The Mechanical Horse

Adapted by Joseph McCaleb, Copyright 2005.
Based on Richard Burton's translation of The Ebony Horse .
See reference & notes following the tale.

photo of painting by Lauren Mathews

If the horse is about power, a natural and maybe instinctual kind of power, what happens when this becomes technological? What happens when a human’s natural ways of accessing the most essential drive that he or she has goes into a mechanical mode? Here’s an old story about the awe (awesome and/or awful) related to such a possibility.

It’s the beginning of the New Year, New Year’s Day! But not January 1. For it’s not when the nights are long but when the sun is at its peak. It’s the solar new year and we are in a land that openly celebrates that day. The Sultan of Shiraz, the Emperor of Persia, leads the celebration. As his subjects come before him in the courtyard of his castle where he presides from the balcony, he tosses gifts for them. It’s a festival. Marvelous feasts are planned.

Guests come to the court also. The last among them is a Hindu, or perhaps an Indian, or maybe he’s a Persian. The accounts I’ve heard tell this differently, so you can take your pick. In any case, they all agree on what he brings. It’s a horse, of course. But not just any horse, a magical horse, an “artificial” horse by one account. Most say the horse looked real, magnificently real, but was actually made of wood, of ebony. Like a black stallion, the horse appears and caparisoned, dressed as fit for the emperor!

Ah and did I tell you that the emperor is drawn to science and geometry. That’s what they tell me. So his eyes light up at this new invention. The visitor who brought the horse bows low before the emperor and when rising, he says, “Greetings, Majesty. I have here a wonder like none in the world.”

“Yes, I see that,” replies the Emperor of Persia, “this horse is quite a spectacle.” He notes that embedded in the shiny dark wood there are gold inlaid and jewels that catch the light: diamonds, rubies, emeralds; just the way his black Arabian stallion sparkles. But this is a wooden horse and these are gems. Still, from his special interest in inventions, the Emperor asks, “What can this fine-looking spectacle do?”

“Indeed!” says the stranger, “Your interest in science has not gone unnoticed in the world, your Majesty. What this horse can do is the greatest wonder of all. This horse can take you wherever you wish to be and with such speed. Why what would take you a year to travel, this invention can do in a day! We await your command.” And the strange one bows again.

Yes. Yes! Have you never wanted something fantastic and wanted it now? Some gleam of your eye. Some love or lust of your heart? Don’t say you haven’t. And this emperor – does he not already have beyond the reaches of our imagination? But this wonder. Why it’s too much to believe.

“Show me!” this king of science says in a low voice, careful in this terrain where passionate desire runs over what can really be.

“Yes, of course. Where would you have the horse take me?”

The Sultan points to a distant mountain. “Go there. And from the base of the mountain fetch me a branch of a palm tree.”

The strange man nods, perhaps with a trace of a grim smile, and he puts his foot to the stirrup. With surprising agility he mounts up, puts his hand near the pommel and shoots up as fast as lightning moves, hesitates but as a quiver and speeds toward the mountain. In less than a quarter-hour, he hovers above us again, making a few circle movements for show and lighting down, softly with a palm branch in his hand. He dismounts, bows again, and lays the palm at the foot of the crown.

The Sultan glimmers, “How much will you take for this spectacle? Name your price.” Did I tell you that this sultan was the richest of all the sultans of Persia? Yes. No price could be too great.

“There is but one thing for which I would exchange this treasure,” returns the stranger. What do you imagine? What might this commander of the empire, this insatiable desire for invention, the passion for getting there now, have to pay for such a treasure? “The hand of your daughter in marriage.”

Now some say the attendants, the advisors of the emperor, laugh at this stranger’s audacity. No matter what his invention, how could he presume to suggest that he could win the hand of the beauty, unmatched in all the land! And would such an unknown stranger as this stand to inherit the throne? Unimaginable! An embarrassment to have said to said such a thing. An outrage for such presumption!

But the emperor has remained silent. As if he might even be considering it. Has the King of Science been distracted from the Beauty of Nature, by the quest of power, of speed? Had he not yet commanded this insolent invader to be gone? No, he has not.

