Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Birds of Paradise in the Arabian Nights
(S615: 1904)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interesting exercise in cultural biogeography published in two parts in the April and May 1904 issues of Independent Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S615.htm


[[p. 379]] I

     A considerable experience among savage and barbarous peoples, and some acquaintance with the records of past ages and the beliefs of unlettered peasants in all parts of the world, have convinced me that, in the great majority of cases, beliefs or legends referring to natural phenomena are founded on facts, and are for the most part actual descriptions of what has been observed, though often misinterpreted, and sometimes overlaid with supernatural accessories. A few examples of these it may be interesting to note.

    The enormous, almost double bills of some of the large Hornbills were only known to Pliny by exaggerated descriptions; and he therefore thought them to be altogether fabulous. If electric fishes had not been inhabitants of European seas, the powers of the electrical eels (Gymnoti) would certainly have been discredited when described by travellers in South America, as they were by many of the uneducated colonists. A Portuguese trader, with whom I lived on the Upper Rio Negro, told me one day about his experiences in handling one of these fishes, beginning by saying: "I know you won't believe me, I did not believe it till I felt it." And he added: "There is another thing you won't believe. If your fishing line is dry, the fishes can't hurt you; but if it is wet, you get struck through, almost the same as if you take hold of them." And he was very much surprised when I said that I did believe him.

    [[p. 380]] The manner in which the young cuckoo ejects the eggs and young nestlings of its foster-parents, as described by Jenner a century ago, has been disbelieved by many naturalists down to the present time; but the fact has been re-observed quite recently, and photographs have been taken of the act itself, showing it to agree very closely with the original description.

    A somewhat similar case is that of the viper, whose young are said to run down the mother's throat in time of danger. This is believed by numbers of country people, who declare they have seen it take place; and some of these witnesses are educated persons. I have always believed this to be a fact, because there is no inherent impossibility or even difficulty in it, and because it is a kind of fact which is in itself easy to observe, and quite unmistakable. When residing in the city of Washington, in 1877,* I was told by the Assistant Librarian of the Congressional Library, that, when he was a schoolboy, in Chester Co., Pennsylvania, he and a companion one day saw a viper or snake about two feet long, basking on a smooth rock, with a number of small snakes, four or five inches long, playing round its head. On my friend's appearance, the large snake made a peculiar sound, and opened its mouth, when the small snakes immediately ran towards its head and disappeared, some being seen to go into the mouth of the mother. The snake was caught, its mouth tied up, and taken home. On the body being opened, nearly twenty little snakes, just like those seen, came out. My informant kindly signed his name to a statement of these facts, which he thought at the time were well known, and had never heard disputed. He is therefore an unprejudiced witness.

    A few months since, a gentleman residing in Devonshire--Mr. J. H. Balkwill--sent me a paper which he had read at the Plymouth Natural History Society, under the title An Arabian Wallace, in which he shows that, in the story of Hasan of El Basrah, as given in Lane's translation of the Arabian Nights, there is an account of the hero's visit to the Aru Islands, while the whole story evidently rests upon myths and legends which grew around travellers' tales of the islands, and the plumes of some wonderful birds which were [[p. 381]] found there. I was at the time hard at work upon my last book, and did not pay much attention to the subject; but, as soon as I had some leisure, I read the story, which is long but very interesting, and was much struck by it, as it was quite new to me. This was because it was not included in the old edition of the Nights, which was familiar to me in my boyhood.

    But, though the story was new to me, I felt sure that I was already acquainted with the suggestion that the Aru Islands were the "Islands of Wák-Wák" of the story, but had quite forgotten how or where I had obtained the idea. At my request, my friend, Professor Poulton, inquired of the Professor of Arabic at Oxford; and I learnt that my old friend, Mr. F. W. Kirby, had made the identification in the preface to his New Arabian Nights, published in 1883, and that Sir Richard Burton had quoted him in his translation, and had also quoted a private letter giving the same view. This identification rested in each case on the cry of the Great Bird of Paradise being, as nearly as can be expressed by letters: "Wák-wák" or "wawk-wawk," as stated, I believe for the first time, in my Malay Archipelago. As I had never seen Mr. Kirby's work, I feel sure I must have heard of the identification from himself in the course of conversation.1

    Mr. Balkwill arrived at his identification quite independently, after reading my book, and has besides traced out all Hasan's wanderings across Asia and the Eastern Archipelago with much ingenuity. There are, however, a few points of some importance on which I think I can give more detailed and more correct information; and as I am, so far as I know, the only person who has seen something of Eastern peoples, has travelled along a portion of Hasan's [[p. 382]] route, and is also acquainted with the birds themselves in their native haunts, I have thought it would be interesting to make a careful examination of the whole narrative, and to show how far it is found to agree with the actual knowledge of the period, and with the general facts of the geography and natural history of the countries referred to in it. To do this, it will be necessary to give rather a full abstract of the story, as it is told in Lane's translation, quoting the exact words in all the more important and critical portions of the narrative, and thus to become able to disentangle the substratum of fact underlying the imaginative and often magical superstructure.

The Story of Hasan of Bassorah.

