Stories from the Arabian Nights

Cover of The Arabian Nights

Project Gutenberg's Stories from The Arabian Nights, by Laurence Housman
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Title: Stories from The Arabian Nights
Author: Laurence Housman
Illustrator: Edmund Dulac
Release Date: March 13, 2016 [EBook #51432]
Language: English
Produced by Madeleine Fournier. Images are from The Internet Archive. Plates are kindly provided by the National Library of New Zealand.


The Fisherman and the Genie
Additional Materials

Drawing of Scheherazade, the heroine of Arabian Nights


Scheherazade, the heroine of the Thousand and one Nights, ranks among the great story-tellers of the world much as does Penelope among the weavers. Procrastination was the basis of her art; for though the task she accomplished was splendid and memorable, it is rather in the quantity than the quality of her invention in the long spun-out performance of what could have been done far more shortly - that she becomes a figure of dramatic interest. The idea which binds the stories together is greater and more romantic than the stories themselves; and though, both in the original and in translation, the diurnal interruption of their flow is more and more taken for granted, we are never quite robbed of the sense that it is Scheherazade who is speaking - Scheherazade, loquacious and self-possessed, sitting up in bed at the renewed call of dawn to save her neck for the round of another day. Here is a figure of romance worth a dozen of the prolix stories to which it has been made sponsor; and often we may have followed the fortunes of some shoddy hero and heroine chiefly to determine at what possible point of interest the narrator could have left hanging that frail thread on which for another twenty-four hours her life was to depend.

Yes, the idea is delightful; and, with the fiction of Scheherazade to colour them, the tales acquire a rank which they would not otherwise deserve; their prolixity is then the crowning point of their art, their sententious truisms have a flavour of ironic wit, their repetitions become humorous, their trivialities a mark of light-hearted courage; even those deeper indiscretions, which Burton has so faithfully recorded, seem then but a wise adaptation of vile means to a noble end. And yet we know that it is not so; for, as a matter of fact, the "Arabian Nights Entertainment" is but a miscellany gathered from various sources, of various dates, and passing down to us, even in its collocated form, under widely differing versions. None but scholars can know how little of the unadulterated originals has come into our possession; and only those whose pious opinions shut their eyes to obvious facts can object in principle to the simplification of a form which, from the point of view of mere story-telling, can so easily be bettered. Even the more accurate of the versions ordinarily available are full of abridgement, alteration, and suppression; and if you have to eliminate Scheherazade and select your stories mainly with a view to illustration, then you have very largely done away with the reasons for treating tenderly that prolixity which in an impatient age tends to debar readers from an old classic.

And so, in the present version, whoever shall care to make comparison will find that the original material has been treated with considerable freedom in the direction of brevity, and with an almost uniform departure from the exact text, save where essentials of plot or character or local colour required a closer, accuracy. In the case also of conflicting versions, there has been no reluctance to choose and combine in order to secure a livelier result; and a further freedom has sometimes been taken of giving to an incident more meaning and connexion than has been allowed to it in the original. That is, perhaps, the greatest licence of all, but it is the one that does least harm in formal result; for no one can read the majority of the tales in their accepted versions without perceiving that, as regards construction and the piecing of event with event, they are either incredibly careless or discreditably perfunctory. We have to reckon with them as the product of a race keenly alive to the value of colour and pictorial description, but a race whose constructive imagination was feeble and diffuse, lacking almost entirely that great essential for the development of art in its finer forms - the economy of means toward ends.

But because they contain, though at a low pressure, the expression of so much life, habit and custom, so many coloured and secluded interiors, so quaint a commingling of crowds, so brilliant and moving a pageantry of Eastern medievalism, because of all these things the "Arabian Nights" will still retain their perennial charm. Those of us who read are all travellers; and never is our travelling sense so awakened perhaps, as when we dip into a book such as this where the incredible and the common-place are so curiously blended, and where Jinn and Efreet and Magician have far less interest for us now than the silly staring crowds, and the bobbing camels in the narrow streets, and Scheheraza spinning her poor thin yarn of wonders that she may share for another night the pillow of a homicidal maniac.

