If you hear the name Aladdin (Arabic: علاء الدين), immediately what comes to our mind is the story of a youth and the wonderful magic lamp. Isn’t it? It is one of the best known Middle Eastern folk tale in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (“The Arabian Nights”).
The story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was not in the original collection of “The Arabian Nights”. There is no evidence among the Arabic sources for the magical tale.
Antoine Galland, a Frenchman, translated “The Arabian Nights” into french. He called his book “Les Mille et Une Nuits“. He incorporated the tale of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” in his volumes ix and x, published in 1710.
In his diary, in the entry made on March 25, 1709, Galland wrote that he met the Maronite scholar named Youhenna Diab (“Hanna”). This scholar was brought from Aleppo to Paris by Paul Lucas, the celebrated French traveller. Galland says he heard the story of Aladdin from Hanna.
According to Antoine Galland, Aladdin was a Chinese, not an Arab.
The story is set in China, and Aladdin is a Chinese youth. Most of the characters in this Middle Eastern tale are Muslims. and have Arabic names. The emperor in this tale seems more like a Muslim ruler than a Chinese emperor. There is a Jewish merchant who cheats Aladdin after buying his wares, but there is no mention of Buddhists or Confucians. This suggests that the storyteller had only a sparse knowledge of China and did not know much geography. He was unaware of the existence of the New World. To him, Aladdin’s “China” was “the Utter East” and the sorcerer’s homeland in the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) was “the Utter West”.
Some commentators suggest the story was set in Turkestan that encompasses Central Asia and the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
I believe the narrator of the Aladdin tale had without qualms used an exotic setting as a common storytelling device.
Here is the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” in a summarized form:
Aladdin, an impoverished youth, lives in a Chinese town. A sorcerer from the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) approaches Aladdin and his mother. He introduces himself as the brother of his Aladdin’s late father Mustapha the tailor. He promises Aladdin’s mother that he would set up the youth as a merchant. The sorcerer’s real motive was to retrieve a wonderful lamp from a booby-trapped magic cave with the help of young Aladdin. He lends Aladdin a magic ring for protection.
As soon as Aladdin retrieves the lamp from the cave the sorcerer double-crosses him and traps Aladdin in the magic cave.
Fortunately, the sorcerer’s magic ring is with Aladdin. When Aladdin rubs his hands in despair, he rubs the ring inadvertently. A jinnī (or “genie”) appears and takes him home to his mother. Aladdin gives the dirty lamp to his mother. When the mother tries to clean the lamp, a genie more powerful than the ring genie, appears. This genie of the lamp declares that he is bound to do the bidding of the person currently holding the lamp.
With the help of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin becomes rich and powerful. He marries Princess Badroulbadour, the Emperor’s daughter. The genie of the lamp builds Aladdin a magnificent palace more luxurious than that of the Emperor.
The sorcerer returns. Aladdin’s wife is unaware of the lamp’s importance. The sorcerer tricks her to part with the old lamp by offering to exchange “new lamps for old”.
The sorcerer then orders the genie of the lamp to move Aladdin’s palace along with all its contents, including the princess, to the Maghreb.
Aladdin gets help from the lesser powerful genie of the magic ring. The genie transports Aladdin to the Maghreb where he recovers the wonderful lamp and kills the sorcerer in battle. Aladdin then asks the genie of the lamp to move the palace along with all its contents, including the princess, back to its proper place.
The sorcerer’s more powerful and evil brother disguises himself as an old woman known for her healing powers. The princess falls for his disguise and commands the “old woman” to stay in her palace to cure anyone who falls ill.
The genie of the lamp warns Aladdin about the sorcerer in masquerading as the ‘old woman’. Aladdin slays the imposter. Aladdin succeeds to his father-in-law’s throne and everyone lives happily ever after.