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The Sindbad Stories
Written by Samuel Pickering

The Arabian Nights appeared in English in the 1740's when John Newbery began publishing children's books in London, and by the end of the century three tales from the Nights had established themselves as children's "classics" in both Great Britain and the United States: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp and, perhaps the most popular in the New World, Sindbad the Sailor.

Sindbad first appeared in an American children's book in 1770, when a portion of the third voyage - in which he killed a cyclops - was tacked on to a version of Jack the Giant-killer.

Jack-the-Giant-killer was not the only adventurer with whom Sindbad associated in children's books. Much as Sindbad's third voyage had been tacked on to the account of Jack and the giants, an early American children's book added The Celebrated Travels and Adventures of the Renowned Baron Munchausen to the end of an account of Sindbad's voyages.

Since Munchausen and Sindbad always traveled to new lands, American children could easily identify themselves with them. America, then, was a new land and thus the youngsters could easily imagine themselves journeying into the unknown. To the west were broad plains, and beyond stood uncharted mountains - just the sort of place where a Roc might build her nest - while to the north there were vast fields of ice and to the south deep swamps crawling with alligators and snakes.

To American children of that era, therefore, Sindbad was believable. More important, he was reassuring; because in early America infant mortality was very high and death hovered over childhood like an ogre, Sindbad's victories offered reassurance and hope. Buried alive in the Cavern of the Dead, for example, Sindbad simply refused to die and finding a way out of the cave metaphorically overcomes death itself. As Sindbad escapes the tomb and returns to Bagdad wealthier than before, so a determined child might hope to escape the clutches of death and look forward to a richly rewarding life.

This reassurance, of course, is true of many fairy tales. Jack-the-Giant-killer suggests that by using their intelligence, underdogs can overcome oppressive, threatening forces or people. And as Jack tricks giants, so does Br'er Rabbit outwit foxes, Puss in Boots fool ogres and Sindbad escape monsters: serpents with bodies thicker than the trunks of palm trees, cannibals who fatten his comrades like sheep and eat them, and the Old Man of the Sea wrapping his legs around Sindbad's neck like an iron yoke.

To adults, the Sindbad stories have a deeper appeal; simultaneously they touch both our duties and our dreams, the adult and the child.

At the beginning of the tales, Sindbad the Porter, staggering under a heavy burden, rests outside a magnificent palace, and laments his laborious lot in life. Suddenly a page invites him inside where he meets the owner - and his namesake - Sindbad the Sailor, and for seven days is entertained with accounts of Sindbad the Sailor's fabulous travels. In addition Sindbad the Sailor gives Sindbad the Porter 100 pieces of gold at the end of each visit. The two Sindbads, then, represent two aspects in everyone, one a responsible citizen, the other an adventurer. The two Sindbads meet in the morning and enjoy each other's company throughout the day, but at night go separate ways as in life dreams and responsibilities often diverge and pull a man in different directions.

Today, Sindbad's appeal to adults may be even stronger than it was to children. Although it is impossible to match Sindbad's discoveries - a valley glittering with Diamonds - or adventures - sailing across the sea on the back of a whale, and flying through the air tied to a Roc's leg, many men - and women - still search for excitement. Across the globe groups of aspiring Sindbads clamber over icebergs in Antarctica, back-pack through the Himalayas, or snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef. By making seven voyages, one for each day in the week, Sindbad symbolically traveled forever. So long as man lives, Tennyson implies, he will dream:

"Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die."

Tennyson, of course, was speaking for Ulysses, but he might well be speaking for Timothy Severin, too, who, not content to "rust unburnished," has set out to prove that though the Sinbad voyages may have been dreams, they were not myths.

Samuel Pickering, Jr., has taught in both Syria and Jordan and has published articles in some 40 magazines.

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