Aladdin and his Magic Lamp
How it began...
A universal tale
Aladdin and his Magic Lamp has always been my favourite story. I remember reading the story haltingly aloud at the age of four or five, after which there was no stopping. I read story after story, but always returned to my favourite. Even then, there were aspects of the story that puzzled me, like the sorcerer or uncle requiring Aladdin to descend to the cavern to fetch the magic lantern instead of getting it himself. When I was a few years older, I discovered that Aladdin had been extracted from the 1001 Nights, a collection of tales from the time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763-809 AD). Between the eighth and tenth centuries, Arab culture dominated the Mediterranean countries and so the tales infiltrated the folklore of the west.
In time, stories like Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves stood alongside Cinderella and Snow White, and still do, a tribute to their universality and power over the imagination. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explains how the various characters and situations in a fairytale are actually the different components of the psyche, running parallel with Sigmund Freud’s theories of the id, ego and superego. Davina MacKail defines these as the conscious, unconscious and super conscious. The events in a fairytale are allegories for the maturing psyche, in short, the stages involved in personal growth and growing up. From this point of view, I decided to explore the way these components work in the tale of Aladdin.
A teenage layabout...
Getting away from the parents
Once, in ancient China, the widow of a tailor called Mustapha had a son named Aladdin. Instead of following his late father’s trade, the young man preferred to hang about the streets with his friends; the original dissolute teenager. Aladdin does have big dreams, however. He has caught a glimpse of the beautiful Princess Badroulbadour in a street procession and is determined to win her heart. One day, a stranger announcing himself as Mustapha’s brother arrives at Aladdin’s home and offers to set the young man up in business. This is first stage of Aladdin’s growth, that is, getting away from the parental home.
The uncle takes Aladdin to a wilderness and knocks a stone in the ground with his rod. The stone rolls away to reveal steps leading to an underground cavern. The uncle tells Aladdin to descend the steps, find the lantern at the heart of the cavern and to bring it to him. He warns the young man not to let his robes touch the walls of the cavern or to dawdle on the mission. He gives Aladdin a ring to protect him. On the way down, Aladdin is enchanted with the riches that surround him, and he stuffs his pockets with jewels. When he finally finds the lamp, the uncle calls for him to hurry and bring it to him.
Unconscious and superconscious
Here, Aladdin is faced with a choice. He could simply ascend the steps and hand the lamp to his uncle, then return to the family home and squander the proceeds of the jewels he has gathered. However, Aladdin has the wit to know that if the lamp is so desirable for his uncle, then its powers must be available to him, Aladdin. This is the second stage in his personal growth. He refuses to ascend the steps, and the angry uncle replaces the stone and traps him underground. Here, Aladdin learns that growth does not come without pain or sacrifice.
Many writers have dismissed Aladdin’s uncle as a greedy sorcerer who just wants to get his hands on the lamp, but I believe his place in the story is much more profound. A “real” sorcerer would have gotten the lamp and its power for himself, without the help of an adolescent, nor would he have given the youth a protective token. I believe that the uncle is Aladdin’s dark twin, dark in the sense of unknown, the youth’s burgeoning consciousness. The uncle’s guiding Aladdin to an underground place is actually an admonition for him to dig deeper, that is, to look into his subconscious for the knowledge and power he needs to survive and thrive in life. Aladdin’s refusal to hand over the lamp is a rejection of superficiality in favour of real treasures. Alone in the dark, Aladdin inadvertently rubs the ring his uncle has given him. The geni of the ring appears and offers Aladdin one wish.
The youth asks (an appeal to the superconscious) to be taken to his mother. He is promptly returned to the family home, where the delighted widow takes the lamp from her son. Preferring bright and shiny to old and grimy, the widow rubs the lamp and another, more powerful geni appears, offering Aladdin a second wish. He grants Aladdin all the wealth the youth needs to impress the Emperor and win the hand of the princess. On succeeding, Aladdin places his bride in a splendid palace. It has all seemed too easy and good to be true – and for Aladdin, it is.
The moribund marriage
Folktales often seem misogynistic, abounding with wicked stepmothers and stupid little girls who seem all too ready to kiss frogs and tell wolves where their grandmothers live. However, the role of gender in fairytales is much misunderstood. More than in any other kind of fiction, folktales need duality, that is, dichotomies of light and dark, good and evil, new and old. The gender split is often used to emphasise the differing strands in our personalities and the contradictions in our nature and behaviour. In the second half of the story, Princess Badroulbadour displaces the widow as the less developed part of Aladdin’s nature. In her favouring of bright and shiny over old and tarnished, she places the lamp in the hands of a disguised uncle, and receives a worthless bauble in return. The uncle then uses the geni of the lamp to transport the princess and the palace to Mahgreb. Interestingly, the uncle does not harm the princess, which he could easily have done.
Both Aladdin and his princess have yet to learn to value each other. In his absence, she carelessly gives away the source of his power. Perhaps he has reverted to his former way of life, albeit in heightened social circumstances, carousing with his friends and neglecting his bride? Perhaps, like many husbands, he really wishes to consign the princess “to Mahgreb”? The failure on his part to treasure his marriage almost costs him his life. When the princess vanishes, the Emperor has Aladdin thrown into prison and condemned to death. Aladdin now faces a third test. He can simply succumb to fate or take responsibility for his mistake. He chooses the latter path, the third stage in his growth. He summons the genii of the ring, who transports him to where his bride and uncle are. In the confrontation, Aladdin retrieves his lamp and bride, and defeats the uncle. Here, he is actually casting aside the adolescent part of himself, has passed three tests and now achieved maturity.
In the longer term, he becomes Emperor of his father-in-law's kingdom. In fighting with and defeating the darker facets of his personality, Aladdin has achieved maturity, personal happiness and autonomy. There are many more fascinating allegories in fairytales and folktales and I look forward to exploring these.
Sources and references
The Dream Whisperer by Davina MacKail, Hay House
The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, Penguin Books