The Fisherman and The Jinni

Analysis of the Story

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    I adapted this story from Richard F. Burtonís translation of the Arabic classic "Alf Laylah wa Laylah" (A Thousand Nights and A Night). I was obliged to give the story a proper ending because Sheherezadeh simply segued it into the next story (she had a rather compelling reason for doing so, as we all know). She actually left off at the point where the fisherman tells the jinni that he will not believe that the jinni fit into the jar until he sees it with his own eyes. She then finished the story the following night and segued it into the beginning of another story. Another ploy that she used was that of inserting stories within stories, as she does at the point where the fisherman is preparing to cast the jar with the trapped jinni inside back into the sea. Since I donít have a sultan threatening to kill me at sunrise, I gave the story a proper ending.

    In the course of telling the story I have also incorporated several small Muslim traditions that seem to belong in the story. One of those is the utterance of small epithets, such as BismAllah (which means In the name of Allah) at the beginning of an endeavor and InshAllah (which means If Allah please). I have also included the Muslim tradition of adding a small prayer after the statement of a prophetís name. In particular the story includes several references to King Solomon (in the Arabic form Sulayman) and King David, both familiar figures in the Bible and regarded as prophets by Muslims as well.

    This is a tale of implacable wrath and of how cleverness overcomes it and obtains the opportunity to mitigate it with compassion and transform it into determination. The two characters can represent different aspects of one person, the jinni being the id and the fisherman being the ego. And, of course, Allah represents the superego. It revolves around the virtue of patience.

    In the story the fisherman expresses the optimistic fatalism of the Muslim. One cannot, after all, expect a bad outcome from an endeavor prefaced by "BismAllah!", but if the outcome is unfavorable, well, Allah knows best.

    In his analysis Bettelheim wrote, "...the imagery of fairy tales helps children better than anything else in their most difficult and yet most important and satisfying task: achieving a more mature consciousness to civilize the chaotic pressures of their unconscious." Fairy tales are spiritual explorations, unlike naturalistic novels, which are more like gossip (and as shallow). In the fairy tale we see life divined from the inside. In this story we see the struggle of the ego to gain control over the urges of the id.

    "In a fairy tale, internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible as represented by the figures of the story and its events." It must be an adventure requiring the child vicariously to face adversity, to overcome it, and to find the good life on the other side. Clearly the id has been externalized in the form of the jinni and the ego appears in the guise of the fisherman, who is certainly in for an adventure.

    "...the paramount importance of fairy tales for the growing individual resides in something other than teachings about correct ways of behaving in this world...." The story of Hercules, for example, shows that it is not beneath the dignity of the strongest man to clean the filthiest stable, but the fairy tale goes much deeper into the socialization process. "The fairy tale clearly does not refer to the outer world, although it may begin realistically enough and have everyday features woven into it. The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrow-minded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy talesí concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in the individual." It is a kind of waking dream state that engages emotions and judgements to play out the consequences of their respective actions.

    Again we refer to the distinction between fairy tale and myth. Only English and French use the term "fairy tale". Other languages use other terms: German uses Mšrchen, Norwegian uses Eventyr, etc. Fairies rarely appear in these tales, though other magical creatures do. Myths are demanding: the heroes are superhuman creatures who demand to be emulated. The scale is majestic and the divine is present in the hero. Fairy tales are reassuring: the heroes are ordinary people who are brought to a happy ending. The latter does not make the child feel inferior or hopeless.

    Bettelheim considers the example of stories in which the hero gets the better of an evil giant; stories such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "The Fisherman and the Jinni". Children understand that there is no such thing as giants (they certainly do so today when so much more information is readily available to them), but they also understand that adults are like giants to them. Some adult reluctance to tell fairy tales may originate in that understanding: no parent wants to acknowledge that they occasionally appear to their children as selfish, evil giants who wish to keep to themselves all of the things that give them power. But the fairy tale does not merely expose the childís unconscious fear of his parents; it also reassures the child that he can eventually get the better of the giant; that is, he will acquire the giantís powers for himself by growing. The parentsí best response to this realization is to tell the child the stories, thereby implicitly approving of the childís desire to overcome the giant and augmenting the reassurance. This is better than leaving the child to read the story of himself and thereby gain the impression that only some stranger cares about his feelings.

    The Fisherman and the Jinni goes beyond simply being about the outwitting of a giant. It enacts the basic conflict between the ego and the id. In the story the fisherman enacts the role of the ego, the Reality Principle, and the jinni enacts the role of the id, the Pleasure Principle. The existential problem of the story emerges from the childís separation anxiety, but, interestingly enough, the story does not begin with that problem.

