September 15, 2019

WRITING ADVICE: Can I Use “Old” Ideas To Create New Stories? Aladdin, From A THOUSAND AND ONE ARABIAN NIGHTS (sort of…)

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right”.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

Today, I thought I’d say something all on my own, unsupported by my published or unpublishable works

My grandkids, daughter-in-law, wife, my son’s mother-in-law, and I watched the recent DVD released Disney’s “Aladdin”. The tale itself is old, though not part of the original Arabic “One Thousand and One Nights” which was recorded in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age though “not being part of the original Arabic text. It was added to the collection in the 18th century by the Frenchman Antoine Galland, who acquired the tale from storyteller Hanna Diyab. Historians consider Diyab the original author of ‘Aladdin’, with the tale partly having been inspired by Diyab's own life.” The story has been done dozens of times in venues ranging from the original story written some time before 1688 and told by its author, Syrian Diyab; to a British pantomime in 1788; to a Canadian video game in 2016.

Aside from the fact that Will Smith is a hero of mine – for all his body of work, not just his speculative fiction parts (“Independence Day”, “Men In Black”, “Hancock”, “I Am Legend”, the pre-production “Gemini Man”, and “I, Robot”, even “The Legend of Bagger Vance” – “Ali” was great and I love “In Pursuit of Happyness”. At any rate, I remember hearing speculation about whether or not he could pull off a part automatically associated with the late Robin Williams – Genie.

I think he did, but that’s not where I’m really headed today.

After watching the movie, I commented to my wife that while Disney had managed to retain the magic of the cartoon version, they’d made a subtle change that I applauded even more: Jasmine went from a strong-will Daughter Of The Sultan to a savvy – even brilliant – politician who had her eye on the throne of the mythical Arabian Sultanate (as opposed to a caliphate and an emirate (as in United Arab Emirates) because she both loved the land and people – in fact, she meets Aladdin because she’s going about among them in disguise. The story, which I’m sure originated as one of the :

“A caliphate is an Islamic state under the leadership of an Islamic steward with the title of caliph, a person considered a political-religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire ummah (Muslim community).”

“An emirate is a political territory that is ruled by a dynastic Arabic or Islamic monarch-styled emir. The term may also refer to a kingdom…Etymologically emirate is the quality, dignity, office, or territorial competence of any emir (prince, commander, governor, etc.)…The United Arab Emirates is a federal state that comprises seven federal emirates, each administered by a hereditary emir, these seven forming the electoral college for the federation's President and Prime Minister…Furthermore, in Arabic the term can be generalized to mean any province of a country that is administered by a member of the ruling class, especially of a member (usually styled emir) of the royal family, as in Saudi Arabian governorates.”

Sultan is a position with several historical meanings. Originally, it was an Arabic abstract noun meaning ‘strength’, ‘authority’, ‘rulership’…it came to be used as the title of certain rulers who claimed almost full sovereignty in practical terms (i.e., the lack of dependence on any higher ruler), albeit without claiming the overall caliphate, or to refer to a powerful governor of a province within the caliphate. The adjective form of the word…[is] the dynasty and lands ruled by a sultan are referred to as a sultanate…The term is distinct from king, despite both referring to a sovereign ruler. The use of ‘sultan’ is restricted to Muslim countries, where the title carries religious significance…”

(all above are taken from the entry in Wikipedia)

At any rate, the idea of a prince, princess, king, queen, etc. going out to hobnob with commoners isn’t new or singular to any culture ( and has become a trope ( actually it’s a SUB-trope of this one:, though apparently now the live-action Jasmine has her own category (along with Princess Leia Organa): (Which actually doesn’t surprise me at all as Disney owns both of them.

The fact that Jasmine changed from a passive character (while falling in love with Aladdin, of course) to a politically active one is a definite improvement to the movie. I enjoyed the secondary love interest between genie and Jasmine’s maid servant as well, mostly because I like that “old romantic” aspect of him (he’s FIFTY!!!!!)

I have no doubt that while the heart of the story has remained the same for over three centuries and survived the telling through countless translations – minimally from Arabic to French to English – it has also changed through the telling. I found a hint that someone, somewhere is going to take Aladdin, Jasmine, and the genie to the 35th Century in “Aladdin 3477 – 1: The Jinn of Wisdom”. Could be interesting, certainly…

But what if I used that story heart to write a completely different story. The 1995 movie “Clueless” was loosely based on Jane Austen’s masterpiece, EMMA though the resemblance is only noticeable to people who have read Jane Austen. Even though it was barely recognizable, it made bank. I think I could use “Aladdin” to write a science fiction story that might not be recognizable, either, yet owe its life to the tale. I’ll keep you posted.

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