The ‘transformation’, a changing of someone or something into something else, is explored in many works of literature and poetry from throughout history. It plays a prominent role in Ovid’s Metamorphosis as well as Homer’s The Odyssey. It is also seen in The Thousand and One Nights, where transformation is a major element of many of the stories told. Transformations throughout The Thousand and One Nights share a number of similarities; the initial transformations of each story are conducted by women as a result of their anger , and all transformations seek to ‘right a wrong’ in the eyes of the transformer. Thus, the transformations in The Thousand and One Nights can be seen as form of justice perpetrated by women upon the transformed.
The first example of a transformation is in ‘The First Old Man’s Tale’, a sub-story of ‘The Story of the Merchant and the Demon’. In this story, a man who is unable to conceive a child with his wife turns to a mistress, with whom he has a son. The jealous wife transforms the mistress into a cow and the son into a bull. This initial transformation is an act perpetrated out of the wife’s jealousy, and thus anger, towards her husband. After all, her husband has had child with another women because she, his wife, is unable to. Though from the reader’s perspective the transformation might seem unwarranted and malicious, from the position of the wife it can be seen as justice: transforming the mistress and the illegitimate son is justice enacted against the husband’s cheating ways. The mistress is slaughtered by a shepherd, though the son is recognized by the shepherd’s daughter as being transformed. She transforms him back into a human, and then transforms the wife into a deer. This second round of transformations, perpetrated by the daughter, is a more clear form of justice. Transforming the innocent son back into his human form restores him from a punishment brought against a crime with which he had nothing to do. The transformation of the wife into a deer is justice for her initial transformation of the mistress and son, as the daughter says she will transform the wife to “let her taste what she has inflicted on others” (pg 1788, paragraph 5). Furthermore, the initial transformations led to the slaughter of the mistress, and thus transforming the wife is justice brought against a murder.
Transformation is a major element in the next story, ‘The Second Old Man’s Tale’. In this story, three brothers open shops using their inheritance money, and later go on a trading trip. On the return trip, the first two brothers, jealous of the third brother’s wealth and success, throw him and his newlywed wife overboard to die. She saves her husband from drowning, in her anger says she must kill the two brothers, but her husband persuades her not to by telling her that “this I do not wish, for I will not behave like them” and entreats her to “be kind to those who hurt you. No matter what, they are my brothers after all” (pg 1791, paragraph 3). Pacified, though still angry at them for trying to kill her, she instead sends the brothers to her sister who transforms them into dogs. Thus, the transformation of the brothers into dogs serves as a replacement punishment to the punishment of death. As such, this transformation is justice brought against the two brothers actions, a punishment for their attempted murder of their brother. Furthermore, before the journey, it is discovered that the two brothers squandered all the money their brother had given them in drink and food, and thus the transformation also serves as a punishment for their wastefulness and envy. After all, as the third brother recounts, despite having been given money by him the two brothers “grew jealous of me, envied me for my increasing merchandise and wealth…” (pg 1791, paragraph 2). It was this envy that wasted the third brother’s resources while also leading the two brother’s to plot against him. Like in the transformation of the mistress into a cow, the transformation of the brothers into dogs is a result of the wife’s anger towards them; this is evident when her husband recounts their past offenses and “when she heard my story, she got very angry at them” (pg 1791, paragraph 3) and wanted to kill them. While in the end she does not kill them, the fact that she still punishes the brothers with transformation demonstrates that she is acting out of her anger. Regardless, the punishment of transformation is merciful compared to the intended punishment of death, and as it coincides with her husband’s wishes it can therefore be considered more just than if she had killed them. The transformation of the brothers into dogs, then, is a punishment for the brothers envy and attempt at murder, and thus serves as justice as it still is able to placate the other brother’s desire to see them live.