    The story begins with the fisherman making three grossly unsuccessful attempts to catch the fish that he needs to support himself and his family. In each instance the fisherman cries out in his frustration. But moreover, he complains that the whole world is unfair; that wealth and comfort come easily to unworthy louts while more deserving folk must struggle mightily just to be poor. This is a sentiment that all of us can embrace at one time or another and children more so. Even the most privileged child at times feels mistreated by life. But in spite of his complaint, the fisherman returns to the sea to try again to catch his fish; in this he acts out the optimistic fatalism that I mentioned above, one of the more successful manifestations of the Reality Principle. As Bettelheim notes, it is not presented as a moral or a demand that the child emulate the fisherman, but rather it is presented casually as just the way in which this poor, hard-working Arab fisherman faces the world. As a consequence of this attitude the fisherman finally, on his fourth try, nets a brass jar worth ten golden dinars in the brass market. Apparently his patience has been rewarded.

    The existential problem is introduced with the rage-filled jinni. This fire-being tells the fisherman how he came to be imprisoned in the brass jar and of his decision to kill whomever freed him. At first he was wildly enthusiastic over the prospect of being freed, so much so that he vowed to grant immeasurable wealth to whoever freed him: first to enrich his liberator forever and ever, then to open the hoards of the Earth to him, then to grant him the fulfillment of three wishes. Finally the jinni vows to kill whomever frees him, giving him only the choice of how the jinni will kill him.

    That progression mimics the feelings that the child feels when left alone for any length of time; it goes from eagerness for release from the solitude to rage at the next person who should end that solitude. It is highly irrational, of course: thatís the way human feelings are. The story presents that progression in a way that the child will recognize it, at least unconsciously; that is, the jinni speaks of wanting to reward and then of wanting to kill. As Bettelheim notes, children do not think in terms of feelings, even if they know the words for them, but rather they think in terms of actions; doing rather than feeling. "Action takes the place of understanding for the child."

    What gives the story its psychological power is the fact that the worst emotions are embodied in a character that cannot truly exist Ė a jinni in this case, a witch in others. The child can subconsciously play with identifying with the jinni or with the fisherman to try out their respective reactions to frustration in his own imaginary world. Itís the fairy taleís coyness about who the characters really represent that allows the child to identify with the characters without guilt or anxiety. Since the jinni can represent parental power when the child identifies with the fisherman, the idea of being able to outwit that power, while offering a bit of pleasure, raises considerable anxiety if it is conceived for what it is: the child is dependent upon his parents for protection and parents who can be fooled by a child are unlikely to offer effective protection (none of us is comfortable with the notion that our parents are fools, at least until we enter our teens).

    As an aid or hint in shifting identifications between the two characters the story offers a conceptual bridge between them in the four times that each confronts his frustration, the fisherman with his disappointing catches and the jinni with the four periods of time into which he divided his residence in the brass jar. By passing to and fro across that bridge the child subconsciously compares the Reality Principle and the Pleasure Principle as guides to the best way to face the world. The important fact to note is that the child is left to make the choice for himself: the story does not push a moral upon him. This becomes even clearer when we notice that the story does not introduce the threats that are so readily available in Muslim society. The major theme trumpeted repeated in the Qurían is the promise that evil-doers will burn in Hell. Those revelations that the angel Gabriel told Muhammad to recite to the Arabs put any hellfire-and-damnation preacher to shame and yet the story makes no mention of them. Of course, the original audience of the story was familiar with the Qurían and its threats, but it is still significant that the story does not offer much in the way of reminders. Apparently the superego sat this one out.

    As an aside I will note that Hellfire was meant for humans. We assume that the Hell waiting for the evil jann would more closely resemble Antarctica, although the Arabs knew nothing of that frozen continent. In his Inferno Dante Alighieri put a giant glacier at the center of Hell.

    And yet, in the three little stories that the fisherman tells the jinni he refers to what we might call the Muslim version of the golden rule: As you do unto others, so Allah will do unto you. Nonetheless, the fisherman prepares to heave the jinni back into the sea and only changes his decision when the jinni, of his own accord, promises in Allahís name not to hurt or harm the fisherman. By invoking the anxiety-provoking demands of the superego, even if only indirectly, the id transforms its animal-like rage into the more humane determination to work for the egoís benefit.

    Bettelheim contrasts this lack of moral coercion with the blatant moralizing in the myth of Hercules, contrasting "the direct, didactic way a myth deals with this crucial the gentle, indirect, undemanding, and therefore psychologically more effective way in which fairy tales convey this message." In the myth Hercules goes into the wilderness to consider what his lifeís course will be and when he is there he is approached by two women who are named Idle Pleasure and Virtue. The women represent the conflicting inner desires that we see in "The Fisherman and the Jinni" but their labeling leaves no doubt as to which Hercules (and therefore the reader identifying with him) must choose. The moral problem is solved for us, so the solution has less value than it does when we solve the problem for ourselves.

