An old, poor fisherman barely catches enough to support his family, but has a rule he refuses to break: he only casts his nets out four times per day.
One day, the old fisherman catches nothing from his first cast. His second seems to catch something heavy, but he is disappointed to discover it is only a donkey carcass. His third cast catches a basket full of trash. His fourth yields a large, heavy yellow pot that is sealed shut.
The old fisherman is delighted, sure that he will be able to sell it. However, when he breaks the seal, smoke emerges and forms into a jinni (a genie). The jinni initially believes that he has been released by King Solomon, the jinni king who had imprisoned him in the pot. He fears Solomon means to kill him, but then learns from the old fisherman that Solomon has been dead for centuries. As a gift, the pot jinni offers to let the fisherman choose how he wants to die.
The fisherman is naturally confused, so the jinni explains. For the first century that he was trapped underwater in the pot, the jinni promised himself that he would make whomever rescued him rich. During his second century imprisoned, he decided he would grant his rescuer all the world's treasures. For the next century, he planned to grant his rescuer three wishes per day. Finally, after four hundred years of imprisonment, the resentful jinni swore he would kill whoever rescued him, offering only to let that person choose the way he wanted to die.
Desperate, the fisherman develops a plan. Aloud, he doubts that the jinni could have fit in the pot, considering his immense size. To prove it, the jinni dissolved back into smoke and returned to the pot. The fisherman immediately shut and sealed the lid, trapping the jinni inside once more.
The jinni swears that he will repay the fisherman if the latter frees him, but the fisherman expresses his doubts. He then tells the jinni a story to explain why he does not believe the spirit - that story is "The Vizier and the Sage Duban," summarized elsewhere in this ClassicNote.
After the story, the old fisherman agrees to free the jinni if the spirit promises to help him. The jinni complies, and kicks the pot into the ocean once freed.
However, he keeps his promise, leading the fisherman to a distant pond in the mountains. From the pond, the fisherman catches four colorful fish, but promises he will only toss his net into this pond once a day. The fisherman sells his mystical fish to the kingdom's sultan, who pays healthily for them.
However, these fish are special; every time one is fried, a person walks through the wall to question the fish, and the fish answer. That person then flips the pan, and the fish chars to ash.
After the first instance, the curious sultan's vizier asks the fisherman for more, but he must wait until the next day in order to keep his promise to the jinni. Eventually, the curious sultan sees the miracle, and asks the fisherman to bring them to the pond.
Soon afterwards, the curious sultan sets out to the pond alone, against his vizier's wishes. Near the pond, he finds a palace, and enters to discover a young man who is half-stone. The man is crying, and tells the curious sultan another branch story called "The Ensorcelled Prince."
After the story, the curious sultan assists the sad prince in securing revenge, and they become close friends. In turn, the fisherman is rewarded when his son is appointed as kingdom's treasurer, and his daughters are married to both the curious sultan and the prince.
The story of the fisherman and the jinni is quite the frame story in itself. Though not all these stories are detailed here, there are two additional stories that branch off from this one and are included in The Arabian Nights. The first is the one that the fisherman tells to the jinni ("The Vizier and the Sage Duban," summarized elsewhere in this ClassicNote), and the one that the prince tells to the curious sultan.
In both cases, these stories add another dimension to the original story. The way all these stories are intertwined says a lot about how integral storytelling and tradition was to this culture, and how much could be expressed through anecdotes and experiences. The prince gains an ally by telling his story, and the fisherman convinces the jinni to reward him through his fictional tale. Either way, the stories have significant stakes - which corresponds to the collection's primary frame story, in which Scheherazade tells stories in order to improve the world.
The story in fact works better as a frame than otherwise; the second half, after the fisherman's story, is hardly connected. The story of the curious sultan's trip seems like it could easily be its own unrelated story, and the magic of the fish has little to do with the genie at all. It is entirely possible that these stories were linked for the purpose of framing, rather than having always been considering part of the same narrative. The story of the curious sultan also breaks from a usual trend in these stories - while curiosity often causes trouble, the sultan's curiosity in this story saves the sad prince from his fate.
It is worth noting that the use of multiple frames can provide a fascinating experience for the interested reader. At the time of the fisherman's story, there is no definite reality that the reader can 'return' to. Is the real world Scheherazade's, the fisherman's, the vizier's, or ours? The collection provides no answer to this type of question, but rather suggests implicitly that our lives are made of intertwined stories that inform one another.
This story is obviously not the first time a genie has shown up in The Arabian Nights, but it certainly presents a different type of genie than we usually expect. In stories like "Aladdin's Lamp," the genies are generous and compliant. This genie, however, has grown wrathful and bitter. It's an unsettling concept, imagining something with that much power also being capable of cruelty; it speaks volumes about the very human fear of a powerful figure using its abilities for evil, with us completely at their mercy. Further, this genie implies the existence of a larger society of spirits, one that has a genie king that punishes. The very premise also whets the appetite for other stories about how genies operate when they are not simply serving the whims of their accidental masters.
Though the genie is sinister, the fisherman's response to the genie's threat is quite inspiring, offering a message to readers and listeners that an average person of humble means can outsmart even the most powerful of beings with just a bit of clear thinking. When the genie emerges from the pot the second time, it is on the fisherman's terms. Not only has the old fisherman proven himself smarter, but he has used his storytelling to dilute the spirit's wrath. Most characters in this collection stumble on good luck and have to work not to mess it up; the fisherman stumbles on bad luck and succeeds anyway, thanks to his own virtues.