The Fisherman and the Genie

There was once an old fisherman who lived in great poverty with a wife and three children. But though poorer than others he ever toiled in humble submission to the decrees of Providence, and so, at the same hour each day, he would cast his net four times into the sea, and whatever it brought up to him therewith he rested content.

One day, having cast for the first time, he found his net so heavy that he could scarcely draw it in; yet when at last he got it to shore all that it contained was the carcase of an ass.

He cast a second time, and found the draught of the net even heavier than before. But again he was doomed to disappointment, for this time it contained nothing but a large earthenware jar full of mud and sand. His third attempt brought him only a heap of broken old bottles and potsherds: fortune seemed to be against him. Then, committing his hope to Providence, he cast for the fourth and last time; and once more the weight of the net was so great that he was unable to haul it. When at last he got it to land, he found that it contained a brazen vessel, its mouth closed with a leaden stopper, bearing upon it the seal of King Solomon.

The sight cheered him. "This," thought he, "I can sell in the market, where I may get for it enough to buy a measure of corn; and, if one is to judge by weight, what lies within may prove yet more valuable."

Drawing of a genie coming out of a jar

Thus reckoning, he prised out the stopper with his knife, and turning the vessel upside down looked for the contents to follow. Great was his astonishment when nothing but smoke came out of it. The smoke rose in a thick black column and spread like a mist between earth and sky, till presently, drawing together, it took form; and there in its midst stood a mighty Genie, whose brows touched heaven while his feet rested upon ground. His head was like a dome, his hands were like flails, and his legs like pine trees; his mouth was black as a cavern, his nostrils were like trumpets, his eyes blazed like torches, and his wings whirled round and over him like the simoom of the desert.

At so fearful a sight all the fisherman's courage oozed out of him; but the Genie, perceiving him, cried with a loud voice, "O, Solomon, Prophet of God, slay me not, for never again will I withstand thee in word or deed!"

"Alas!" said the fisherman, "I am no prophet; and as for Solomon, he has been dead for nearly two thousand years. I am but a poor fisherman whom chance has knocked by accident against thy door."

"In that case," answered the Genie, "know that presently thou wilt have to die."

"Heaven forbid!" cried the fisherman; "or, at least, tell me why! Surely it might seem that I had done thee some service in releasing thee."

"Hear first my story," said the Genie, "then shalt thou understand."

"Well, if I must!" said the fisherman, resigning himself to the inevitable; "but make it short, for truly I have small stomach left in me now for the hearing of tales."

"Know, then," said the Genie, "that I am one of those spirits which resisted the power and dominion of Solomon; and when, having brought into submission all the rest of my race, he could not make me yield to him either reverence or service, he caused me to be shut up in this bottle, and sealing it with his own seal cast it down into the depths of the sea.

Drawing of a man on a tower with faces of people in the clouds around him

"Now when I had lain there prisoner for a hundred years, I swore in my heart that I would give to the man that should release me all the treasures attainable in heaven or earth. But when none came to earn so great a reward in all the hundred years that followed, then I swore that I would give to my liberator earthly riches only; and when this gift also had lain despised for yet another hundred years, then would I promise no more than the fulfilment of three wishes. But thereafter finding that all promises and vows were vain, my heart became consumed with rage, and I swore by Allah that I would only grant to the fool that should release me his own choice of the most cruel form of death by which he should die. Now therefore accept that mercy which I still offer and choose thy penalty!"

When the fisherman heard this he gave himself up for lost, yet he did not the less continue by prayer and supplication to entreat the Genie from his purpose. But when he found that there was no heart left in him to be moved, then for the first time he bestirred his wits, and remembering how that which is evil contains far less wisdom than that which is good, and so falls ever the more readily into the trap prepared for it, he spoke thus: "O Genie, since thou art determined on my death, there is yet a certain thing touching thine honour that I would first know. So, by the Ineffable Name, which is the seal of Solomon, I will ask thee one question, and do thou swear to answer it truly."