    Hasan is a young goldsmith of El Basrah (Bassorah) who was a good workman, and remarkable for his grace of figure and beauty of countenance. One day, when he was at work in his shop, a Persian addressed him, praising his skill, and after a time offered to adopt him as his son, and to teach him how to transmute any common metal into gold. To this Hasan agreed, it being universally believed at that period that such transmutation was possible; and the next day the Persian came to Hasan's house, and made gold before his eyes, out of some old copper which Hasan procured. Then they had a little feast together; and afterwards the Persian, while Hasan was not looking, put some powder into the sweetmeat on the table and offered it to Hasan, who ate it, and immediately fell down in a trance. Then the Persian put him into a large chest, which he locked, and went to the harbour, where he had a ship waiting for him, called some of his men, and carried the box on board. (Hasan's mother, after preparing the feast, had, at her son's suggestion, gone to visit a friend.) The Persian then ordered the anchors to be pulled up, and immediately sailed away.

    The voyage is said to have lasted six months; but this is evidently one of those exaggerations we constantly meet with in these narratives, though it might perhaps have [[p. 383]] been as much as six weeks, allowing for contrary winds and numerous stoppages for trade, or to obtain provisions and water. The Persian, who was a fire-worshipper, had treated Hasan very cruelly, keeping him bound, and flogging him every day, calling him a vile heretic, and telling him he was going to sacrifice him, as he had sacrificed a young Mussulman every year for many years past, but offering, if he became a fire-worshipper, really to adopt him as his son, and teach him all his magic power. But of course Hasan preferred to die rather than give up his religion. At last, they landed on "a long coast" which, from what happened afterwards, must have been somewhere to the east of Ormuz, where there is a long straight coast, or perhaps even farther east, on the coast of Baluchistan.

    The Persian told the captain to wait for them a month, and, taking Hasan with him, walked a little way inland. They then sat down under some palm trees, and the Persian, with a magic drum, summoned three camels, which soon appeared in a cloud of dust, one laden with provisions, the others saddled for riding. On these they travelled over deserts and rocky hills for seven days, when they reached a beautiful country, with verdant grass and spreading trees and fruit and flowers, while singing birds abounded, and gazelles sported in the shade. Here they rested all one day and the night. At some little distance, there appeared among the trees a magnificent palace, with glittering turrets and pinnacles; but when Hasan asked to whom it belonged, the Persian told him that it belonged to his enemies, who were evil genii, and he wished to avoid them.

    Then they went on for another seven days, when they came to lofty mountains which rose far above the clouds. When they came close under them, there was a high precipice, and the Persian killed one of the camels, skinned it, and ordered Hasan to get inside the skin, giving him some food and water and a knife, and telling him that a Rukh would carry him to the top of the mountain, when he was to cut open the skin. The Rukh would then fly away, and he must collect some black sand that he would find on the ground and throw it down, and this would enable them [[p. 384]] both to transmute all metals into gold, and become wealthy for the rest of their lives. Hasan, being in the Persian's power, was obliged to consent, and it all happened as had been foretold; but when Hasan asked how he was to return, he was told to throw down the bags of black sand, and then he would be shown the way to descend. He did so, but the Persian then cursed him for an infidel, and told him he must remain and die there, and that his bones would be added to the bones of other young Muslims, which he could see around him. The name of the Persian was Bahrám the Magian; and he then mounted his camel and rode away. Mr. Balkwill calls attention to the fact that Bahrám, a fire-worshipper, appears in several stories as a kidnapper of young Muslims, and is always mentioned in terms of the greatest detestation.

    Hasan then walked along the flat top of the mountain to the other side, when he came to the edge of a precipice, below which was the sea. Having no other way of escape, he jumped into the sea, and a wave carried him to the shore. He then walked through the mountains for several days, living on wild fruits, when, to his delight, he saw the grand palace and beautiful trees and gardens, where he had been told that the Magian's enemies lived. Here he was well received by two young ladies who, hearing his story, adopted him as their brother, from his resemblance to one they had lost. They told him that they and five other sisters, who were out hunting, were daughters of a powerful king who was of the race of good genii, and that he could stay with them till he wished to return to Bassorah, to his mother.

    Some months afterwards, the seven princesses were summoned to visit their father, and Hasan was left alone, but with servants to wait upon him, till their return. And now the adventure befel him that forms the central point of the story. He had been warned not to open a certain door; but, getting very wearied of his solitude, he one day opened it, and found it led to a beautiful room, opening to an enclosed garden with a fountain and a superb pavilion, which he had not yet seen. While resting here in a secluded spot, he saw, flying from the direction of the [[p. 385]] desert, ten birds which came and alighted upon a great and beautiful tree; they were of magnificent plumage, and one was of greater beauty than the rest, and all the others surrounded and appeared to wait upon it. Then they descended to the pavilion, ripped open their plumes or feather dresses with their beaks, and then appeared as ten young damsels "whose beauty was as the full moon." The one that was the finest of the birds became the most beautiful, and they all bathed in the pool of the fountain and disported themselves; and, after a while, got into their feather dresses again, and flew away. But the excessive beauty of the chief of these bird-damsels pierced Hasan's heart with love; for she was the most beautiful of all the creations of Allah. And when the seven princesses returned, they found Hasan in such distress and grief that they knew something great had happened, and, on hearing his story, they told him, that the damsels, the chief of whom he was in love with, were the daughters of one of the kings of the Ján, who had dominion over men and the Ján, over enchanters and diviners, and regions and cities in great numbers; their own father was one of his viceroys. They also told him, that this king had given his daughters a country a year's journey in length and breadth, a great river encompassing it, and that neither men nor Ján could enter into it. And as they found that Hasan was so madly in love that he must marry this princess of the Jáns or die, they told him that she came every month to visit that garden and to bathe in the fountain, and that if her feather dress could be stolen and concealed she could not return to her country, and they would help him to persuade her to accept him for her husband.

