WHO FRAMED SINBAD THE SAILOR?

The seven tales that describe the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the woes of is house-guest Sinbad the Porter, are among the best known and best loved of the stories from the Arabian Nights.

In fact, it’s widely thought that these tales are a relatively modern creation, rather than being found in what might be called an original canon of stories from the Orient. But perhaps we can let that possibility pass, for now.

I’ve felt myself drawn to the Sinbad stories time and again. One reason for this, apart from the fantastic voyages and adventures that they describe, is that something new arises from the stories each time they are read.

They are brilliantly constructed and inspired, and build together to offer a hidden message to Shahrya, the evil sultan in the frame story of The Nights, who forces Scheherazade to tell him a story, night after night. This isn’t unlike the nightly recalling of his voyages that Sinbad the Sailor offers to his porter friend. Perhaps Shahrya might ultimately see that, like the sailor, he cannot really find satisfaction through the current life that he leads.

There is something of a turning point in the fortunes of the two Sinbads in the fourth tale, which I pick up on in the book. Here, we start to see the Sailor admitting to some guilty actions (killing many people to save his own life), opening up the possibility that his storytelling is really a way for exorcising his guilt.

The Porter, meanwhile, is well satisfied at the end of the fourth tale, and his satisfaction seems to grow as he continues his visits to the rich adventurer.

We might also begin to wonder whether the Sailor is really a wild fantasist, not able to see the truth even for himself. The Porter, by contrast, bewails his lot, not quickly noticing that fortune is smiling on him as he continues to be invited to dine with his wealthy namesake.

Then there’s the suggestion that both Sinbads are really one and the same person – shadow selves, reflecting something of the good and the bad in the other, and ultimately being dependent on one another. The experience of one gets projected onto the other, and so both are able to be nurtured by and grow at the expense of the other.

I’m sure that many more aspects of this very clever series of stories will continue to reveal itself when they are read again and again. Doubtless the seven voyages will keep scholars arguing for many moons to come, and for the rest of us, will continue to charm with their colorful descriptions and magnificent characters. Long live the two Sinbads!

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