There is some debate on the origins of the fairy tale of Aladdin. It is commonly believed to be one of the stories Scheherazade tells in One Thousand And One Nights. I certainly thought it was. The copy I had growing up was definitely in a compilation of Middle Eastern stories including Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and the Sinbad stories, so I naturally assumed it was. I did a little research on this for this post and a few writers agree that it is a Chinese tale in origin. Jason Weiser at Bardic explains (in episodes 2A and 2B of the Myths and Legends Podcast) that the tale is originally set in China, but a fictional China, not the China we would automatically assume. So maybe it is an Arabic story after all? Disney definitely has a distinct part to play in people’s perception to the origins of this story, setting their version in a fictional Arabic city called Agrabah. Fairy tales have common threads globally, for example Cinderella finds its earliest incarnation in Chinese folklore, so perhaps, this story being so archetypal in nature, has its own version in many oriental/middle eastern cultures and this Arabic inspired version is the one that has become popularised.
At the very least the tale has Islamic and Arabic features such as Sultans and Genies and is quite easily pictured in a Middle Eastern setting. I want to say that Aladdin has always been a favourite of mine, but then, I seem to say that for every fairy tale I discuss and it’s actually hard to find a fairy tale I don’t like… Aladdin definitely drew me in as a kid. There were at least two Halloweens where I was Princess Jasmine, in a Disney style costume my mom made me and for my 6th birthday my dad made me a Genie cake. Thanks for the photo Dad. I watched the Disney version almost as much as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid (and I wore those tapes out). Who didn’t love Robin Williams’ zany Genie?
The original is quite different from the Disney version, which again I feel like I shouldn’t have to say anymore. The original story is still, in essence, a rags to riches story like the Disney version. Main differences in the text are the presence of two genies (the Genie of the Lamp and the Genie of the Ring) that Aladdin has at his disposal, Aladdin starting the story not as an orphan but as a lazy merchant’s son who refuses to get a job, and his quest to gaslight the princess and her new husband into annulling their marriage. Aladdin is an ultimate Trickster character, using trickery, lies and magic to get everything he wants and his happy ending.
In the original, Aladdin himself isn’t really that like-able a character. Everything gets handed to him on a silver platter and he almost never has to work for anything. He never even learns lessons from his bad behaviour as his laziness is rewarded with the gift of magic (so he never has to work), as I said, Aladdin gaslights the Princess, and then guilt trips the King for failing to follow through on his promises only to have the Princess fall in love with him anyway. He routinely uses the genies’ magics to show off and when he loses his power over the Genie of the Lamp he murders the Magician who tricked the Princess into giving him the Genie’s lamp before he takes it back. When the Magician’s brother arrives to hold Aladdin accountable Aladdin murders him too. By the end of the story you’re half cheering for the Magicians.
This weekend my mom is taking me to see Aladdin the Musical and I am so excited. I’ll let you know next weekend how it was, but I’m expecting it to be awesome. It’s the Disney version so it should be the mild version most kids know and love, not the slaughter-y dark tale I discussed above. The promo pictures are super colourful and there’s obviously a lot of dance numbers which will appeal to the dancer in my heart. Road trip time!