Friday, September 14, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - II

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. —Albert Einstein

Bitter Endings

The earliest account of the successful use of wishes comes from "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" as told in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Asian folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. A fragment of the manuscript has been dated from the early 9th century, so Aladdin, or Ala-ed-Din, must have lived prior to that. The first translation in 1709-10 was by Frenchman Antoine Galland, but no record of an Arabic version has survived. In 1850, family canon prospect Sir Richard Burton, who, as an adventurer and sage, was every equal to Ala-ed-Din, produced a more elaborate version from Egyptian manuscripts.

Let me add here, in order to avoid confusion, the 1992 movie titled "Aladdin" follows only loosely the basic form of the manuscript. Disney's magic lies in making and marketing wonderfully entertaining movies, not in telling accurate histories. To be specific, there is no three wish limitation, and the 'rules of wishes' added in the movie are, at best, superficial as we will discover.

The story takes place in an Islamic 'China', so it may have been Turkestan. The wishes are mainly for transportation and riches. There is never a problem with fulfilling the wishes, but we do learn of a hierarchy of wish granters. The wish granters, in this case, are Marid, the most powerful type of djinn or jinn. Jinn are beings composed of smokeless flame from a parallel world. (See Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality.) (Also see "Desires from fires" in previous episode.) A dusty lamp summons a jinni who grants wishes of great power and breadth, while a ring summons one who apparently can only grant wishes of teleportation. We also learn that a lesser quality wish can not directly undo any wish of the more powerful variety.

So even in our first encounter with wishes, we learn that these agents, and thus the wishes themselves, are committed to an ontology that must be consistent—apparently to the parallel world from whence they come. While, in our world it may appear as magic, we must remember that these wishes are simply following the ontological principles of a parallel world. This, of course, raises many questions. Do all parallel worlds have consistent laws of nature or can these laws change over time or at whim? What are the consequences in our world when disturbed by the ripples of wish fulfillment? Can we determine the ontology of wishes, and, perhaps most important, is there an optimal wish strategy?

The story of the wonderful lamp happens to be one of the few accounts revealing the judicious use of wishes. The tale does not end in sorrow. Other than when the vizier steals the lamp, the only threat is when Ala-ed-Din, by the request of the evil vizier's brother, wishes for an egg of the roc to be hung in the palace. For some mysterious reason this is a sacrilege against the jinni's master, and he nearly burns Ala-ed-Din and his wife to a crisp and scatters their ashes to the winds. He hesitates only because he knows it was requested by the vizier's brother. Apparently, the jinni, at some level, may exercise his own free will in granting wishes, or, at a minimum, interpret them as he best sees fit.

One further conundrum is the wish for maids and slaves. At one point forty are wished for and easily supplied. Another time more are needed when Ala-ed-Din presents himself to the sultan, and a third time when his newly desired palace is supplied with horses and help. Do these humans turn up as new beings, starting life at, say, sixteen? Do they come from a parallel world? Or are they existing persons suddenly swept away from former lives to new circumstances? There's no mention of confusion as the slaves orient themselves to their new surroundings and duties. In the interest of parsimony and Occam's razor, I suspect the jinni instantaneously and expeditiously inquired of dozens of nearby poor and destitute, of which there appeared to be an inexhaustible supply, if they wanted to serve as maids and slaves. Times as they were, I suppose few would hesitate.

Moving on to the record of "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm, we get our first glimpse of problems that arise when the rules of being in our world collide with the rules of being in another. This is the first time we see that wishes will often result in the exact same existential topography as if none were granted in the first place. It is beyond the scope of this document to recount the story, but if you have not read and studied "The Fisherman and His Wife", you are at a distinct disadvantage in a) understanding what follows and b) having a successful wish experience. It has been called the "double slit experiment" of wish fulfillment.

