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World Mythology Arabian Nights

In: English and Literature

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World Mythology
March 5th, 2012
Arabian Nights Essay

Fantasy our Daily Determination

The art of storytelling is the oldest and most captivating art form man has ever produced. Each and every one of us has been lead on a path by a story so unique that each path can only be traveled once with no chance of return or pause along the way. The reason these stories create a one-time offer is due to the mysterious element of fantasy that no man can ever lack or cease to exist. Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Though formal in definition the fantasy defined above is only the tip of the iceberg because fantasy can be created in one’s mind at a moments notice. Kieran Egan an education professor at Simon Fraser University states that, “fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind; it enriches children’s spiritual development, and is the most important tool for orienting ourselves to reality”(3). This quote pinpoints why fantasy stories have been with us since the start of man and why books like “The Arabian Nights” are so popular thousands of years after there first dictations. Each story read from “Arabian Nights” has different fantasy elements in it, these elements captivate us and bring us inside the stories and are exactly what we connect to, not as a form of “escapism” but to help fuel our own determination to fulfilling our own fantasies. Many of these stories are read to us while we are just children and even though we a very young and do not understand the literary connections we still are subconsciously analyzing each action as the story unfolds as our own. “The Arabian Nights” stories are not popular because they are well written and interesting but are popular because they helped form our world today, a world of individuals trying to be their own heroes striving to become successful and thus in turn have developed capitalism as the basis for our world’s economy. Stories involving fantasy can both be argued to be beneficial and detrimental in shaping our realities today, but the one thing we cannot dispute is that fantasy captivates our minds and brings us together as individuals determined to fight like Sinbad for our every want and desire.

In “The Arabian Nights” the main storyteller, Shahrazard, a woman held by the Sultan and on the verge of death every day, is able to postpone her fate each night for one thousand and one nights by entrapping the Sultan in her stories of fantasy. Although the Sultan is portrayed as a ruthless murderer who is selfish and without reason, Shahrazard uses fantasy to quell his impulses and begins to form a connection between herself and the Sultan by initiating parallels between the stories and their own realities. While reading stories from “The Arabian Nights” many people do not realize that the underlying theme is not these fantastic elements but actually storytelling in itself. In both “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” and “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” stories are told within the story by characters of the story. This aspect is very interesting and was brought to light by amateur author, Sarah Ellis, who decided to partake in a forty-eight hour reading of “The Arabian Nights” on a retreat with thirty-nine other enthusiasts. In the midst of listening to tellers’ depiction of their favorite “Arabian Nights” story, Ellis realizes that, “we are actually telling a story within a story within a story; we were storytellers telling stories about storytellers” (2). Although this seems a bit far-fetched and irrelevant it is that type of thinking that leads many readers and listeners to miss this concept. Sinbad telling stories of his voyages to the porter and the storytelling by the three ladies and visitors provides a perfect example of how people connect to stories of fantasy and use that connection to not only better understand the teller and their desires but also understand their own. In looking deeper into the stories told by Sinbad we realize that some of these stories are very similar to ancient Greek stories involving Polyphemus and Aristomenes. These allusions illustrate once again how fantasy is used again and again in the aspect that Sinbad uses past fantasy stories in his own reality, and now as we read Sinbad’s stories involving fantasy and connecting them to our own reality of everyday overcoming obstacles to obtain our own “riches”.

The use of fantasy in stories like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin and the Magical Lamp” readers learn about how knowledge and smarts can overcome power and also how courage and responsibility are essential tools for success. Each story produces different values that readers young and old can relate to. In the story of Aladdin, a poor boy comes across a magic lamp with a genie that grants his every wish until it is stolen from him, and he is then forced to fight to get back his princess and possessions. Young readers see this fantasy and, according to Egan, “learn about the positive use of stories to stimulate courage and to teach that death should not be feared” (4). These readers understand that although they will not face evil geniis’ they will face things like bullies in their own realities and have to use courage to fight for themselves. While many believe stories like Aladdin are in fact used mainly to help teach these priceless values to children, I find that it is actually the older readers who learn and connect with the fantasy elements present in these stories. As young readers we were oblivious to what happened once Aladdin became wealthy and only comprehended that wealthy equals happiness. Now as older readers we connect with the “rags to riches” and the struggle to responsibly manage coming into wealth and power. These concepts we know through our own experiences are much more complex and we relate more to the struggle than we do the wealth and power. Susan Nance, the author of “How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream”, discusses how the fantasy present in these stories became our realities through desire and want. In one example Nance states that, “the character of Aladdin, made suddenly rich by rubbing an old lamp, stood as an apt metaphor for the vast capitalist transformation, taking place in this nation,” which goes to show just how far fantasy is intertwined with our reality (31). The fact that Aladdin is just an everyday guy helps us to connect to the fantasy aspects easier, and we are able to realize that in the example above Nance is suggesting that the magic lamp is the catalyst between our realities and fantasies, but just as Aladdin had to figure out how to make it work for him as do we. Although many stories in “Arabian Nights” use big fantasy objects like magic lamps and humans turning into birds to grab our attention and convey a message sometimes the smaller elements hold just as equal value. In looking at the fourth voyage of Sinbad the sailor we learn that he is trapped in a cave and is near death. When it seems that all is lost a wild animal appears and shows him a way out to safety. Small elements of fantasy like this are often easier to interpret and remember when it comes to problems in our own lives. Many times in reality we feel trapped just as Sinbad did but when all seems lost we are giving an opportunity to find a way out. This aspect of fantasy provides an instantaneous connection we can relate to daily and shows that through all the fantasy elements in Sinbad’s stories there is always something at the center we can take away.

