times, but needing to lick his finger to turn the pages, which are quite stuck together.
Oddly, there is nothing written in the book. Duban’s animated head tells the sultan to keep turning pages…. but this is a trap: the book has been laced with poison, and Duban gets his revenge.
The sultan drops dead.
And here Shahrazad concludes (though I would have concluded just before, given what’s on the line!), leaving the sub-stories concluded, but not the tale of the fisherman and the jinni, which King Shahryar is still keen to hear, thus sparing his clever bride another night.
And so we walk into the sixth night––next time.