‘The Third Old Man’s Tale’ also features transformation. A man goes on a journey for a year, and returns home to see his wife lying with a black slave. The wife leaps out of bed and transforms her husband into a dog. It can be argued that this first transformation, like those in the previous stories, serves as a punishment out of anger towards the transformed. Though the text does not specify so, it is easy to infer that the wife is angry that her husband has discovered her infidelity, and thus punishes him for it by transforming him into a dog. It is hard to see the justice in this transformation, but justice is arguably a subjective observation of the nature of a punishment. For the reader and the husband it may seem an injustice, but the transformation obviously seemed just enough to the wife to allow her to do it. The text specifies that she and the slave were “chatting and dallying and laughing and kissing and quarreling together” (pg 1792, paragraph 8) when the husband discovered them. Thus, it can be argued that the wife thought that transforming the husband and running him out of the house was doing justice to her lover and herself, because they were happy together. Not running the husband out would have caused an end to the adulterous relationship and therefore suffering; hence, the transformation of the husband was justice in that it preserved the wife’s happiness. Nevertheless, the husband is discovered by a shop owner’s daughter to be a transformed human, she transforms him back, tells him how he can transform his wife, and he then transforms his wife into a mule. The daughter’s transformation of the husband back into his human form is more clearly an act of justice, as it serves to rectify a punishment put against him despite his innocence. The husbands transformation of his wife into a mule, meanwhile, punishes her for transforming him, for he wanted “to cast a s spell on my wife as she did on me” (pg 1793, paragraph 3). It also punishes her adulterous conduct. While the final transformation was performed by the husband, the technique was taught to him and supplies provided by the daughter, and thus it can be concluded that the final transformation was done with her assistance to serve justice on an unjust transformation and on adulterous behavior.
In “The Tale of the Enchanted King”, transformation plays an integral role. A young king discovers his wife cheating on him with a black slave, and he strikes the man in the throat. The blow does not kill him, and his wife goes into mourning for years over her wounded lover until the king admits to having wounded the slave and prepares to kill her. The wife transforms the husband into half-man, half-stone, and then transforms the inhabitants of the king’s city into fish and the islands the city was seated on into hills. Like those seen in other stories, this initial transformation is one done out of anger, as the wife says her husband has “set my heart ablaze with the fire of revenge” (pg 1817, paragraph 3) because he wounded her lover. In the mind of the wife, transforming her husband is also an act of justice for her wounded lover and herself. This is demonstrated in her telling her husband that it was “you who did this to me, wounded my beloved, and tormented me by depraving me of his youth, while he has been lying here for three years, neither alive nor dead” (pg 1817, paragraph 3). By transforming him, the wife is punishing her husband for wounding her love and therefore causing her the grief and torment that has put her into mourning for the past year. Later, an exploring king discovers the half-man, half-stone king, and tries to trick the wife into transforming him back by pretending to be her wounded lover. He tells her that he has been unable to heal or speak because the screams of her tormented husband keep him awake at night and because the transformed inhabitants of the city invoke and implore God against him at night. He says that, had she have not done the initial transformations, he would “have recovered a long time ago, and this is why I have not spoken to you or answered you” (pg 1819, paragraph 3). Hearing this, the wife transforms her husband back from his half-stone state, and also transforms the fish back into their original human form. Thus, it is evident that this second round of transformations is caused by the queen trying to rectify the suffering that she believes she has caused her lover. Doing so, she believes, will do him justice in that it will let him finally heal. While the entire episode between the lover and the wife was actually trickery, it does demonstrate that the wife cared deeply about him and wanted to put things right by undoing her initial transformations. Thus, the initial transformations in this story were perpetrated through her anger at her husband at wounding her lover, though the later transformations were her attempt to reverse the harm she believed she had caused to do her lover justice.
Transformations are seen throughout the stories of The Thousand and One Nights, and through closer analysis it can be seen that they share a number of common elements. In the stories that feature transformations, the initial transformation is always prompted by or caused out of anger. In the first story it is the jealous anger of the wife towards her adulterous husband and his illegitimate son that causes the first transformations, in the second story it is the anger of the wife towards the brothers who tried to murder her and her husband, in the third story it can be inferred that it is the anger of the wife at the discovery of her adultery, and in the final story it is the anger of the wife at her husband’s wounding of her lover. These transformations serve as punishment for the transformed, and thus can be perceived by the transformer as bringing justice against a wrong which the transformed has caused. Transformations later in the stories also all serve to rectify wrongs and thus bring justice, either by reverting earlier transformations which were unjust, as was the case in the third story where the innocent husband was transformed into a dog or in the first story where the innocent son was transformed into a bull, or by bringing about the transformation of the initial transformer. In the stories where transformations are featured, then, they play integral parts to the plot. They incite conflict in the story through their punishing of the transformed, and later they resolve the conflict by rectifying the wrongs done and bringing about justice.