Monday, March 31, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Prince Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Budur

Edmund Dulac did a series of illustrations for this story. This is Budur.

When I first read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I was 19 years old. I remember sitting on a little hump in the lawn outside Au Sable Hall at Grand Valley State University. It was a beautiful day right at the end of spring, and everything seemed great. I was studying film, writing until the wee hours of every morning, and just generally enjoying my position in life. Campbell's book seemed like exactly the sort of thing I should be reading at that moment.

Campbell discusses the story of Prince Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Budur, from The Arabian Nights. In it, he tells us, both prince and princess (of Persia and China respectively), separated by the entirety of Asia, proclaim that they will never get married. Their parents are upset about this, but they find no solution. A passing djinni notices Qamar and is awestruck by his beauty. A different djinni sees Budur and has the same reaction. The djinn encounter each other, and they brag about the beautiful humans they've just seen. They argue about which one will fall in love with the other if they ever meet. Settling this argument means bringing the two together as they sleep. One wakes up, sees the other, falls madly in love and takes a ring from the other's hand, goes back to sleep. The other wakes up, falls madly in love and takes a ring, then goes back to sleep. The djinn take the people back to their respective homes. They wake up and see the rings as confirmation of what they  experienced. They insist they will marry no one but the person they saw the night before. Everyone thinks they're crazy.

The djinn Maymunah and Dahnash, by Dulac.

That's about all Campbell gives us, and I always assumed that Qamar and Budur met through some unlikely way and got married. Campbell analyzes the story according to his hero's journey scheme, and within that scheme Qamar, being the man, is the protagonist and gets most of the attention. Initially, Campbell labels the story within the instance of a refusal of the call to adventure, because the characters refuse to get married. In Campbell's scheme, the whole thing is a psychological account of the maturity of the individual, so this is just one example of this instance. Then he moves on to discuss the actions of the djinn in terms of his concept of supernatural aid.

For years I wondered how that story really played out. Finally, I just sat down and read The Arabian Nights (well, it took a year and a half). Somewhere in the middle, there's the story of Qamar and Budur. Campbell recounts the opening of the story well enough, but it's barely a fraction of the story. They meet because Budur's brother sets out on his own quest to find the man whose ring she has. Eventually he succeeds and they are married. The story goes on at length about their life together, and Qamar 's second wife, and their children.

Qamar and Budur is truly one of the great stories in the world. Sure, The Arabian Nights has others that could compete for the title (the tale of the hunchback is among the greats; as is the city of brass, or the ebony horse, and there's another about two men and a stolen bag brought before a judge that I will tell you about sometime in the future), but for a mixture of high adventure, romance, and outright insanity, you can't beat this one. Other tales might have better adventure, more emotional romance, or higher levels of insanity, but Qamar and Budur has all three.

You see, almost immediately after the wedding, they are parted. Qaman takes a jewel from Budur, and as he's wandering in the garden a bird steals it. He goes after it (Tale Type 434B), and is lost for years. Budur fears for her safety without her husband, so she disguises herself as him and takes off to look for him, and she has all sorts of adventures of her own. She winds up in the Ebony Kingdom, where she gains favor with the king and is betrothed to the princess, Hayat al-Nufus. The princess more or less falls in love with her (Tale Type 884B), so when she reveals her true identity, the princess (Hayat al-Nufus, not Budur) just goes with it. The, by strange fortune, Qamar shows up in that very kingdom. He's brought before the new king/queen, who recognizes him. Instead of just revealing herself, Budur decides to have some fun. She forces Qamar to agree to have sex with her, though such an act goes against everything Qamar believes. He gives in, and she finally reveals herself when they're in bed together. They do the only logical thing: Qamar marries Hayat al-Nufus, too, and the three of them rule the kingdom.

But it's not over. The two queens have sons, and each queen falls in love with the other's son. The sons refuse, so the wives accuse them of rape (in a way reminiscent of Potiphar's wife--Tale Type 318, Motif K211). The sons escape execution, then go on their own adventures. Eventually the truth comes out and the wives--who up until a very long way in the story were very much the heroes--are discredited. Qamar and his sons then rule China, Persia, and the Ebony Kingdom.

By the time I read the full story, my views on Joseph Campbell's works had shifted significantly. I no longer read them much at all. His best work on myth is actually the four-volume Masks of God series. You can perhaps see some of the reason for my distaste. Campbell rarely deals with entire stories, picking and choosing episodes from longer tales to fit his reductionist pattern. His reading of "The Frog King," which opens Hero, at first felt insightful. Now I can't imagine what insights I saw in it. He seems to miss the entire point of the story. Campbell's work is a good place to begin an understanding of stories, but it is a poor place to finish it.

Reading the tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Budur, I was first struck by how long it is--some sixty nights. Wendy Doniger's summary of it (for a chapter of Scheherazade's Children) takes four pages. Doniger, by the way, says that she wants to call the story "How Budur Became the Male Lover of her Husband, Qamar." I certainly haven't done it justice here, and there aren't many online sources that give the whole thing. This one seems to have it. My translation is by Malcolm C. Lyons, done just a few years ago. As I get the chance, I intend to find other versions of it; but the story itself transcends any one translation. I'd love to find a copy that has all those plates by Edmund Dulac, of which I've only included two here.

I'm mostly interested in Budur, who starts as a heroine in an unlikely meet-cute and becomes a villain. She is the woman scorned (more than once, I should add--when first wed to Qamar al-Zaman, he refuses to consummate their marriage, and then vanishes with her jewel), but lashes out. Her lust was, like most lust, misplaced in the son of her husband and co-wife (?). She's every bit as complex as you could want a protagonist to be.

So what makes this story one of the best in the world? Well, that scene where Budur, dressed as a king, convinces her husband to have sex with her, for starters. The material with the two djinn at the beginning is really interesting, as well. And the stuff with the sons making their way in the world--and the servant who saves them from their execution.  Like I said, this story has everything. I think that if I had the chance to write one story in the Nights as a novel, I would pick this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment