Literature Study GuidesThe Arabian NightsThe Fisherman And The Demon Summary

The Arabian Nights | Study Guide

Andrew Lang

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The Arabian Nights | The Fisherman and the Demon | Summary

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Summary

Shahrazad promises this new story will be more amazing than the merchant's tale.

A poor fisherman is excited by the heavy catch in his net until he discovers he has trapped a dead donkey. Discouraged, he recites poems about the misfortunes fisherman face, while the wealthy men who buy the fish are comfortable. His verses lament how luck is never on his side no matter how hard he works. After two more failed catches, he prays his final catch will be fruitful. This time he retrieves a heavy brass jar with a lead stopper.

A terrifying demon emerges from the jar. The demon prays for the prophet Solomon to forgive him. He tells his story to the fisherman; he's a rogue demon who joined "the giant Sakhr" in rebelling against Solomon long ago. Solomon trapped him in a jar and threw him in the sea as punishment. For several hundred years the demon vowed to reward whoever saved him. When no one did, he grew angry and pledged to kill his rescuer while letting the rescuer choose the manner of death.

The fisherman pleads for his life, saying God will treat the demon the same way the demon treats him. Finally he outwits the demon by doubting the jar is large enough for his shape. When the demon shows he can fit inside, the fisherman quickly closes the bottle and prepares to fling it back into the sea. He doesn't believe the demon's promises to make him rich if he opens the jar again. Instead the fisherman compares their situation to the tale of King Yunan and the sage Duban.

Analysis

The fisherman's plight highlights the anger of the working classes. Stories in The Arabian Nights, like much folklore, often give a voice to poor people's struggles. This sensitivity may have been a later addition by Syrian monk Hanna Diyab, who related Arabic folklore to the first European translator of the work. Tales in older manuscripts focused more strongly on the greed of merchants who wanted wealth.

As the fisherman observes, the men who work aren't the men who profit, and valiant labor doesn't lead to a reward. He starts thinking he's fated to be poor, emphasizing the role of luck and fate in the stories. Many characters believe their fate is determined by a higher power. Still the fisherman is a smart protagonist. He is not blinded enough by the promise of riches to accept the demon's first offer.

The demon's rebellion against Solomon comes from Islamic mythology. The historical Israeli king Solomon is a prophet in Islam. The Quran, Islam's sacred scripture, tells the story of Sakhr the rogue demon who rebelled against divine forces. Solomon's seal appears in the legends of multiple faith traditions. The name of God was engraved on a seal on Solomon's magic ring, and Solomon used the ring to control demons. Solomon's seal appears in the legends of multiple faith traditions.

In this story the demon is likely an ifrit—one of the evil, rebellious demons of Islamic folklore. Humans who knew magic could overpower the ifrit, but ordinary humans could not. Protagonists in The Arabian Nights often unwillingly encounter supernatural figures who threaten their lives. The humans' plight echoes Shahrazad's position at the mercy of King Shahrazar. Characters whose lives are on the line, like the fisherman, often plead for mercy through stories and proverbs, which also serve as warnings against cruelty.

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