So the king’s son, the Prince, steps forward and requests a word, “Sire? Perhaps I might inspect this invention.” Does he say this to give his father time to realize what has been asked, to perceive the enormity of this insult? Does he himself, a noted man of the horse, long for the ride? Some accounts say one thing, some another. You may as well gauge his intention.

But his father who is also the father of the princess who has now left the wings of the balcony, who has rushed to her own rooms to hide her tears, who burst out in despair over the stranger whose straggly hair was grayed and spare, whose teeth where there were still some were gross when they could be seen beneath his drooling camel-like lips, whose cheeks were splotched like eggplant—this emperor recognizes a good idea at once. He says to the Prince, “Yes, of course, inspect this horse.”

The prince strides to the stranger, “With your permission, sir?”

The stranger seems only too willing, nodding, bending, backing a bit.

The prince circles the ebony horse. The crowd begins to buzz in anticipation. He puts his hand on the neck, near the pommel where the stranger had touched. He walks to the left side and looks at the stirrup. The stranger nods. The prince mounts up and puts his right hand up to where he had touched. The horse and rider shoot up as an arrow and everyone gasps. Even the stranger appears surprised and shocked.

The Emperor is struck most and demands, “Tell him to come back!”

The stranger falls before the throne, “Alas. My voice cannot reach them. No voice is so strong. But Sire,” he rises on one knee, “surely the Prince will discover the means of descent. Though he was gone before I had time to instruct him, he is an accomplished man and surely he will find the means to control this invention.”

The Sultan of Shiraz looks less certain. He seems troubled. He commands his guards to hold this stranger. Some say he calls for a whipping, bastinado. He tells the stranger that should the prince not return or at least word of his safety arrive in three days, the stranger will pay with his life.

Meanwhile the Prince has flown nearer the sun. He turns the device in his fingers the other way but the horse speeds on and the landscape below has disappeared. Trying to suppress the panic, the prince inspects the horse more closely as best he can while in such precarious flight. There on the left side, where else? There, a device he discovers. The left hand, of course, touches the unmentionable, the “privates,” we might say. But he’s desperate so he tries that hand too and turning the device the ride is changed. More slowly, they begin a descent. He learns to alternate the hands and using what he well knows of the rein, they return near the earth.

Well, not the same earth, not the kingdom he’d left, but strange parts of the world. By now the day is spent and darkness is near. He spies a building with spires and walls resembling his home but distinctly different. He settles the horse on an upper level in the starlight, unobserved. Now he knows his hunger and thirst and sets out to explore on foot this palatial building. There’s a candlelit door with a guard stretched out, huge with scimitar but conveniently sleeping. The Prince softly steps around him and goes on, enters the room, sees an array of beds with one clearly raised higher. To that one he advances until he sees such beauty as never before. He gently touches her sleeve. Some say he kisses her well.

Her lashes widen and she looks out unsurprised perhaps as if still in a dream. She speaks with the lush residue of sleep, “Sir, whence have you come?”

Trying to collect himself, but well mannered of course, the Prince lowers his gaze and apologizes for such an entry. He speaks of a magic horse not unlike what one might find in a dream. Is she waking or no?

The Princess, for she is of course the daughter of the ruler of this Bengal land, remembers her own manners and asks if the traveler must not be hungry and tired. The Prince admits he is ravished. In time they attend to such matters.

Now again, the stories diverge as to how this next part transpires, but it seems to me that such an encounter as this might create a bit of a scandal and favor those that admit the princess’ father was rather disturbed when he discovered that any young man had entered his virgin daughter’s chamber. Whether he was Prince or not, he would pay with his life. When confronted, the Prince leaps to defend his honor as well as that of his love! The King takes second thought for the young man might undo him. He could call his guard but what of the scandal? And what if they thought that he’d been unequal to the intruder?

So while rushing about in his mind for a better solution, the prince offers this. “Your majesty, what if I challenge your guard to a match? How many can you array?”