    And so it all happened; and when the princess of the Ján found that her plumes were lost and that she could not fly back to her country, and that the seven damsels treated her with the greatest kindness and respect, while Hasan worshipped her, and joy and hope made him supremely handsome, she at length consented to marry him. The marriage accordingly took place with all the proper ceremonies, and, after living a few months in the palace of the seven princesses, the adopted sisters of Hasan, he and [[p. 386]] his wife went home to Bassorah, to his mother who had long grieved for him as dead. And the young princesses of the castle loaded many camels with gold and treasures, and accompanied them for three days on their way. And they traversed many deserts, and valleys, and rocky tracts, and at length arrived safely at Bassorah; where Hasan's mother rejoiced greatly at his arrival with so beautiful a wife, and so much riches. But, as soon as he could sell his business and his father's house, he removed with his wife and mother to Baghdad, passing for a rich merchant, and thus avoiding the danger of becoming suddenly rich in a town where he was known to have been a poor man.

    We have now reached the central point of the story, and, as the great journey of Hasan starts from the palace of the seven princesses, it will be interesting to see if we can fix, approximately, the position of that earthly paradise. The clues are, that it was about a week's camel journey from the coast where the Magian landed after his six months' voyage from Bassorah; that it was also reached directly overland from Bassorah, and also, as we learn later, from Baghdad. Also, that the journey was mainly over thinly inhabited or desert country by all three routes. Lastly, that it was in the midst of a fertile and beautiful country, and near very lofty mountains, while beyond these mountains was a sea.

    If we consider the character of the districts traversed on the three separate routes, and the conditions under which the first journey was made by Hasan with the Magian, we shall find that they point very clearly to one locality only--the south-eastern lower slopes of the Elburz Mountains. The Magian, having his own ship and men, would be desirous of getting his prisoner away to sea as soon as possible, in order to avoid discovery and pursuit; and he would sail to some part of the coast, whence his journey to the great mountain was over a route known to himself, and was not thickly inhabited, but also one on which water and provisions were obtainable. Such a route is that from Ormuz or its vicinity, whence there are still roads or tracks through Kerman and the western part of Khorassan, across a great salt desert, as described, to Damaghân, and thence [[p. 387]] through a pass in the mountain range to the Caspian Sea. The routes from this region to Bassorah and Baghdad agree sufficiently with the very meagre accounts given of them.

    But the chief correspondence is in the descriptions of this region by both ancient and modern writers, and the consideration that, for a thousand miles south-east and east of it, there extend countries whose characteristics are more or less arid uplands, varied by a few fertile valleys and vast extents of absolute desert. The slopes of the Elburz Mountains in eastern Persia are, on the other hand, said to be exceptionally fertile; and the mountain sides are everywhere clothed with a luxuriant vegetation of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. A recent traveller, Colonel C. E. Yate, went from Asterabad to Bandar-i-Gaz on the Caspian Sea, at the end of December, and says:--

    "The country looked charming. The hills above were covered with oak and sprinkled with snow, and the road below ran through masses of bracken and brambles, with wild pomegranate bushes and thorns, interspersed with oaks and other trees. Hawthorns were both in flower and in berry at the same time. Robins, chaffinches, and other small birds abounded, and ploughing was in full swing."

    This is only about forty miles from Damaghân, but on the north side of the mountains; and any one who has seen pomegranate bushes when their gorgeous crimson flowers are expanded, can understand how beautiful a country must be, where this evergreen shrub is abundant. In the same month, at Asterabad, a little farther east, Colonel Yate tells us, the country all around was wonderfully green, oak and other trees were in full leaf, while, in the gardens, roses were everywhere in flower, and the orange and lime trees all in fruit. About three hundred miles farther east, in the Nishapur hills, the same writer says that the eight miles from Gulistan to Jaghark was a pleasant march under shade almost the whole way.

    "The sides of the gorge were steep, and the whole valley from side to side was one mass of vegetation. The trees were of many kinds: apple, pear, plum, quince, peach, apricot, mulberry, walnut, poplar, plane, ash, willow, hawthorn, and various others."

    To supplement these brief notes from a traveller who rarely described such peculiarities of scenery and vegetation, [[p. 388]] I will give the general description of the province of Mazanderan, which includes most of the country here referred to, both north and south of the mountain range, from the article on Persia in Chambers' Encyclopædia.