There is much debate when it comes to the graphic nature and the deceitful behavior displayed through fantasy by some characters in “The Arabian Nights.” Many critics argue that children should not be subjected to some of the stories in “Arabian Nights” claiming that the material could corrupt them by teaching them about lying and participating in acts of selfish greed. On more than one occasion Sinbad uses deceit to overcome his obstacles, whether its getting someone drunk so he can take advantage or killing the innocent for his own gain, he uses his ability for selfish gain. Although we condemn fantasy stories that contain this type of behavior we cannot help but to see a close parallel with the world around us. Many times we hear about power hungry leaders or millionaires lying or scamming for selfish gain. In fact we ourselves get caught up in an act of deceit or injustice to avoid a consequence or poor outcome. It is this very reason why fantasy in stories is so compelling because just like in our daily lives we relate to both good and bad. A reoccurring element in stories from “The Arabian Nights” is the overindulgence on lavish luxuries and the boasting of wealth through jewels and clothes. The riches and ornate art forms described in each story almost seem to be fantasy in itself. These constant descriptions of fantastic objects and wealth are what many readers remembered the most; “the Nights had highly excited their imaginations with vivid scenes of magical events and incredible wealth”(Nance 23). This shows just how infatuated readers became with the materialistic objects painted in words in the pages of “The Arabian Nights.” Readers soon shifted from being content in leaving fantasy as fantasy and instead trying to make these fantastic luxuries a reality. Once again the fantasy elements from “Arabian Nights” captivated readers and this time jump-started actual reality, as tourism of the regions where these stories were first told started booming and Middle Eastern objects were in high demand. A quote from Nance states, “Yet the ethos of excessive, luxurious abundance people looked for in the ideology of consumption came straight from “The Arabian Nights,” “ showing how people realized that they could actually indulge in some of the fantasy described from the stories. Now whether this indulgence should be criticized is still open for debate, but one thing it did generate was a new economic reality, consumer capitalism.

Fantasy, I believe cannot be judged or deemed as positive or negative but can only be described as our need to constantly be searching for fulfillment in taking our reality to the next level. In order to fulfill a fantasy, a journey must take place, one that contains both failures and triumphs for its both that carry equal weight in teaching us how to reach that goal. In “Arabian Nights” the fantasy elements are always related with certain signs of success like riches or power, and it’s these signs we reach along our own paths that can lead to failures and triumphs. The stories of Antigone and Oedipus, both of which contain prophecy and fate as fantasy elements, illustrate for us that each decision we make at some point will have a consequence, no matter if we are acting on behalf or good or bad. As readers the elements present in these two stories present issues we face daily with human interaction, with who to trust and where your loyalties lie. Issues similar to these is why Egan states that, “fantasy stories’ disturbing features are a healthy preparation for a life that is unlikely to lack disturbances”(Egan 2). Just as Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Oedipus, Antigone, and other characters from the stories of “The Arabian Nights” ran into obstacles so will we, and the only way to overcome these obstacles is to use your fantasy as the drive to reach your next level. Each of the stories discussed above uses an example of an individual acting in his or her owm interests in order to fulfill a want or need. This mindset some may mistake for being selfish but instead it should be viewed in a much larger sense as we answer the question, “Can these fantasy stories really shape our realities?” The mass tourism of the Middle East, the rise in demand for Middle Eastern décor, and the shift to consumer capitalism all suggest that yes, in fact the fantasy we connect with in “The Arabian Nights” has formed a true relationship with our reality. One reason Nance proposes for the tourism boost is that, “many did hope to see things that reminded them of the material abundance, formality of social relations, and the romantic beauty they read about in the stories” (Nance 34). The relationship we form at a young age with fantasy is one we remember and constantly grow whether it’s purchasing a cup carved out of a ruby like in Sinbad or its connecting to the stories of the ladies of Baghdad and their guests, both help shape our current reality.

As each story is told and translated over and over again different fantasy elements are added and subtracted giving each teller his or her unique flavor. This individualistic aspect can only be created by fantasy and its connection to who we are. Each person has their own interpretation of how each fantasy element and story pertains to them, and whether in a group reading or not, the stories in “The Arabian Nights” have held us captive generation after generation. The beautiful thing about fantasy is that it is always present in and engaged in a person no matter the age of the reader because we all want and need a connection with something bigger than ourselves. Shahrazard, the master storyteller, proves to us that once fantasy enters ones mind, one is captivated and determined to once and for all fulfill that fantasy and reach that next level.

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