Tuesday, September 25, 2007


[The Three Ladies of Baghdad]

The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad

Plot Summary:

(This story, like all the others, is told in the first person. I have switched to the third in order to make the plot summary more concise.)

Page numbers in parentheses are taken from The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, trans. Richard F. Burton, 10 vols, 1885 (U.S.A.: Burton Society, n.d.) 1: 82-186:

[... 9th Night]:
A Porter is hired by ‘an honourable woman’ (82). She takes him to a wine-merchant, a fruiterer, a butcher, a grocer, a confectioner, a perfumer, a greengrocer, and then home. The door is opened by ‘a lady of tall figure, some five feet high’ (84). The lady-portress welcomes the lady-cateress, and shows them both in. They come before a third lady, the eldest of the three, who pays the porter and tells him to depart. He persuades them to let him stay and join their feast, and they all start to drink wine and recite verses together. When she is sufficiently drunk, ‘the portress stood up and doffed her clothes till she was mother-naked’ (90). She disports herself in the fountain, then makes the porter guess the name of her ‘solution of continuity’ (90). He cannot, and is soundly beaten. The second and third ladies behave similarly, and finally he does too.

[10th Night]:
The three ladies try to send the Porter away, but finally agree to let him stay if he observes their motto: ‘WHOSO SPEAKETH OF WHAT CONCERNETH HIM NOT, SHALL HEAR WHAT PLEASETH HIM NOT’ (93). A knocking comes at the door.

The Porter lets in three Persian Kalandars [mendicant friars] ‘with their beards and heads and eyebrows shaven; and all three blind of the left eye’ (94), who are looking for a lodging for the night. Another knock is heard, and the Porter lets in the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, his Wazir Ja’afar, and Masrur ‘his Sworder of Vengeance’ (96), who are wandering the city by night disguised as merchants. They too ask for lodging and are given the same warning as the Porter and the monks. The eldest lady has ‘two black bitches with chains round their necks’ (97) brought in. She beats each of them as hard as she can, then cries over them. After this the cateress plays three sad love-songs on a lute. Each song makes the portress cry out till she ‘rent her raiment’, showing the guests ‘scars of the palm-rod on her back and welts of the whip’ (99).

The Caliph demands that Ja’afar ask for an explanation of these events. The latter demurs, but the other guests are all curious as well. When he does ask, the seven men are immediately seized by armed slaves and told to prepare for death. The Porter protests amusingly.

[11th Night]:
The eldest lady ‘came up to the party and spake thus, “Tell me who ye be, for ye have but an hour of life; and were ye not men of rank ... you had not been so froward and I had hastened your doom.”‘ (103) The Porter tells us as much of his story as we already know, and is told to leave. He prefers, however, to stay and hear the other stories:

The First Kalandar’s Tale

A Prince helps his cousin to conceal himself in a tomb with a veiled lady. Afterwards he repents, but cannot find the tomb again. On returning to his father’s kingdom, he finds that the Wazir has treacherously slain him and taken over the kingdom. The Wazir puts out the prince’s eye, in revenge for the fact that he himself had his eye knocked out by the prince’s slingshot years before, then commands that he be executed. The headsman takes pity on him however, and he escapes back to his uncle’s kingdom. He confesses to his uncle his part in his cousin’s disappearance, and the two finally succeed in finding the tomb. The cousin and the lady are found lying dead and charred in each other’s arms. His uncle curses and strikes the body of his son.

[12th Night]:
The uncle explains that the two dead lovers were brother and sister, and that he had many a time forbidden their love, but they hid from him here. ‘Then His righteous judgement fell upon the twain and consumed them with fire from Heaven’ (111). On returning to the surface, the prince and his uncle are overtaken by the Wazir’s troops, who have invaded this city as well. The uncle is killed in the fighting, but the prince dresses himself in rags and leaves, ‘hoping that peradventure some one would assist me to the presence of the Prince of the Faithful, and the Caliph who is the Viceregent of Allah upon earth’ (112-13). He met the other two mendicants by chance.

He is dismissed by the eldest lady, but prefers to stay and hear the other stories.

The Second Kalandar’s Tale

A Prince is brought up to be very skilled in all branches of learning. On his way to show off his skills to the King of Hind he is overtaken by robbers, who take everything he has. He is advised to work as a woodcutter by a Tailor whom he meets in a nearby town, for ‘the King of this city is the greatest enemy thy father hath ... and thou hast cause to fear for thy life’ (115).

One day, in the forest, he discovers an underground cavern, ‘where was a damsel like a pearl of great price’ (116). The lady was stolen by an Ifrit on her wedding day, and has been kept by him in this cave ever since. She invites the prince to stay with her: ‘of every ten days one is for the Ifrit and the other nine are thine’ (118). He agrees; however one day, in a fit of drunkenness, he proposes to summon the Ifrit and slay him.