    "The provinces of Ghilan and Mazanderan are as beautiful as wood, water, and a moderately hot climate can make them--the mountain-sides being clothed with trees and shrubs, while the plain to the north is studded with mulberry plantations, rice-fields, vineyards, orchards, orange-grounds, and sugar and cotton plantations."

    Marco Polo, too, states, that the Province of Timschain--identified by his editor, Mr. Thomas Wright, with the modern Damaghân--has a climate which "is not subject to extremes of either heat or cold"; that its towns "are well supplied with every necessary and convenience of life"; and that its women are, in his opinion, "the most beautiful in the world." For so restrained and matter-of-fact a writer, this embodies all that can be said in favour of any country.

    When we consider that, from the centre of the Arab dominion at Baghdad, the country on the west towards Asia Minor and Europe was pre-eminently the known world; that towards the east and north-east was the direction of the comparatively unknown; that a large part of Eastern Persia, Turkistan, and Afghanistan were arid deserts, while, farther to the north-east, were the still more inhospitable and less known regions of equally arid but cold and snowy Tibet and Mongolia; we can imagine what a very Paradise must have seemed this well-watered, forest-clad, and fertile mountain-region, with its noble trees, its abundant fruits and flowers, and its numerous ever-flowing streams, with abundance of singing and game birds, as well as of deer, wild boars, gazelles, and wild beasts of all kinds, both in the mountains to the north, and the deserts to the south.

    The most curious fact, however, which indicates this region as being that in which the princesses' castle was situated, is, that it was in a valley near the town of Damaghân, that the chief of the Mahometan sect of Mulehetites, commonly known as the "Old Man of the Mountain," is related by Marco Polo to have had a very similar palace and gardens, inhabited by beautiful young damsels, and carefully guarded against intrusion, to serve as [[p. 389]] a sample of the real "Paradise," and thus to induce his followers to throw away their lives in battle, if needful, in order to secure its enjoyments. Marco Polo thus describes what he heard about it:--

    "In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in various parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and of pure water, were seen to flow in every direction. The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and other amusements. . . . At certain times he caused opium to be administered to a few of the youths who were serving him and being trained for his army, and, when half dead with sleep, had them conveyed to one of the palaces by a secret entrance, and when they awoke they found themselves in what they believed to be the veritable paradise. After a few days, they were again entranced and brought away in the same secret manner, and ever after believed that, by the favour of their chief, they had had a foretaste of the joys of heaven, and were the more ready to give their lives for him."

    The death of this chief, and the destruction of his palaces and gardens, appear to have occurred only a few years before Marco Polo visited the country, and about the time when the Arabian Nights, as we now have them, are supposed to have been written. And this will explain the resemblance of the palace visited by Hasan to that of the Chief of the Mulehetites. In Lane's translation of the story, the youngest princess relates to Hasan the history of their palace.

    "The king, our father, summoned his Wezeers and companions, and said to them: 'Do ye know any place for me that no one can invade, neither any of mankind nor any of the Jinn, and that aboundeth with trees and fruits and rivers?' So they said to him: 'What would'st thou do there, O King of the Age?' He answered: 'I desire to place in it my seven daughters.' And thereupon they said to him: 'O King, the Palace of the Mountain of the Clouds, which an Efreet of the refractory Jinn founded, and which palace, after that Efreet perished, none inhabited after him, neither any of the Jinn nor any of mankind, will be suitable for them; for it is separated from the rest of the world. None gain access to it; and around it are trees and fruits and rivers, and running water sweeter than honey and cooler than snow; no one having the leprosy or other diseases ever drank of it without being cured immediately.'"

    This description, and that of Marco Polo, are so strikingly alike in their main features, while the grand [[p. 390]] mountain ranges to the north, from 12,500 to 13,500 feet high, which may well have acquired the name of Mountains of the Clouds, are actually surrounded by such a delightful country as is described, that we can hardly doubt that the one is derived from the other, and that the site of the Palace of the Seven Princesses was intended to be located in this very region. We may now, therefore, go on with our story.

    After living three years at Baghdad, during which time his wife gave him two sons, Hasan determined to pay a long-promised visit to his adopted sisters, the princesses, in the beautiful palace. Before going, he strictly charged his mother to take the greatest care of his wife, not to allow anyone to see her, and above all to keep secret the hidden feather-dress in a large chest buried in the garden, lest, finding it, his wife might fly away with her children to her own country. And he added: "If anything happen to her, I shall slay myself on her account." But, unknown to them, his wife heard all that he said.

    Then he went away, and travelled night and day on swift camels, traversing the valleys and the mountains, and the plains and the rugged tracts, for the space of ten days, and on the eleventh day he arrived at the palace, and went in to his sisters, who were greatly rejoiced to see him. He remained with them three months, "passing his time in joy and happiness, and comfort and cheerfulness, and in hunting." And when he left them they again gave him "rich presents, and provisions, and five camels' load of gold and five of silver." And in due time he arrived again at Baghdad.

