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What is Aladdin?

In the traditional telling of "Aladdin", the protagonist was aided by a genie that emerged from an oil lamp.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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“Aladdin” is an Arabian story, set in China, which has spread widely largely through its association with The Book of One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights, to which it was added by an early eighteenth century French translator whose name was Antoine Galland. It has since appeared in many translations, as well as been the subject of a number of theatrical productions and films, both animated and live action.

The story of Aladdin shares elements with a number of other fairy tales and folktales, including its focus on a poor and lazy young man who somehow winds up doing well for himself despite everyone’s expectation that he will fail. In this case, a charlatan sorcerer tries to trick Aladdin into recovering a magical lamp while dying in the attempt, leaving the sorcerer free of sharing his secret. Through accidental magic, Aladdin is saved and retains possession of the magic lamp himself, though he has no idea of its power.

The lamps properties are revealed when Aladdin’s mother tries to clean it. A genie, or jinni, appears, and in short order, Aladdin becomes rich and marries a princess. The sorcerer gets hold of the lamp by tricking Aladdin’s wife, who doesn’t know its properties. What happens next varies, depending on the story, but in the end, Aladdin recovers his wife, regains possession of the lamp, and defeats the sorcerer.

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In literature, “Aladdin” appears both as a story in books by itself, in versions of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights and in fairy tale or folk tale collections. It first appeared in English in the early eighteenth century and has been retold by story collectors like Andrew Lang, as well as by authors of original tales like Philip Pullman.

Aladdin has been the subject of the musical theater genre known as pantomime for more than 200 years. In pantomime, Aladdin’s mother is known as Widow Twankey, played by a man. In the 2004-2005 production at the Old Vic, Sir Ian McKellen took on the role. Aladdin as a movie is probably best known in the 1992 animated Disney version, which takes liberties with the story, as you might expect.

The 2000 made-for-TV movie Arabian Nights in which Scheherazade tells several popular tales that are often included in the collection included a version of the story of Aladdin. Faerie Tale Theatre also created an episode based on the Aladdin story. Among the animated versions of “Aladdin,” one might point to the 1939 version Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp starring Popeye as notable.

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