About this time we also find the emergence of another curious trend: the wish triad. Agents begin granting wishes in threes. This paradigm appears over and over and over again lending evidence to the mystical nature of wishes. In particular we find many accounts of a recurrent schematic of (1) sausages, (2) sausages at the end of one's nose (3) reality reset prior to the appearance of sausages (or, in fact, of the wishes themselves). If "The Fisherman and His Wife" is the double slit experiment, "Three Wishes" along with its various names in numerous countries ("The Ridiculous Wishes", "The Sausage, "The Woodman's Three Wishes", etc.) is the standard model.

Sometimes the three wish matrix can have devastating effects, as when a bottle is found, and a wish is granted to each of three people stranded on a desert island. One wishes his way back home to Zanzibar, the next to Katmandu, and the third, feeling lonely, wishes he had his friends back.

The consistency of unfortunate consequences and bitter endings with regards to three wishes leads many to believe that wishes in this form are a curse rather than a blessing. See "The Monkey's Paw". As enticing as it sounds, try to avoid any encounter which may result in receiving three wishes.

It should be noted that wish granting agents are not always jinn. In "The Fisherman and His Wife" it is a talking fish. (See "Wishes from fishes" in previous episode.) In fact, whenever you encounter a talking animal, there is an excellent chance you are entitled to free wishes. It's best to maneuver yourself into a position where you can avoid the three wish dole. Often capturing the animal or in some way threatening it to within an inch of its life, will give you your best negotiating strategy.

Talking fish are fairly common and reliable wish benefactors. Fish survive under water where one can not talk, but must come out of the water into an inhospitable environment to talk. Thus, it's a strenuous and perilous task for them. They can be trusted.

Apart from jinn and talking animals, under the right circumstances you could receive wishes from elves, fairies, mermaids, and even dragons, if you can locate one. However, in general, smaller is better when looking for wish granters. Most common by far is "a little black manikin" also called a dwarf. As most accounts are translations, it's difficult to tell what is being referenced, but I suspect they are gnomes. Best avoid wishes from witches or demons, unless you have thrashed them to within a inch of their lives. The most powerful and trustworthy wishes come from God and St. Peter, but you will rarely find them traveling in the East. Many objects, especially talismans, may provide wishes. Amulets do not, but may be inscribed with charms of a defensive nature. Anything old is not above suspicion, but rings, lamps, wands, shoes, cloaks, tinderboxes, any type of containers including knapsacks (and thermos bottles), and vegetables may contain wishes of one form or another. Even bakery goods can be a source of wishes, but don't bother with dairy products.


Big Myk said...

I'm fascinated by the total lack of moral judgment in the Ala-ed-Din story. If you follow Jim's link, you will find that Aladdin was hardly deserving of the good fortune that ultimately flowed his way. According to Sir Richard Burton, Aladdin was a "ne'er-do-well, a scapegrace." His father tried to teach him his trade of tailoring, but Aladin would sneak off and just idle away his hours. Indeed, "counsel and castigation were of no avail, nor would he obey either parent in aught or learn any trade." Eventually, Aladdin's father died "for his sadness and, sorrowing because of his son's vicious indolence." Aladdin's mother was forced to take up spinning yarn to support herself and Aladdin. He, however, did nothing to contribute to the household income and would only show up at mealtimes.

Quite a bit of intrigue and magic follow, but it can hardly be said that Aladdin is punished for his irresponsible behavior.

Let's compare this to European folk stories. The one I have in mind is from the Brothers Grimm, called "The Stubborn Child." It has the virtue of being short and I will reproduce it in full.

Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.

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Big Myk said...
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Big Myk said...

I hope this survey eventually gets to one of the great books of all time: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. The title comes from an apparently erroneous translation of Chuang Tzu: "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven." I hate to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the book is about a man who can change reality by his dreams. It becomes an object lesson about the dangers of trying to control the world. Reality is stubbornly unmanageable.

James R said...

There are more pages written about fairy tales than of the tales themselves. I greatly liked Myk's referenced article. It covers the topic pretty well. I especially liked its conclusion that the tales are, along with a lot of other things, "not fantastic but realistic." That is the spirit in which I am writing.

I'm glad there is anticipation of what is coming, but it's difficult enough to cover "household tales". It would be impossible to cover novels, even the great ones.