    But, during his absence, sad events had happened. On the third day after his departure his wife said to his mother: "Extolled be the perfection of God! Do I reside here three years and not enter the bath?" And she wept. And in the end she wept so much and cursed her hard fate, and became so melancholy and ill, that Hasan's mother gave way, and took her to the bath. And her beauty astonished every one. And among the women at the bath was a slave-girl of the Khaleefeh, who saw her, and took back a report of her marvellous beauty to the Lady Zubeydeh. And she [[p. 391]] desired to see her, and sent to her mother-in-law to bring her. And when she came, with her two sons, all in the palace were amazed at her beauty; and the Lady Zubeydeh dressed her in magnificent robes and jewels. Then Hasan's wife said: "O my mistress, I have a dress of feathers, and thou would'st see a thing of the most beautiful make; and every one who would see it would talk of its beauty generation after generation. It is in the possession of the mother of my husband, buried in a chest; so demand it of her for me." Hasan's mother tried to deny it, but it was no use. Slaves were sent with her, and it was brought, and Hasan's wife put it on, having her two children wrapt in it, and walked about, and played and danced, and said: "O my mistresses, is this beautiful?" And they all answered, "Yes, O mistress of beauties; all that thou hast done is beautiful." And she then said to them: "And this that I am about to do will be more beautiful, O my mistresses." And she expanded her wings and flew up above the cupola, and stood upon the roof of the saloon. Then she repeated some verses, and afterwards spoke thus: "O my mistress, O mother of Hasan, when thy son hath come, and the days of separation have become tedious to him, and the winds of love agitate him, let him come to me in the Islands of Wák-Wák." And she flew away with her children, and sought her country.


[[p. 561]] II

    When Hasan returned to Baghdad and found his mother in mourning and his wife and children gone, he was with difficulty restrained from killing himself; but, after a time, he resolved to return to the princesses' palace, because, from their relations, the Jinns, he hoped to obtain the means of finding his wife. And after they had comforted him and promised to help him, and had restored his strength, they burnt a magic powder to summon one of their uncles; "and the fumes of the incense had not ceased, before a dust appeared advancing from the further extremity of the valley. Then, after a while, the dust dispersed, and a Sheykh appeared riding on an elephant." This was the expected uncle, and when he heard what they wanted he shook his head, and said to them: "O my daughters, this man is in a terrible predicament and great peril; for he cannot gain access to the Islands of Wák-Wák." Then Hasan was introduced, and kissed his hands and told him his whole story. And the Sheykh said to him: "O my son, relinquish this affair; for thou could'st not gain access to the Islands of Wák-Wák, even if the Flying Jinn and the wandering stars assisted thee, since between thee and those Islands, are seven valleys, and seven seas, and seven mountains of vast magnitude. How then canst thou gain access to this place, and who will convey thee to it?" On hearing this, Hasan wept till he fainted, and the youngest princess wept till she fainted also; and when the Sheykh Abd-el-Kuddoos saw their grief, he pitied them, and said to Hasan: "Comfort thy [[p. 562]] heart, for, if it be the will of God, thy affair will be accomplished." He then told Hasan to accompany him, took him with him on his elephant, "and proceeded with him for three days with their nights, like the blinding lightning, until he came to a vast blue mountain, in which was a cavern, which had a door of iron of China." The Sheykh led him into the cavern, which was a mile long and brought them out to a vast desert, and then entered a brass door into another cavern whence he brought out a horse saddled and bridled. Then the Sheykh gave Hasan a letter, telling him that the horse would carry him for ten days, till he arrived at another cavern, outside which he was to wait five days, when a black Sheykh would come out and take the letter; and he was to wait five days more, and, if the same Sheykh came out again, he would be safe, but if another came, it would be to destroy him.

    But, when Hasan approached the mountains where was the next cavern, "the horse neighed beneath him, whereupon there came together horses numerous as the drops of rain, the number of which could not be calculated, nor was any help for them known, and they began to rub against Hasan's horse. So Hasan feared them and was terrified; but he ceased not to proceed, with the horses around him, until he arrived at the cavern which the Sheykh Abd-el-Kuddoos had described to him." As Mr. Balkwill suggests, these "caverns" are an exaggerated account of the narrow passes by which so many mountain ranges have to be crossed. The first one, where the elephant was exchanged for a horse, was no doubt at the entrance to the arid plateau of Turkestan from the fertile wooded country of north-eastern Persia; while the second would be at the crossing of the mountain range into Tibet.

    The incident of the great herd of wild horses, or rather, horse-like asses, the Equus hemionus, and their habit of surrounding the horses of travellers, has, as Mr. Balkwill remarks, often been referred to, both in ancient and modern times. This is one of those characteristic incidents that serve at once to determine the route, and to prove that the natural incidents of the journey are not imaginary, but were derived from the narratives of actual merchants who were personally [[p. 563]] acquainted with the region traversed. He also explains another incident in a very simple and natural way. When Hasan had waited the required second period of five days, the same black Sheykh came out to him, but dressed in white robes, which gave him hope of success. The Sheykh took his hand, and led him through vaulted passages to a grand saloon in the midst of a beautiful garden with fountains and flowers. In this saloon were four Sheykhs, with many books before them; and each Sheykh had students around him, reading from the books. And as Hasan and the Sheykh Abu-r-Ruweysh entered, they all rose and treated them with honour, and, at a sign from Abu-r-Ruweysh, they dismissed the students. Then they all seated themselves and discussed the case of Hasan, who first told them his whole story. The end of it was that, after a solemn warning as to the difficulty of reaching the Islands of Wák-Wák, and the strength of the inhabitants, concluding with this remark: "How can this person gain access to the daughter of the supreme King, or who can convey him to her, or assist him to attain this object?"--they nevertheless summoned an "Efreet of the Flying Jinn," who was ordered to convey him to "a white clean land like camphor." And they gave him a letter to give to the king of this land, who would be found in a city which he would reach after walking on for ten days. This, as Mr. Balkwill remarks, is a fair description of what may be seen in some Buddhist monasteries to-day; and one may probably have existed on the frontier of Tibet, which was, and is now, the frontier of China.