    In his analysis Bettelheim makes a remarkable error (on page 29) in his description of the story and he repeats the error later (on page 80). In his recollection the fisherman, after tricking the jinni into returning to the brass jar, throws the jar back into the ocean. In fact, in Burtonís translation of the original story the fisherman frees the jinni a second time after the jinni vows in Allahís Most High Name never to hurt or harm the fisherman. The jinni then leads the fisherman to the place where he catches the fish that Sheherezade uses as a segue into her next story. What makes Bettelheimís error remarkable is that he has clearly read Burtonís translation: his quotes from the story are exactly the words that I found when I researched the story myself. So why did he misremember the ending? Why would he remember an ending that represents the complete repression of the id, rather than the ending that shows the restrained id helping the ego to achieve its goal (i.e. catching fish)? It seems a truly strange error for a Freudian to make.

    Finally, Iíll recall to mind the fact that Freud identified three components of the unconscious mind. In addition to the id and the ego, he identified the superego, the part of the unconscious mind that embodies the values of our society, beginning with those of our parents and our families. In this story the superego, represented by Allah, is distant and does not participate directly in the story at all. That it is left on the sidelines indicates its relative unimportance in the basic struggle between the id and the ego. In the construction of a personality the id and the ego must be brought into agreement by themselves.

    Note another feature of the story that is left implicit and which few non-Arab people would be aware of. We have in the story the hint of sibling rivalry. As children of Allah, the jann are the older child who resents the younger child, represented by the humans. In Arab folklore Allah created the Jann first, forming them out of fire. The Jann filled Allahís heaven like the angels of Christian belief. Then Allah took on a more daunting challenge; to create an intelligent, moral being out of cold, dumb earth. He succeeded, of course, and felt such pride in His accomplishment that He commanded the Jann to bow to the human in reverence of that achievement. Some of the Jann, led by Shaitan (Satan), refused and were thus banned from Heaven. Thus began the drama of good against evil.

Appendix: Fire Magic

    Arab folklore describes the jann as beings made of subtle fire, just as humans are beings made of earth. Thatís why they live in lamps. In that description the storytellers have referred to the old Greek notion that all matter is made of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and to the idea that intelligent fire can transmute substances.

    In Arabic the fire-beings are referred to as Jinni (masc. sing), Jinniyah (fem. sing), and Jann (pl). The names come from the same root as junun (to hide or to be hidden), which we see in the word majnun, which means madman (one whose intellect is hidden). We also have the Ifrit (usually a malicious jinni, hostile and injurious to man) and the Ifritah, his female counterpart.

    Some people see a connection between the words jinni (often written genie) and genius. However, there is no linguistic connection. The word genius is a Latin word derived from gens (tribe or people, from the Indo-European root for "to produce") and from the Greek root of Genesis, referring to a beginning or origin. The Arabic word jinni refers to madness. Further, Arabic belongs to a family of languages different from the Indo-European family, to which Greek and Latin belong. Those families separated from each other far enough in the past that only the most basic concepts could be expected to be expressed in words with similar sounds. More abstract, derived terms, such as spirit or fire-being, would not fall into that class. Even within the families such concepts do not necessarily share sounds. Consider, for example, deus/theos/deva, the Latin/Greek/Sanskrit denotation of the Supreme Being and then consider the same concept as rendered in the Germanic languages, which are also members of the Indo-European family: Gott (German), God (English), Gud (Norwegian).

    Made of smokeless and scorching fire, the jann inhabit a universe separated by some unseen dimension from out sensible universe. Unlike us, they can freely traverse that dimension and come to our universe to interact with us.

    Of the four elements identified by the ancient natural philosophers, fire was the most mysterious: it could do what the others could not. It could transform ice into water and water into steam. It could transform sand into glass, ore into metal, and clay into ceramic. It came the closest our ancestors had ever seen to working real, honest-to-God magic. Surely, then, a purer and more subtle form of fire could work real magic.

    And fire is capricious. One moment it is constructive, the next moment it is destructive. It gives us so much that we need, but it also injures and kills people. It often seems to have an intelligence of its own.

    It didnít take much imagination, then, for storytellers to conceive the idea of a being made of fire, much as Adam had been made of the soil of the Earth. Such a fire-being would certainly be capable of working magic, of granting wishes. With such beings as characters, the wonder tales became truly wonderful. We have The Fisherman and the Jinni and Ali ud-Din (Aladdin) and His Magic Lamp, among others.


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