Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Maxfield Parrish, illus. from  “Arabian Nights”

Spiritual Sunday

This is Epiphany Sunday, a time when Christians celebrate humankind’s realization—its epiphany—that divinity can appear in human form.  The revelation is captured within the memorable story, beloved by children, of the three wise men or three kings.  These figures from the mystical East stand in for the discriminating world and function as a worldly validation of the miracle. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh function as an expression of their gratitude .

We spend this Sunday with my son Darien and his wife in New York, where we are all expecting our own miraculous (to us anyway) birth: our first grandchild’s due date is less than a month away. Darien and Betsy received many children’s books for Christmas so this child will grow up in a reading environment, as did his or her father and grandfather. To bring together Epiphany and a future of stories, I run a playful poem by my father about the three wise men and the Arabian Nights.  My father used to read to me and my brothers the gorgeously illustrated (but expurgated) Maxfield Parrish version (adapted by Kate Wiggins).  Here he imagines the three wise men going through Baghdad on their way to find the child. The magic of the fantasy tales merges with the wonder of the Jesus story:

Tales of an Arabian Night

By Scott Bates

The Caliph sat in his big round hat
In Baghdad long ago

And heard the squeals of wagon wheels
In the market-place below
And the hawkers’ cries of their merchandise
To the crowd passing to and fro.

But he listened instead to Tales of Sinbad
And the Old Man of the Sea
And ferocious flocks of enormous Rocs
And a flying tapestry
And a beautiful slave and a treasure cave
That opened to “Sesame”;

And out of the land of Samarkand
Came stories of Seven Seas
And a mountain pass to a City of Brass
And a Tree with Singing Leaves
And Oil that slew a Cut-throat Crew
Of Thirty-seven Thieves;

And the noise of the town seemed to quiet down
As Scheherazade’s words
Danced a saraband from a magic land
To songs of exotic birds,
And the maiden’s lute was a shepherd’s flute
To bells of grazing herds;

Till the Parsees passed through the streets at last,
And the voice did finally cease,
And the evening star on the sleeping bazaar
And the drowsy palace police
Seemed to move with them toward Jerusalem
And the Tale of a Teacher of Peace.

The stories he alludes to can be found after the break.

–Sinbad the Sailor meets up with the Old Man of the Sea, who refuses to get off his back, as well as enormous predatory birds called rocs.
–Aladdin finds a flying carpet in the underground treasure cave.
–The treasure cave that opens to the words “Open Sesame”  appears in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”–37 of which are killed with boiling oil. The beautiful slave Morgiana tells Ali Baba what to do
–“The City of Brass” is about a group of explorers who venture upon an ancient city of brass, which includes a brass horseman robot who guides them.
–The tree of singing leaves is a tree whose leaves are so musical that every leaf sings in concert with the others.  It appears in “Story of the Sisters who Envied their Younger Sister.”
–Scheherezade is, of course, the storyteller and Samarkind is the land where she tells her stories.

Incidentally, the “drowsy palace police” remind me of the emperor in William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” where the poet alludes to another fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s Nightingale.”  Here’s the poem’s final stanza, where Yeats imagines himself as the mechanical nightingale that replaces the real one:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.



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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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