One day, in the midst of some grueling labor, an impoverished porter (named Sinbad, though he is not the story's namesake) decides to rest outside a grand palace in Baghdad. Curious about the building's luxury, he asks one of its servants about the owner, and learns that it is inhabited by a rich, noble sailor who who was extremely famous for his incredible travels.
Jealous, the impoverished porter exclaims that the world is unjust, since some could be given such prosperity while he has to work so hard every day. A moment later, a palace servant summons him inside; the sailor wishes to speak with him.
Inside, the porter meets the owner: Sinbad the sailor. He is surrounded by several friends. The sailor wishes to defend his wealth by telling the stories of his seven voyages. He insists that his good fortune came only at the cost of severe hardship and struggles. He then begins by relating the first of his voyages to the assembled company.
Sinbad's first voyage
Sinbad had inherited much wealth from his parents, but he spent it quickly due to poor, youthful decisions. Without any money, he set off to sea as a merchant sailor. He quickly grew accustomed to the sea, and began to make money at various ports.
One day, the ship docked on an island, and the sailors made a fire, only to discover that they were actually on the back of a whale. As the fire started burning, the whale dove deep into the ocean, leaving Sinbad floundering on a piece of wood as his ship fled without him. He was stranded in the middle of the sea.
Eventually, he drifted onto an island. There, he helped a horsegroom to save a mare from being drowned by a mystical, powerful sea horse. He then learned that the horsegroom served King Mihrage, who ruled the island. The horsegroom gladly brought the sailor to meet Mihrage.
The king graciously received Sinbad, giving him everything he needed. Sinbad befriended other merchants and sailors on the island, so he was in a position to recognize a chest with his name on it when a ship docked on the island one day. He quickly realized that this was the very ship that had left him. Sinbad's captain initially doubted the sailor's claim - they all believed Sinbad had drowned - but was eventually convinced.
Before leaving the island, Sinbad gave King Mihrage some of his rediscovered belongings as gifts, and the king bestowed him with valuable gifts in return. During the ship's return to Baghdad, Sinbad progressively traded these gifts for items of more value, so that he was incredibly wealthy when he arrived home.
After finishing the story of his first voyage, Sinbad gives the porter some money to take back to his family, and bids him return the following night to hear more.
Sinbad's second voyage
The next night, the porter indeed returns, to find the company gathered again to hear of Sinbad's second voyage.
Though wealthy after his first voyage, Sinbad eventually became restless of staying in one place. Longing again for the sea, he set sail.
The ship docked one day at a seemingly uninhabited island, and the sailors went out to explore. It being a lovely day, Sinbad fell into a nap. Unfortunately, he awoke to find he had been accidentally left behind (again).
On the island, he discovered a massive white orb, and realized it was the egg of giant, mythical, dangerous bird called the roc. Determined to get off the island, he hid amongst the nest until the roc landed, and then strapped himself to the bird's leg. When it took flight again, it carried Sinbad to a valley far away. Unfortunately, this valley was not only impossible to climb out of, but it was also full of the roc's natural prey: huge snakes that could swallow an elephant. Worst of all, Sinbad was running out of provisions. The valley floor was also covered with beautiful diamonds, though their value offered Sinbad nothing in his predicament.
Luckily, he surmised that the snakes hibernated during daytime to avoid the roc, so he hid away at night. Growing weary, he tried to nap one day, but was awoken by huge slabs of meat which were being thrown down from above. He suddenly remembered hearing stories of this place. Merchants would come to the valley when eagles were hatching their young, and throw meat to the valley floor hoping diamonds would stick to it and the eagles would carry the meat to their nests. The merchants were then in position to raid the nests and collect the diamonds.
Sinbad then devised a plan - he collected several diamonds and strapped himself to a piece of meat. After an eagle carried the meat to its nest, he was rescued by a merchant, whom he thanked with several diamonds.
He then joined those merchants on their ship, trading the diamonds for progressively more valuable items during his journey home. When he reached Baghdad, he was even richer than before.
His second story completed, Sinbad gives the porter more money, and then bids him return on the following evening to hear of his third voyage.
As is the case with several other stories, the Sinbad tales were first included in the Arabian Nights collection by translator Antoine Galland. And yet they are natural fits. Not only do the tales of Sinbad fit well within Scheherazade's frame story, but they also employ the frame structure, thereby continuing to comment on the art of storytelling as do many other Arabian Nights tales.
In fact, Sinbad's tales offer an interesting to parallel to Scheherazade's. Much as she does, Sinbad tells a different story every night. And yet his motives are quite distinct from hers - while Scheherazade tells stories primarily to save lives, Sinbad more explicitly wishes to change his listener. He not only wants the porter to understand that he deserves his wealth, but moreover wants to encourage a greater understanding of hardship and fortune in his listener. In other words, Sinbad wishes his stories to be not only entertaining, but also didactic. He hopes to impart some level of virtue. Of course, as is the case with all the collection's stories, the greater purpose is contingent on the story's entertainment value. Implicitly, the Arabian Nights reminds us time and again that stories can produce amazing results, but they must first and foremost be fun to listen to.
Sinbad (the sailor) is definitely an interesting character. For someone with so much wealth, he is notably generous and compassionate. He could have merely ignored the porter's lament, but instead takes pity on the man and attempts to enlighten him. Further, the fact that he gives the porter money each night after the stories suggests his own understanding of the world's unfairness. At the same time that he feels entitled to his wealth, he recognizes the travails of the poor.
Perhaps Sinbad is aware that not every man is born with such resourcefulness and talent. His own stories reveal these qualities. He is always able to concoct an escape plan, even in the grips of fatigue or hunger. One could argue that luck is too often on his side - appearing in the guise of the falling meat or the returning ship, for instance - but Sinbad is only in position to capitalize on this luck because he perseveres. Instead of falling into despair, he always remains observant, devoted towards getting back home, so that when the opportunity presents itself, he is in position to take advantage of it.
Sinbad's stories also provide much insight into the values of his time. First, they express the importance of sea trade during this period of history. Many people made their livelihood as merchants, and would spend months away from home in order to support their families. Some of the important trading materials of this time were diamonds, other precious stones, sandalwood, camphor, coconuts, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, aloes, ambergris, and ivory, all of which Sinbad obtains at some point during his quests. The ability of this Islamic empire to capitalize on trade was essential for supporting large parts of its population which would otherwise be indigent.
King Mihrage's willingness to help Sinbad when he is a castaway also speaks volumes of the importance of hospitality in cultures around this time. Turning away a guest, particularly one in need, was considered the height of dishonor. This was particularly true for nobles who had a lot to offer. In return, the guest was expected to show his gratitude in whatever way possible. Sinbad conforms to this expectation by presenting the king with gifts before he sets sail once more. Hospitality and cordiality was expected in this society, even towards merchants trading at sea.
Finally, these stories are unique in the collection because they most closely align with the epic tradition. While many of the Arabian Nights stories are concerned with human nature, the Sinbad stories are most explicitly adventure stories. Epics were produced during antiquity in many of the ancient cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, early Indian civilizations, early China, and more. Sinbad is arguably the best known of the Islamic empire's epics. Typically, these narratives feature a powerful figure who represents the values of his culture, and travels amongst large swaths of humanity (and otherwise), encountering a variety of adventures along the way. These stories could have been a conscious attempt to write in that vein, since Greek epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad had been around for several centuries, or may have been an unconscious reflection of the oral tradition that had preserved those type of tales. Either way, it is clear from even the first two voyage stories that they employ a remarkable amount of inventiveness and imagination.