The Genie was ready enough to give the oath as desired. Then said the fisherman, "How is it that one so great as thou art, whose feet o'er-step the hills and whose head out-tops the heaven—how can such an one enter into so small a vessel to dwell in it? Truly, though mine eyes tell me I have seen it, I cannot any longer believe so great a marvel."

"What?" cried the Genie, "dost thou not believe what I have already told thee?"

"Not till I have seen it done can I believe it," said the fisherman.

Thereupon, without more waste of words, the Genie, drawing his limbs together and folding himself once more in a thick veil of smoke, descended from his vast altitude into the narrow neck of the brazen vessel till not one shred or film of him remained to view. Then the fisherman with a quick hand replaced the leaden stopper, and laughing, cried to the Genie, "Choose now, thou in thy turn, by what manner of death thou wilt die."

The Genie, hearing himself thus mocked, made violent efforts to escape; but the power of the seal of Solomon held him fast, and the fisherman, ceasing not all the while to revile him for the treachery and baseness which were now to receive their due reward, began to carry the vessel back to the sea's brink. "Now," said he, "thou shalt return to the place whence I drew thee! And here on the shore I will build myself a hut, and to every fisherman that comes near I will say, 'Look that you fish not in these waters, for herein lies bound a wicked genie that has sworn to put to a cruel death whoever dares to release him.'"

"Nay, nay," cried the Genie, "I did not mean what I said! Ask of me now, and I will give you all the treasures that the world contains, or that your heart can find in it to desire, if only you will set me free!"

The fisherman, being of a mild spirit and with no heart for revenge, sat down to consider what he should do, and all the while the imprisoned Genie continued to appeal to him for compassion with loud promise and lamentation. So at last, the fisherman, having the fear of God before his eyes, after he had extracted from the Genie a most solemn vow to leave him unharmed, drew out the stopper of lead and released him.

No sooner was he out and restored to his true form than the Genie, turning himself about, lifted his foot and with his full strength smote the brazen vessel far out to sea; and the fisherman, beholding that act, began to repent him of his mercy and to tremble again for dear life.

But the Genie, seeing his fear, broke into huge laughter, and striding on ahead of him cried, "Come, fisherman, and follow me, for now I will lead you to fortune!"

Meekly at his heels went the old fisherman, and leaving behind them the habitations of men they ascended a mountain and entered upon a desert tract guarded by four hills, in the centre of which lay a broad lake. Here the Genie stopped, and pointing to a place where fish were swimming in abundance bade the fisherman cast in his net. The fisherman did as he was told, and when he drew in his net he found that it contained four fish each of a different colour, a red, a white, a blue, and a yellow: never in his life had he seen the like of them. The Genie bade him take and offer them to the Sultan, assuring him that if he did so they should bring him both fortune and honours. Then he struck the ground with his foot, and immediately the earth opened its mouth and swallowed him as the dry desert swallows the rain.

The fisherman, wondering no less at his safe deliverance than at the marvel of these occurrences, made his way in haste to the city; and there presenting himself at the palace he begged that the four fish might be laid at the Sultan's feet, as a humble offering from the poorest of his subjects.

No sooner had the monarch seen them, so strange of form and so brilliant and diverse in hue, than his longing to taste of them became strongly awakened; so, by the hand of his Vizier, he sent them to the cook to be prepared forthwith for the royal table. As for the poor fisherman, he received no fewer than four hundred pieces of gold from the Sultan's bounty, and returned to his family rejoicing in an affluence which surpassed his utmost expectations.

Drawing of a king looking at fish on a platter

The cook meanwhile, proud of an opportunity to exhibit her culinary skill on dainties so rare, scaled and cleaned the fish and laid them in a frying-pan over the fire. But scarcely had she done so when the wall of the kitchen divided, and there issued forth from it a damsel of moon-like beauty richly apparelled, holding a rod of myrtle in her hand. With this she struck the fish that lay in the frying-pan, and cried -

"O fish of my pond,
Are ye true to your bond?"

