Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: The Bottle Imp

Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp" feels like a folktale. Not a fairy tale, notice. It's got none of the romantic aspects of the fairy tale. It earns its "happily ever after," but in a different manner. We'll get to that soon enough.

Stevenson's story occupies 28 pages of my Modern Library edition of Selected Writings of RLS volume. It's pretty long--longer than a folktale from oral tradition would generally be; it wouldn't be comfortable to read aloud. Here's the gist of it:

Keawe, a fine mariner, travels from Hawaii to San Francisco. There he meets a man who sells him a bottle. The imp in the bottle grants wishes, but anyone who owns the bottle must sell it before death, or the owner's soul will be damned. The catch is that the owner must sell it for less than he paid for it. Keawe paid fifty dollars. He experiments with the imp's powers and finds them to be genuine. He and his friend Lopaka soon discover that the imp fulfills the wishes in tricky ways, giving grief as well as fortune. For example, Keawe's wish to have a house on Hawaii is fulfilled upon the death of his uncle and cousin, who left him land and money. "Little as I like the way it comes to me, I am in for it now, and I may as well take the good along with the evil," says Keawe. He takes the house, and Lopaka decides to buy the bottle to fulfill his own dream of having a schooner.

One of my favorite parts of the story comes next: Lopaka wants to see the imp clearly, which the bottle has theretofore prevented. So they command the imp to show itself. Stevenson writes it thusly.

Now as soon as that was said, the imp looked out of the bottle, and in again, swift as a lizard; and there sat Keawe and Lopaka turned to stone. The night had quite come, before either found a thought to say or voice to say it with; and then Lopaka pushed the money over and took the bottle.

Sometime in the future I'll write about Gerald Kersh and his fixation on things that cannot be described and his attempts to describe them anyway. This is as good an example of that as any. By telling us of the men's reaction to the sight, Stevenson taunts our imaginations and makes a better vision of the bottle imp than adjectives could ever conjure.

Lopaka takes the bottle and Keawe feels okay about the whole thing.He meets a woman named Kokua and they get engaged. However, Keawe that very night discovers that he has leprosy. Remembering the bottle, he seeks out Lopaka, who--having obtained his schooner--has sold the bottle to a lawyer. The lawyer directs Keawe to another man, who sends him to another, and so on. He follows a trail of seeming good fortune to the current owner, who will gladly part with it. The problem is that the current owner has paid only two pennies for it.

Keawe buys it for a penny and the imp rids him of the leprosy. But now he can think of nothing but getting rid of the bottle. His misery infects his new wife, and she despairs until he tells her his story. Hearing it, she vows to save him, and she is wise enough to know that the world has more to it than American money. They have trouble selling the bottle, of course, and seeing Keawe's despair Kokua pays a man four centimes (a French coin, which are 5 to a penny) to buy it from Keawe. She then buys it from the old man for 3 centimes, thus taking the curse upon herself. Discovering this, Keawe gets a man to buy the bottle from her at 2 centimes, intending to pay the man 1 centime for it and take the curse off his wife.

But the man who bought it for 2 centimes refuses to sell it. He has tested the imp's power and now wants to keep it. Drunkenly, he staggers off, "and there goes the bottle out of our story." Keawe and Kokua return home, "and great, since then, has been the peace of all their days."

It's a German story, so it seems. Joseph Warren Beach traces its sources well enough in a 1910 article. Helen Grant has written a more comprehensive look at the history of the story. It's got some precedent in the Grimms' collection (tales 19 and 99--also apparently a legend in their book Deutsche Sagen, but I haven't tracked that down) and in The Arabian Nights (what with the bottle imp being very much like a genie). It was adapted for the stage in England, where Stevenson encountered it. He then made it a Polynesian story, according to the recent biography by Claire Harman, and it won him favor in that geography, particularly in Samoa, where he lived. Harman had this to say about the story:

The currency of the tale among the islanders raised Stevenson's prestige to a new level; he was perceived not only as rich and kingly in his strange mansion above Apia..., but a sense of magic and glamour clung to him. He was given the name 'Tusi Tala'--'teller of tales--and became the subject of avid and possibly satirical speculation. Stevenson told Arthur Conan Doyle...that native visitors to Vailima who had read 'The Bottle Imp' were apt to imagine it was not a fiction at all, and looking round his house and grounds would ask, 'Where is the bottle?'

Make of that what you will. Apparently in that house Stevenson had a large safe where the bottle was supposed to be.

Why is this one of the best stories in the world? Well, it's about the dangers of wish fulfillment. It provides its teller with the opportunity to be clever. And it's malleable. Though there's no particular tale type in the index that covers the core of this story (at least not that I can see), it's very much a traditional story. The various versions throughout time have proved that, with different endings, different settings, and the like, it can adapt and survive.

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