[13th Night]:
The Ifrit comes and, seeing the prince’s woodcutting gear, accuses the lady of entertaining a lover. She denies it, and is tortured by the jealous demon. The prince escapes, lamenting his foolishness, but is caught and brought back again by the Ifrit. When the lady refuses either to identify her lover or to cut off his head, the Ifrit mutilates and kills her. The prince asks for mercy with the:

Tale of the Envier and the Envied

Two men lived in adjoining houses; and ‘one of them envied the other and looked on him with an evil eye’ (123). Realising this, the Envied left the neighbourhood and set up an oratory near another city. His fame as a holy man spread, until the Envier heard of it, and travelled to see him. Under pretext of having something to discuss, he drew the Envied to one side, and pushed him into an old well. ‘Now this well happened to be haunted by the Jann’ (124), who saved him and broke his fall. He also overheard them saying that the Sultan of the city would shortly come visiting to consult the holy man about the health of his daughter, who seemed mad but was in fact bewitched. She could be cured by fumigation.

The Envied is saved by his disciples next day, and duly meets the Sultan and cures his daughter. He is rewarded with her hand in marriage, and is made Wazir, and (after his father-in-law’s death) Sultan. One day he comes across his old enemy the Envier, and rewards him greatly instead of punishing him.

The Ifrit, unimpressed, turns the prince into an ape, and in this form he succeeds in finding a place on board a ship. The ship comes to a port whose King is looking for ‘a calligrapher of renown’ (127) to replace his previous chief minister. The entire crew, including the ape, are made to write some lines on a scroll. The ape’s writing is the best, and the King purchases him from the ship’s captain. On showing his new acquisition to his daughter, however, she asks ‘How cometh it thou art pleased to send for me and show me to strange men?’ (133), and reveals that her magic arts tell her that he is actually a prince.

[14th Night]:
The King’s daughter, at her father’s instigation, summons the Ifrit in order to disenchant the prince. Their magical conflict is long, and she succeeds in killing the demon, but at the cost of her own life. The King is wounded, and the prince loses one eye from hot sparks. He is, however, turned back into a man. Afterwards the angry King banishes him from the city, and he takes on the robes of a monk and travels to Baghdad to ‘seek audience ... with the Commander of the Faithful’ (138-39).

Dismissed like the others, he prefers to stay.

The 3rd Kalandar’s Tale

A Prince goes sailing, but his ship is overtaken by a storm. After some days, they come to the ‘Magnet Mountain’ (140), which draws out all the iron in their hull and wrecks them. The prince survives, and finds a way up the rock.

[15th Night]:
A voice tells the prince in his dream to shoot at the brass horseman on top of the dome at the summit of the rock, and thus rid mankind of this affliction. He does so and, as the dream predicted, the waters rise up the rock, carrying with them a skiff with a brass rower inside - ‘He will come to thee and do thou embark with him but beware of saying Bismillah or otherwise naming Allah Almighty’ (142).

After ten days, in sight of his destination, the prince forgets this prohibition, and is immediately thrown into the sea. He swims to an island, and there sees a youth taken ashore from a ship and put into an underground hiding-place. After the ship has left he uncovers the trap-door and talks to the youth, who has been hidden away by his father because of a prophesy that he will be killed by the prince who shot the brazen horseman. The prince lives with him for forty days, but then kills him by accident with a knife on the very day predicted.

[16th Night]:
The ship returns, and the boy’s father is stricken with grief. The prince stays on the island until one day ‘the tide ebbed’ (151), making it possible for him to reach the mainland. There he finds an old Shaykh who lives with ten young men ‘all ... blind of the same eye’ (152). He stays with them, and notices their habit of lamentation, which they will not explain. Finally they reveal to him a route - by ‘Rukh’ [Roc] - to a distant palace. He reaches the palace, is welcomed by forty damsels. He lives with them in bliss, but they are forced to absent themselves for forty days at New Year, and accordingly give him the keys to forty chambers, with strict instructions not to enter the last one. He eventually does and is carried off by a winged horse which deposits him back with the old Shaykh, putting out his eye with its wing as it departs. The Shaykh and the young men refuse to let him stay, so he dresses as a monk and sets out for Baghdad.

After the Caliph, Ja’afar and Masrur have repeated their story of being merchants, the eldest lady lets them all go. Next day the Caliph send for the three sisters and demands that they tell their stories.

[17th Night]:
The Eldest Lady’s Tale

The two dogs are her elder sisters by one mother, the portress and cateress her younger half-sisters. The two older sisters made unfortunate marriages, and had to be rescued by her on two or three occasions. Eventually they persuade her to go on a trading voyage with them, and they reach a city where all the inhabitants have been turned to black stones. Exploring, she finds a youth who was spared this fate because he was a Moslem, unlike the other ‘Magians who fire adored in lieu of the Omnipotent Lord’ (168).

[18th Night]:
The eldest lady brings the youth back with her, but her two sisters, jealous, throw them both overboard. She swims to an island but he is drowned. On shore, she saves a serpent (who turns out to be a ‘Jinniyah’) from a Dragon, and the former turns the two wicked sisters into bitches in gratitude. She also tells the eldest lady to beat them three hundred times every day or else she will ‘imprison thee forever under the earth’ (173).

Tale of the Portress

She married young and was left a young widow. One day she is invited by an old woman to attend a wedding. When she reaches her destination, it turns out to be the palace of a young lady who tells her that her brother is in love with her. The brother is attractive, so she agrees to marry him, and swears never to ‘look at any other than myself nor incline thy body or thy heart to him’ (178). After a month of bliss she is persuaded by the old woman to kiss a young merchant who will not accept her money. He bites her on the cheek, and her husband, refusing to accept her explanations and excuses, has her beaten nearly to death and thrown out of the house. She has not seen him since, but now lives with her sisters in seclusion.

[19th Night ...]:
The Caliph has the eldest lady summon the Jinniyah, whom he commands to disenchant the two bitches. She also tells him that the portress’s husband is his own son Al-Amin, so he commands him to take her back. He marries the eldest lady and her elder sisters to the three Kalandars, and finally marries the cateress himself.


[... 9th Night]:


7 Shops
3 Sisters (youngest to eldest)

[10th Night]:

1st Prohibition
1st knock- 3 shaved, one-eyed monks
2nd knock - 3 disguised Merchants
7 Guests
2 black bitches
1st beating + laments
3 love-songs
laments + 2nd beating
7 slaves

[11th Night]:

Porter’s Tale (the story to date)

1st Prince's tale:
1st tomb-descent (incest)
1st armed insurrection (Father killed)
1st blinding (unjust)
2nd tomb-descent

[12th Night]:

2nd Prohibition
2nd armed insurrection (Uncle killed)

2nd Prince's tale:
1st cavern-descent (adultery)
3rd Prohibition

[13th Night]:

1st beating for jealousy
2nd cavern-descent
1st lady killed for him
well-descent (vision)
1st transformation

[14th Night]:

2nd transformation
2nd lady killed for him
2nd blinding (accidental)

3rd Prince's tale:

[15th Night]:

1st magic horse
4th Prohibition
underground descent (the youth)
40 days

[16th Night]:

40 damsels
40 days
40 rooms
5th Prohibition
2nd magic horse
3rd blinding (at fault)

[17th Night]:

1st Sister’s tale:
2 groups of 2 sisters
twice deserted by husbands
3rd transformation

[18th Night]:

youth killed for her
4th transformation
6th Prohibition

2nd Sister’s tale:
7th Prohibition
2nd beating for jealousy

[19th Night]:

5th transformation

Al-Amin = Portress
Eldest lady + 2 sisters = 3 Kalandars
Harun = Cateress

Recurrent Patterns:

7 shopkeepers
7 guests
7 slaves
7 stories:
(Porter, 3 Kalandars, Ja’afar, & 2 Sisters)
7 Prohibitions

3 shaved monks
3 blindings
3 underground descents
(Incest, Adultery, a Youth)
3 ‘Merchants’
3 Sisters
3 Love-songs
3 Floggings
(Portress’s husband, Ifrit, and Eldest Lady)

40 days underground
40 damsels
40 days in the palace
40 chambers

(1st Kalandar): 2 descents into the vault
2 armed insurrections
(2nd Kalandar): 2 ladies killed for him
2 transformations (Ifrit and Princess)
(3rd Kalandar): 2 magic horses
(1st Sister): 2 Sisters twice deserted
2 transformations (black stones and black dogs)
(2nd Sister): Marriage and Repudiation caused by the same old woman


Chelsea Smith said...

As a casual fan of Arabian Nights who is FASCINATED by the tales, your blog is a great treasure to find! However, I'm a little confused about the organization/purpose of the blog. Also a little disappointed that the artwork isn't cited. It would be great to know the artists of the amazing paintings you've included. Thanks for putting this out there!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Well, point taken about the artwork. I guess I'm just in the process of learning the etiquette of this branch of publication -- I agree with you, though, that a title or at least a hyperlink should be added to online images.

The blog is really more of a fragmentary book. I wrote a bunch of articles on the Nights in the early 90s which I always intended to tidy into a book. as time went by it didn't seem to be happening, though, so I thought I'd just post the material I'd collected in as organised a form as possible.

Just treat it as an ordinary academic essay, with preface, chapters and appendices.

All I'm really adding to it at present are sidelinks to other useful Nights sites, though I must get onto that image-attribution business, soon, too.