RECORD: S615.2 Wallace, A. R. 1904. The birds of paradise in the Arabian Nights, II. Independent Review 2 (8): 561-571.

REVISION HISTORY: Body text helpfully provided by Charles H. Smith from his Alfred Russel Wallace Page

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The birds of paradise in the Arabian Nights


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

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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

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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,

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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

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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

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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

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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,

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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