    When we consider the enormous distance still to be travelled, over the whole length of the table-land of Tibet, and over the numerous chains of lofty mountains, vast ravines, and deep valleys of north-western China, and the immense extent of China itself before reaching the sea, no part of which was probably known personally to any Arab or Persian merchant, we cannot wonder at the narrator resorting to the intervention of a "Flying Jinn," to get over the difficulty. The "Efreet" summoned carried him to his destination in a day and a night, and put him down on a land "white like camphor." Then Hasan walked on for ten days, [[p. 564]] when he came to the city and enquired for the king. He was told that his name was Hasoon, Ring of the Land of Camphor; and this was, no doubt, as Mr. Balkwill suggests, some part of southern China or Tongking, where the camphor-laurel still grows. Whether the statement that it was a white land was derived from the white colour of the flowers of the camphor-laurel, or from the fact that quicklime was used in the process of distillation, we cannot tell; but it may have been merely a figment of the imagination, founded upon the whiteness of the finished product so highly esteemed by all Eastern peoples.

    But when we leave this "land of camphor," and Hasan's last journey to the actual Islands of Wák-Wák is described, we seem to leave reality altogether, and to be involved in all kinds of contradictions and impossibilities. And the reason of this is, that we have here got beyond the limits actually visited by any of the travelling merchants of Persia or Arabia, who could only tell what they had heard from the Malay, Javan, or Bugis traders, who then carried on the trade between the Malay Peninsula and the remotest islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Even thus, it is probable that the Arab merchants who visited Malay ports, then the centre for much of the trade of the Far East, had whatever information they picked up at second or third hand; since the Bugis of Celebes would probably bring the spices, beche-de-mer, mother-of-pearl shells, sandal-wood, and other products, as well as the skins of birds-of-paradise, to the port of Macassar, whence the more western Malay and Javanese traders would convey these and various articles of commerce to the chief ports of Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. From the latter ports they were distributed, as they are now from Singapore, to India and Persia on the one side, and to Siam and China on the other. We must also remember that the whole voyage from Singapore to the Aru Islands is through, perhaps, the calmest sea in the world for the entire distance (2500 miles); that the coasts of large or small islands are everywhere in sight, rendering navigation of the easiest; and that the monsoons blow with great regularity, the somewhat variable west monsoon from December to June, and the much steadier and stronger east monsoon from [[p. 565]] July to November. On the other hand, the sea between Southern China and the Aru Islands, by way of the Philippines and Northern Moluccas, or by Celebes, is immensely more dangerous, typhoons and violent storms being frequent; so that we may be quite sure that, in the time of the authors of the Arabian Nights, even more exclusively than now, the products of New Guinea, the Aru Islands, and the Moluccas reached the Western world by way of Java, Sumatra, and Malaya only. These facts will enable us to some extent to unravel the extraordinary misconceptions of these old story-tellers, as to the position and relative importance of the more remote and inaccessible regions they described or referred to, while at the same time showing that there was a substratum of fact, and often of very accurate general observation, even in their wildest stories.

    The first thing we have to notice is, that although, in the story, the King of the Land of Camphor tells Hasan that ships went from his capital city to the Islands of Wák-Wák (which, as we shall clearly show, were our Aru Islands), he was altogether wrong, because these islands were never visited directly from any Chinese ports. What he should have been made to say was, that Hasan would be taken to a place to which the products of those islands were brought, and from which they could alone be reached; and the sequel of the story shows that this was so. For the ship took him and landed him in eleven days at a place which was probably the southern point of the Malay Peninsula, the "Malaiur" of Marco Polo, where he tells us that a considerable trade was carried on "in drugs and spices," showing that it was an emporium of the trade from the Moluccas. Here Hasan sees "settees, the number of which none knew but God." These would probably be better described as sheds, open palm-thatched erections with eaves nearly to the ground, under which each merchant could store his goods until he had sold them and procured his return cargo, just as they do now at Dobbo in the Aru Islands. As he has been instructed, he walks along till he finds one of these settees superior to the rest, and hides himself in it. When night approached, a crowd of armed women came and examined the various goods in the sheds; and one of them [[p. 566]] came to the shed where Hasan was hidden, and sat down to rest. As he had been advised to act, he came forward, cast himself on the ground and kissed her hands and feet weeping, and threw himself on her protection. She spoke kindly to him and told him to hide himself again. The next day she brought him a dress, and coat-of-mail, and arms, as a disguise; and, when night came again and she had heard all his story, she comforted him and said: "Thou hast obtained thy desire, if it be the will of God."

