The Hero’s Journey of Aladdin in “Arabian Nights”

The story of Aladdin and his Enchanted Lamp supposedly comes from the famous collection of Middle Eastern tales The Thousand and One Nights dating back to the eight century. The story begins with Aladdin as an unruly little good-for-nothing orphan living alone with his mother in a great city. His father is dead and nothing can be done to control him. But one day a mysterious ‘Sorcerer’appears, claiming to be the dead father’s long lost brother. Aladdin’s new uncle makes a great show of taking a fatherly interest in the boy and leads the young hero out of the city to a remote spot in the shadow of a great mountain. Here a mysterious hole appears in the ground. The Sorcerer gives Aladdin a magic ring to protect him in case of trouble, and the boy is sent down into the underground cave where he finds three rooms containing a fabulous treasure, jewels and finely worked gold and silver, shining in the darkness.

But Aladidin has been instructed on no account to touch any of this. He must venture right to the back of the caves, where in a niche he will see an unprepossessing – looking old lamp. This he must bring back to the surface. When he does so, the Sorcerer turns out to be a wicked trickster. He asks Aladdin to hand the lamp up to him, but when the boy refuses, a rock closes over the entrance and the hero finds himself trapped. After three days of imprisonment in the darkness, he is just about to give up all hope when, in the nick of time, he inadvertently rubs the ring. A genie appears, who has the power to free him. Aladdin returns home, where he eventually discovers the much greater powers of the genie of the lamp. Thanks to the genie’s help, he and his mother are now able to live in comfort for some years, while Aladdin, now in his teens, is quite transformed from the feckless child he was at the start of the story, spending time in earnest conversation with travellers from afar, learning about the world.

Such is the first part of the story, which shows the hero, with the aid of newly discovered and mysterious powers, being turned from an unformed and unruly child into a serious young man on the verge of adult life.

The second stage of the story shows Aladdin falling in love, from a distance, with the most beautiful woman in the city, the Princess Badr – al – Budr, the daughter of the city’s ruler. He hardly dares think he could ever be fortunate enough to win her, and indeed for a long time it seems certain that she will marry someone else – the arrogant son of the king’s chief vizier. But eventually, with the aid of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin succeeds against all the odds in outwitting his dark rival and wins the Princess’s hand. He is tranformed by the genie into a splendid and wealthy young man, whose qualities, including his good-hearted generosity, win universal admiration. The wedding takes place; the genie constructs for Aladdin’s a palace even more magnificent than the king’s own; and, as general in charge of the king’s army, he wins a great victory over the country’s enemies. He has become a national hero.

Outwardly, by this point in the story, the young man seems to have the world at his feet. He has gone out onto the stage of the world, he has won the hand in marriage of the woman he has come to desire more than anything else, he is the most admired man in the kingdom. All might seem set for a happy, if somewhat straightforward ending to his story. But the storyteller is careful to emphasise just how much Aladdin’s success is outward. He owes everything to the genies. And for the first time there is an ominous hint of impending trouble when Aladdin boasts to his father – in – law about the magnificence of his palace. He is getting carried away by the success that has come to him too easily, and we realise that a great deal more has to happen before his story can be properly and completely resolved.

Indeed it is now that the ‘central crisis’ arrives. While Aladdin is away from the city hunting, his attention all turned to the outside world, the shadowy Sorcerer creeps back into the city in disguise, offering ‘new lamps for old’. The Princess falls for the trick and gives away the old lamp which has been the source of all her husband’s success. In the twinkling of an eye, the Sorcerer has spirited Princess and palace away to darkest Africa. Aladdin returns to the city to find his world in ruins. Not only has he lost everything that was most dear to him, but the king is in a towering rage, threathening that unless Aladdin can return everything to where it was within forty days he will be put to death.

Faced with this unprecedented crisis, not knowing where to begin, Aladdin wanders out into the desert in suicidal despair. Resigning himself to death, he inadvertently rubs the ring, still on his finger and the lesser genie appears. Aladdin appeals to him for help, and the genie says he can transport Aladdin to the place in Africa where the Princess and the palace have been taken. But beyond that he cannot help, because the powers of the genie of the lamp are too strong. From then on, it will be to Aladdin alone.

This highly significant moment marks the beginning of the second half of the story. Just when all seems lost, Aladdin is rescued; but only on the crucial condtion that, from now on, he must, in some entirely new way, learn to rely on himself and bring his own powers into play.

The new phase begins with Aladdin being carried to Africa, where he finds the Princess guarded day and night in the Palace by the dark powers of the Sorcerer. Disguising himself as a beggar (returning to the humble state in which he first begun) he enters the Palace and manages to reach the Princess, whom he supplies with a drug which she is to administer to the Sorcerer. When the Sorcerer is fallen into a state of unconsciousness, Aladdin breaks in and kills him. The monster is overcome. With the aid of the lamp, the hero then joyfully returns the Princess, himself and the palace back to China where they all belong.

Again this might seem to have all the makings of a happy ending but Aladdin now has to face a last testing ordeal, more nearly deadly than anything he has been through before, which provides the real climax to the story.

There arrives in the city the Sorcerer’s brother, bent on revenge. The dark power represented by the Sorcerer has still not been finally overthrown. Originally we saw him, eager to obtain the lamp, in the role of Predator. We then saw him defending his ill-gotten gains in Africa, as Holdfast. We now see him, transmuted as his brother but otherwise identical as Avenger.

The new Sorcerer secretly kills a famous ‘Holy Woman’of the city and, putting on her disguise, inveigles himself into the Princess’confidence. Everyon is taken in, even Aladdin, who, at the false Holy Woman’s suggestion, asks the genie of the lamp for the one thing necessary to make the palace perfect: the egg of the roc, a fabulous bird. The genie flies into a rage, saying that this is the one thing in the world it is not in his power to provide, because the roc is his mother. There is no way he can help Aladdin, apart from revealing to him that the Holy Woman is the Sorcerer in disguise. Aladdin realises the terrible danger they are all in, and that he is now completely on his own. Only by his own wits and courage can he overcome the dark power which has been arraigned against him since the beginning of the story. In a final climactic confrontation, he manages to outwit and kill the Sorcerer. Only when the dark power has thus been overthrown forever, does the awed and grateful Princess finally recognise his true worth (I confess I have never done justice to our love). They are at last truly and fully united, the king eventually dies, and Aladdin succeeds to the kingdom.

We can now see what the story was really about: the journey of a human being from unformed childhood to a final state of complete personal maturity. In the first half we see Aladdin, as he grows up from boyhood to adulthood, discovering that he has immense powers at his command, which bring him a dazzling marriage and glorious outward success on the stage of the world. But in no sense is he yet fully developed and mature; and ths is symbolized in the way he has owed everything to the genies. He becomes forgetful of this and begins to behave hubristically, showing how immature he still is. Then the great crisis erupts and he loses everything, falling into total despair. We realize that, to become a true hero, he must cease to rely unthinkingly on these mysterious powers. He must go back to the beginning again and learn consciously how to stand on his own feet, and to become master of his own fate, his own character. Only when he has tus grown fully in inner stature and become completely his own man can the dark power which in one way or another has dogged him throughout the story be finally seen through and thrown off. Only now is he liberated to become completely united with his ‘other half’; the Princess, symbolising the state of personal wholeness he has reached: and only now is he truly fitted to succeed to rule wisely and justly over the kingdom. He has reached the end of his journey.