The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
Son of a poor tailor
Aladdin (pronounced uh-LAD-in) appears in the collection of stories known as The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (or the Arabian Nights). Legends from Europe to China often contained characters like Aladdin, that is, ordinary people who came into possession of magical devices and used them to gain wealth and power. Aladdin's magical tools were a ring and a lamp that controlled supernatural beings known as génies.
Aladdin was the lazy, irresponsible son of a poor tailor. A sorcerer, or wizard, tricked him into entering a treasure-filled cave to seize a magical lamp. Before Aladdin went inside the cave, the sorcerer gave him a ring that would protect him against evil. Aladdin found the lamp, but he refused to give it to the sorcerer until he was outside the cave. The sorcerer blocked the entry to the cave, imprisoning Aladdin within.
Through a series of accidents, Aladdin discovered that rubbing the ring brought forth powerful génies, or magic spirits who take human form and serve the person who calls them. The génies released him from the cave. He also discovered he could summon them by rubbing the lamp. The génies offered to fulfill Aladdin's every wish. He asked for, and received a magnificent palace and the permission to marry the sultan's, or king's, daughter.
The sorcerer, meanwhile, was determined to gain control of the magic lamp. He tricked Aladdin's wife into exchanging the lamp for a new one, and then commanded the genie of the lamp to move Aladdin's palace to Africa. In time, Aladdin and his wife defeated the sorcerer and recovered the lamp. Then they had to prevent the sorcerer's wicked younger brother from seizing it. After various adventures, the couple returned home where Aladdin became sultan and lived a long and happy life.
Aladdin in Context
Although Aladdin's tale comes from Arabic culture, the story actually takes place in a mythical city in China. China was considered an exotic and mysterious place where unusual things could happen. People in ancient cultures often believed that such faraway lands were home to magical creatures and treasures, such as the special lamp that Aladdin finds.
The story of Aladdin has an interesting history. Recent scholarship has shown that Aladdin was not actually one of the original characters in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The original tales were versions of Arabic, Persian, and Indian stories that had changed over time and had been adapted by different storytellers for different audiences. The oldest mention of the text containing the tales dates to about the ninth century. The earliest existing manuscript, a Syrian version, dates to the fourteenth century—and contains no mention of Aladdin. By the sixteenth century, Egyptian versions of the text do contain an Aladdin story, but its origin is uncertain. The Western world was introduced to the tales in an early eighteenth-century French translation by Antoine Galland, who used the Syrian version as his source. Nineteenth-century editions combined stories from both the Syrian and Egyptian versions and included the Aladdin story. The folklore and fairy tales of Europe were enjoying increased popularity at the time (the Mother Goose stories and fairy tales of the Grimm brothers appeared in the nineteenth century), so Aladdin and the other tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights were greeted enthusiastically and remain popular to this day.
Key Themes and Symbols
The interactions between Aladdin and the sorcerer are very much like other trickster tales found in cultures around the world. The sorcerer is a trickster character, willing to deceive Aladdin and trap him in a cave in order to get the magical lamp. Aladdin himself is a trickster, however, and cleverer than the sorcerer realizes. Aladdin also represents the power of a person to determine his future through his own actions, a stark contrast to many mythical tales about the gods foretelling a person's future path in life.
Aladdin in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The story of Aladdin has proven to be one of the most popular Arabic tales ever told. In addition to appearing in translated form around the world as part of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, the tale is often told on its own in children's books or in staged productions. The story of Aladdin has been filmed on numerous occasions, with the 1992 Disney animated production Aladdin being the most well-known movie version of the tale.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
An ancient proverb warns: “Be careful what you wish for—you might get it.” Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research fairy tales and myths that show the negative consequences of a wish fulfilled. Compare these mythical situations to your own life: have you ever been “burned” by getting exactly what you wished for?
The story first became a pantomime in England in 1788; in 1861 H. J. Byron's dramatization established what are now some of the main pantomime features. Aladdin's mother was named Widow Twankay (see Widow Twankey), and the magician who tries to steal the lamp was named Abanazar.
Aladdin's cave is a cave full of treasures revealed to him by a magician; shut inside by the magician, he escapes with the aid of a magic ring (which summons the Slave of the Ring) and returns to his mother with the lamp which he has found in the cave. They find that rubbing Aladdin's lamp summons a powerful genie, the Slave of the Lamp, who has the power to grant any request.