    Now this woman was the General of the army of women belonging to the King of the Islands of Wák-Wák; and she summoned all the leaders, and ordered them all to get ready and to march at daybreak. And when all were gone, she called Hasan to her, and said: "Know, O my son, that thy wife is in the seventh island of the Islands of Wák-Wák, and the distance between us and it is seven months' journey." She then gave him an account of the journey and its dangers--first through the Land of the Birds for eleven days, where, "by reason of the cries of the birds and the flapping of their wings, one heareth not what another uttereth." Then through the Land of the Beasts for twenty days, where "by reason of the vehemence of the roaring of the beasts we shall hear nothing else." Then comes the Land of the Jinn, where "by reason of the vehemence of the cries, and the rising of the flames, and the flying about of the sparks and the smoke from their mouths, and the harsh sounds from their throats, and their insolence, they will obstruct the way before us, and our ears will be deafened and our eyes will be covered with darkness, so that we shall neither hear nor see." Beyond this again is a vast mountain and a great river, which extend to the Islands of Wák-Wák. "The extent of these islands is a whole year's journey to the rider who travelleth with diligence."

    This very wild and fantastic account, which the reader may suppose to be wholly the work of imagination, has yet a basis of fact in every part of it. Even the idea that the whole journey could be made by land, has a foundation in the remarkable circumstance, that for more than two thousand miles, from Singapore along the coasts of Sumatra and Java to Wetter Island, near the north-east end of Timor, the [[p. 567]] islands run so continuously, with such narrow straits between them, which straits are often more or less blocked by islets, that, to a person sailing at about ten or twenty miles from the shore, they would appear as the coast of one great continent; while the remaining five hundred miles are so strewn with islands, that land is never out of sight, except perhaps in the passage from the Ké to the Aru Islands. Added to this, there would, no doubt, be rumours of the great country beyond Timor, and of the continuous land a thousand miles long beyond the Aru Islands, which might well have been supposed to be all connected together, and thus to render possible the continuous land route described in the story.

    This premised, the rest of the narrative becomes merely the exaggeration of natural phenomena, with supernatural explanations of some of them. On leaving the Malay Peninsula, there are for two hundred miles a succession of islands and small islets, many of them still uninhabited, as were, perhaps, all of them at the time of the story. Now, wherever there are uninhabited islands at a moderate distance from land, and conditions are favourable, birds of all kinds abound, sea-birds on the sandy shore and rocky cliffs, and many kinds of land-birds in the forests. These islands are densely forest-clad; and, among the birds that would frequent them, would be the large hornbills and the great fruit-pigeons, the former producing a most remarkable sound by the beating of their wings when flying, the latter by a loud booming note which is quite startling when heard for the first time. In addition to these, parroquets are often numerous and noisy when disturbed; but it would probably be the sea-birds that contributed most to the uproar.

    We next come to the entrance of the river leading up to Palembang (no doubt one of the great trade emporiums), margined with dense forests, the haunts of as many large wild beasts as are to be found anywhere in the Eastern world. Here are elephants, rhinoceroses of two kinds, tigers, leopards and many smaller species of the cat-tribe, wild oxen, the great man-like ape, and many others, while the Siamang and other species of the long-armed apes or gibbons are noted for the loud howling or wailing sounds they often emit from the tops of the loftiest trees in the forest. This then was, [[p. 568]] undoubtedly, as Mr. Balkwill suggests, the Land of the Beasts.

    Then we come to the enormously long and continuous chain of volcanoes through Java, Bali, and Lombok, to Sumbawa and Flores, some of them always smoking, others frequently active, so that, during periods of volcanic activity, all the phenomena of the Land of the Jinns--"smoke and fire," and "harsh sounds," and "darkness," and "obstructions of the way," which are the common accompaniments of volcanic eruptions--would be really met with. Such incidents, coming at second or third hand to the Arab story-tellers, would inevitably be imputed to the supernatural power of Jinns and other evil demons. I agree with Mr. Balkwill, therefore, in here finding a natural origin for the myth of the Land of the Jinns.

    The journey is described very briefly, so that it might be supposed to occupy only a few days. The Land of Birds is, however, spoken of as being "the first of the seven islands"; but this is evidently a mistake, for, later on, having passed this, and the Land of Beasts, and all the terrors and dangers of the Land of the Jinns, it is said that: "they arrived at the river, and, alighting beneath a vast and lofty mountain, they pitched their tents upon the banks of the river. . . . Then they ate and drank and slept in security, for they had arrived at their country." This then is the real beginning of the Wák-Wák Islands, quite beyond the great range of volcanoes in the comparatively barren country of the Jinns; and we have at length reached a country which possesses the distinctive feature and peculiarity that marks off the Islands of Wák-Wák (and also the Aru Islands) from any other islands of the Archipelago, and probably from any other country in the world. This peculiarity is stated by the woman General as follows:--

    "On the bank of this river, that I have mentioned, is another mountain called the Mountain of Wák-Wák; and this name is the proper appellation of a tree, whose branches resemble the heads of the sons of Adam; and when the sun riseth upon it, those heads all cry out, saying in their cry, Wák! Wák! So when we hear their cry we know that the sun hath risen."