And immediately the four fishes lifted their heads from the frying fat and answered -

"Even so, the bond holds yet;
Paid by thee, we pay the debt.
With give and take is the reckoning met."

Thereupon the damsel upset the pan into the fire and retired through the wall in the same way that she had come, leaving the four fish all charred to a cinder.

Drawing of a woman pushing a pan into the fire

The cook, beholding her labour thus brought to naught, began to weep and bewail herself, expecting no less than instant dismissal, and was still loud in her lamentations when the Vizier arrived to see if the fish were ready.

Drawing of a man running after the fisherman

On hearing her account of what had occurred, the Vizier was greatly astonished, but feared to bring so strange a report to the Sultan's ears while the cravings of the royal appetite were still unsatisfied; so recalling the fisherman by a swift messenger, he bade him procure in all haste four more fish of the same kind, promising to reward him according to the speed with which he accomplished the task. So spurred, and by the additional favour of fortune, the fisherman fulfilled his mission in an astonishingly short space of time; but no sooner was the second lot of fish placed upon the fire in the Vizier's presence [Pg 11]than once again the wall opened, and the damsel, appearing as before, struck the frying-pan with her rod, and cried -

"O fish of my pond,
Are ye true to your bond?"

And immediately the fish stood up on their tails in the frying fat and replied -

"Even so, the bond holds yet;
Paid by thee, we pay the debt.
With give and take is the reckoning met."

Whereupoon she upset the pan into the fire and departed as she had come.

The Vizier, perceiving that so strange an event might no longer be kept from the royal knowledge, went and informed the Sultan of all that had occurred; and the monarch, as soon as he had heard the tale, now rendered more eager for the satisfaction of his eyes than he had previously been for the indulgence of his appetite, sent for the fisherman, and promised him yet another four hundred pieces of gold if he could within a given time procure four more fishes similar to those he had already brought on the previous occasions.

If the fisherman had been prompt at the Vizier's bidding, he made even greater speed to fulfil the royal command, and before the day was over—this time in the presence of the Sultan himself—four fish, of four diverse colours like to the first, were cleaned and laid into the pan ready for frying. But scarcely had they touched the fat when the wall opened in a clap like thunder, and there came forth with a face of rage a monstrous negro the size of a bull, holding in his hand the rod of myrtle. With this he struck the frying-pan, and cried in a terrible voice -

"O fish of my pond,
Are ye true to your bond?"

And when the fish had returned the same answer that the others had made before them, without more ado the negro overturned the pan upon the fire and departed as he had come.

When the Sultan's eyes had seen that marvel, he said to his Vizier, "Here is mystery set before us! Surely these fish that talk have a past and a history. Never shall I rest satisfied until I have learned it." So causing the fisherman to be brought before him, he inquired whence the fish came. The fisherman answered, "From a lake between four hills upon the mountain overlooking the city." The Sultan inquired how many days' journey it might be, and the fisherman replied that it was but a matter of a few hours going and returning. Then to the Sultan and his court it seemed that the old man was mocking them, for none had heard tell of any lake lying among the hills so near to that city; and the fisherman, seeing his word doubted, began to fear that the Genie was playing him a trick; for if the lake were now suddenly to vanish away, he might find his fortunes more undone at the end than at the beginning.

Yet the Sultan, though his Vizier and all his court sought to dissuade him, was firmly resolved on putting the matter to the proof; so he gave orders that an escort and camping tents should be immediately got ready, and, with the fisherman to guide, set forth to find the place that was told of.

And, sure enough, when they had ascended the mountain which all knew, they came upon a desert tract on which no man had previously set eyes; and there in its midst lay the lake filled with four kinds of fish, and beyond it stretched a vast and unknown country.

Drawing of a man looking at a palace in the distance

The End

Additional Materials

Read the complete Arabian Nights - Project Gutenberg

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