Nights 499 to 531: Shamsa Takes Flight

499—531 The story of Janshah


Near the end of Buluqiya’s story, he meets a hermit sulking in a cave, who begins a narration of his own. Thus we are presented with the tale of Janshah. This is another narrative that, like the Karim framing story, bears many of the hallmarks of a classic The Arabian Nights tale, while still presenting us with a novel storyline. This time, the innovation is a human/jinn romantic adventure, which has yet to appear in the collection.

Janshah is a fêted prince, who one day goes a-hunting with his father and their mamluks. Janshah rides after “a strangely coloured gazelle” that leads him to the seashore. Down on the beach, he spots an island he wishes to visit, and so they commandeer a fishing vessel to take them there. Of course, they are blown off course by a gale, which serves to separate our wealthy protagonist from the comforts of his father’s kingdom.

From there, Janshah encounters many strange lands and inconveniences. This includes a nation of apes who insist that he stay and be their king; and a valley of giant ants. He becomes embroiled with a dastardly con-man who tricks him into stealing treasure from a giant bird of prey, and eventually winds up in a great castle as the guest of Shaikh Nasr, king of the birds.

The Shaikh is hospitable, but forbids Janshah from ever entering one particular room in the castle. This is similar to the tale we were told on Night 272, and is also tinged with the biblical idea of ‘original sin’ and forbidden fruit.

Of course, pretty much the first thing that Janshah does is open the intriguing locked door, but unlike Night 272 and unlike The Book of Genesis, he suffers no particular wrath or reversal for having done so. Instead, he encounters Shamsa, a jinn princess who can take the form of a bird, and with whom he falls in love at first sight.

The courtship is initially rather obnoxious. Janshah steals the princess’s clothes, which forces her to engage with him. Then he tells her that if she leaves him, he will die—an unfair and manipulative tactic that is a staple for overly-controlling lovers.

Nevertheless, it seems to work, and Shamsa agrees to marry Janshah, and to take him back to his father’s kingdom. Happily ever after (until the arrival of the inevitable ‘destroyer of delights’)? Au contraire, this love story is only just beginning.

When I began this recap project, I noted that what we might crudely call ‘the battle of the sexes’ plays a big part in The Arabian Nights. The subsequent scenes in the Janshah/Shamsa story are clearly centred around that theme.

When they arrive back in King Tighmus’s kingdom, Shamsa’s magic bird skin, which is thing that allows her to take on avian form and to fly, is confiscated. It is then buried in the pillars of the grand palace they make for her. Janshah does not seem to appreciate just what a cruel action this is. For him, caging his prized jinni wife by hiding her wings is the sensible course of action.

Alone in the new-build palace, Shamsa is faced with a choice. She can submit totally to the new life with Janshah and his family, conforming to their conception of what she will be; or she can knock down the castle pillars, retrieve her bird costume, and return to some semblance of her previous existence.

She chooses the latter. With her parting words, she sets a challenge to Janshah, which also becomes the terms of any future relationship.

‘If you love me as much as I love you, then come to me in the jewelled castle of Takni.’

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

Illustration by Rene Bull

No directions to this castle are given, meaning that Janshah, if he wants her back, must put in the hours to find his own way there. He dutifully takes up the challenge, and seems aware that he must atone for his earlier presumption. The quest is hard, almost impossible, and it demands that Janshah learn far more about the world, and of jinn history, than he would otherwise. He becomes a better man for it.

Janshah begins the task by repeating the very same journey that he took to discover Shaikh Nasr’s castle. He walks again through the kingdom of the apes, the valley of ants, and again takes up with the con-man seeking to steal treasure from the giant birds’ nest.

Of course, this time he is armed with foreknowledge, and so navigates the terrain and the challenges far more efficiently. I enjoyed this repetition, and one cannot but think of time-loop films like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, ARQ and Happy Death Day, Craig David’s ‘7 Days’ music video or of course, video games, in which such repetition finds its full creative expression: Continuous negotiation of castles and lands full of giant animals is the precise premise of Super Mario World.

When Janshah finally discovers the Castle Takni, he comes to Shamsa and to her father as a supplicant, a very different person to the entitled prince who initially woo’ed her by stealing her clothes. And by the time they are married, Shamsa has interwoven her family and her fellow jinn into the affairs and business of King Tighmus’s state. Indeed, the embattled king cannot maintain his power without their support.

Of course, this is The Arabian Nights and this is a tale told to king Shahriyar, so Shahrazad drops some obligatory misogynist caveats into the story. Janshah’s tale is clearly one where the protagonist learns to respect the desires and needs of his wife, but that’s an outcome that needs to be masked with a dash of social conservatism. Thus, in the most eye-rolling moment of the story, the king of the jinn says of his daughter “she is your slave.”

I don’t mean to excuse that particular formulation of words, but in its context ‘slave’ does not seem to mean what it usually means. In the very next paragraph, preparations begin for Janshah and Shamsa’s wedding. I am unfamiliar with jinn family law but surely slavery is incompatible with marriage?!

So ‘chattel’ might be a better translation. This hardly redeems it, and I do not seek to do so. I would rather note what an incongruous phrase this is, in the light of everything that both precedes and follows. Shamsa simply does not act as a slave, or even a demur wife. Instead, her principled power-play prevails, and as the tale finishes, it is firmly established that she will be who she will be, and no husband will be permitted to clip her wings.

Illustration by Albert Letchford
So he took him up, shrieking for fear, and flew with him to Janshah, who bade the four Marids bind him on the litter and hang him high in the air over his camp, that he might witness the slaughter of his men.

Stray observations

  • On Night 499 the king of Kurusan receives a request that his daughter marries Tighmus. The king tells his daughter what he has decided, and she says, simply: “Do what you want.” To the modern reader, this seems slightly… sullen. And why not? The King has just agreed to a marriage on his daughter’s behalf to someone she has never met. And she knows she has no choice in the matter. This line gives us a glimpse of the unhappiness that such marriages must frequently create among those forced into them. Burton translates this as “Do what seemeth good to thee” which is a far more generous and upbeat translation.
  • Ok, so can someone please tell me the difference between a jinni, an ‘ifrit and a marid? I don’t know, and the book hasn’t told us.
  • Is mamluk the Arabic translation for redshirt? Dispensable bodyguards for Janshah, the narratively immortal hero.
  • Weird that the apes seek to make Janshah king of the apes even though he is not an ape; and that Shaikh Nasr is king of the birds, despite not being a bird.
  • The fighters in king Kafid’s army are enumerated:
  • … in addition to a thousand paladins, each of whom was the leader of a thousand tribes, in everyone of which were four thousand riders.

  • After the huge orders of magnitude we were subjected to in the Buluqiya story, a mere four billion riders are barely worth getting out of bed for.
  • I guess I should acknowledge the postscript to the Janshah/Shamsa love story, which is that she gets eaten by a sea-monster and he becomes a depressive in a cave. Sad, of course, and weird: but not at all the crux of the narrative.

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