    I will now quote a passage from my Malay Archipelago, written from my notes made on the spot, at a time when [[p. 569]] I had never read or heard of this story of Hasan and his wonderful journey. I say (p. 340):--

    "Their voice is most extraordinary. At early morn, before the sun has risen, we hear a loud cry of 'Wawk-wawk-wawk,' 'Wok, wok-wok,' which resounds through the forest, changing its direction continually. This is the Great Bird of Paradise going to seek his breakfast."

    I may add to this description, that the cry is not only loud, but quick and energetic, so as to possess a distinctly human character; and it is very easy to understand that the Bugis or Javan traders, hearing it only about sunrise on the coasts of these islands, or from the villages on its harbours, and never anywhere else, might not connect it with the bird that produces the wonderful plumes offered for sale there, and about which, owing to the absence of legs and often of wings, another quite different set of myths might grow up.

    In this story of Hasan of El Basrah, we find that two quite separate legends have grown up. The one is founded upon the magnificent plumage of the bird, which seems to have been looked upon as a purely magical production, from which was formed dresses which gave the princesses of the Ján the power of flight to the uttermost parts of the earth. On the other hand, the cry "Wák-Wák," as distinctly stated by the General, gave the name to a mountain, and also to the islands themselves, and was said to be made, not by any bird, but by human heads which grew upon trees, and which at daybreak gave forth this cry "to the glory of God." There is not a word in the whole story to show that there was thought to be any connection between the mysterious voices and the magical plumes.

    The rest of Hasan's story, till he gets back with his wife and children to Baghdad, though full of the most startling adventures, does not come within the scope of the present essay, which is limited to an endeavour to throw some light on the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions of this story, one of the most beautiful and interesting in the whole range of the Arabian Nights, and also to show how all its natural or magical journeys by land or by sea, all its descriptions of countries and islands, and all its [[p. 570]] references to their natural products or the customs of their inhabitants, are in every case founded upon some more or less fragmentary or misunderstood observations of the facts of nature, distorted in proportion to the number of transmissions they have passed through, overlaid by a mass of magic and mystery due to the exuberance of the Eastern imagination, but always, when these various sources of error are fairly allowed for, showing, to the careful enquirer, the original substratum of truth.

    It may be advisable to add here that the Great Bird of Paradise (Paradisea apoda) was known to Linnæus only by native skins from which the feet had been removed, whence he named it, "footless." This bird was, till recently, only known from the Aru Islands, to which it was thought to be peculiar; and though it has since been discovered on the mainland of New Guinea, further south, that district was certainly not known to the early traders. The much smaller allied species (Paradisea papuana) is found on the northern and north-western coasts of New Guinea, and in the island of Mysol; and skins of it, preserved in the same manner, probably reached China, India, and Persia, at the same period as the larger kind. But, being a smaller and less powerful bird, it has not the loud, penetrating, distinctive note of the larger species, which peculiarity, taken in connection with its much longer and more richly coloured plumes, absolutely identifies the Aru Islands as being the Islands of Wák-Wák of the story, an identification further supported by the fact that the fairy princess of the feathered dress lived in the same islands, and yet again enforced by the distinctive characters of the several countries necessarily passed or visited during the long and circuitous journey, from the Land of Camphor to the Islands of Wák-Wák.

    Considering the length and complexity of this story, filled from beginning to end with magic, and mystery, and the powers of magicians and demons; considering, further, that the scene of the story ranges overland from Baghdad, through Central Asia to China, then to Malaya, and thence to the Aru Islands, a distance altogether not far short of ten thousand miles, over lands and seas at that time most [[p. 571]] imperfectly known; considering also, the nature of the collection of stories of which it forms a part, which nowhere profess to be more than imaginative tales to pass away idle hours, it is really most surprising and instructive to find throughout, from the Castle of the Seven Princesses to the Land of Camphor, and from the Land of the Beasts, through the country of the Jinns, to the mysterious and magical islands of Wák-Wák, everywhere a basis of recognisable fact--of geographical and biological truth.


Note Appearing in the Original Work

1. Mr. Kirby has been so good as to send me a copy of Sir Richard Burton's elaborate note on the Islands of Wák-Wák. He states that the name has been applied to other islands on the east coast of Africa, and that in that region "Wák" means "God"; also, that a somewhat similar name has been applied to Japan. Colonel J. W. Watson merely gives his opinion that the name applies to New Guinea or the adjacent islands, where the Bird of Paradise is said to cry "Wák-Wák." Sir R. Burton concludes from his learned research: "Thus, like Ophir, Wák-Wák has wandered all over the world,"--a most unenlightening conclusion, and one that in no way affects the identification of the various parts of Hasan's story here set forth. [[on p. 381]]


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Editor's Note

*The date given here--1877--is incorrect. Wallace was actually in Washington, D.C. in 1887.

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