Well, the Bengal ruler has forty thousand horsemen and men on foot as well. All these he offers to spare for such an event. He’s relieved to see such a resolution to this troubling matter. No matter how strong this young man thinks himself to be, he can hardly defeat his army.

At the rise of the next day, all is made ready. All the king’s men on one side and the Prince on the other. But before the commander calls to his horsemen to charge, the Prince coolly asks, “Would it not be fair if I were given horse?”

The King, “I’d offered you the pick of our steeds.”

The Prince, “I’d rather my own.”

And with the King’s consent, he has his contraption brought down from the roof. A horse, not real, up on the roof—the soldiers smirk at the silliness of royalty. What will they think of next, they joke, as each boasts of who will first split that arrogant . . . Well, you can imagine how such soldiers would talk preparing themselves for war.

You may also well imagine their faces, the disbelieving shock in their eyes turning upward when they rush for the mounted Prince. For he has risen even out of arrow reach, even past the curses of the King. And after a few, perhaps discourteous circles about, he disappears from their sight. The King while a bit angry, has not really disliked the chap, and yet is relieved that such an intrusion’s gone. Even the scandal is unlikely to amount to much, for the people will most likely just make a fairy tale of it.

But to the Princess it has become all too real. Her heart has been stolen and taken away on the magical horse. She retires to her chambers in tears and will not be consoled. None of the physicians’ wares, none of their incantations even, can sooth her loss. Dare she even sleep? What if another dream comes?

The Prince returns home much to the joy of the Sultan Shiraz, probably even to the relief of the Stranger who had brought the Ebony Horse for he still has his head.

But the joy and relief will be broken. For at the return of the Prince on this Magical Horse, this brings back the trouble of cost. And has the Emperor reconsidered what he will give? What is the worth of one thing, and the other? But he is a lover of science and geometry, of such inventions as these, and to get to his wishes that quick! Well?

Well, we’ll have another reprieve, of sorts. For the Prince, having reassured his father, begins to despair of the lovely Princess he’s fled. So he slips away, again to the horse, again to the Bengal rooftop by night, to the chamber and into the dreams of his love. He asks her if she’s missed him. Of course. And will she go with him. Ah, yes! So they’re off with her arms twined on his waist on that marvelous horse. Back to his land.

There he lands and leaves her in a garden. “Rest here, dear, while I advise my father of your arrival.” Things have to be just so, don’t you know?

So he tells the Sultan. Having lost his son twice already, the Sultan storms off to the Stranger. “Be gone and take that invention away. Never come back if you value your life.”

The Stranger is not pleased with this turn of events. He’s been insulted and besides that he’s denied his desire, his wife. But wait. Was not there word of another? A princess. Perhaps one is almost as good as another.

When he gets to his magical, technical horse, there is a princess nearby! It takes but little invention for such as he is to assemble a plan. “Mount up with me, my sweet,” he instructs her. “It’s the Prince’s wish that you arrive at the court on this amazing contraption, this wonder of my own design. Just think what an entrance that will be. You’ll be all the talk of every land.”

Well, if that’s the way, the Prince wants it, she consents. While she’d rather not get too near the ugly old man, she holds her breath and climbs on. At once, they are over the heads of the Sultan, the Prince, and all of the land. But no, no, he will not bring her down! Curses are thrown both up-ways and down. Insults. Commands. You can well imagine the words they use. The Prince and the Princess are mostly past words. How can it be all has gone so wrong? What is brought by this magical horse, this power of science to get one’s desire faster, even this instant?

Tired of just words, the Inventor speeds on, leaving the insults way behind. How can his work be treated so badly. It’s not at all what a genius deserves!

Far, far, safely away, he lands. Safely for him—but for her? The driver insists that the Princess is his. Wife, he calls her! She’s not amused. She tells him she’s already given herself to the Prince. Her hand joins there with her heart. There, there with the Prince.

The Designer is even less amused. He commands her. He takes her by the arm. And would more than that, but a hunting party is near. Hearing the quarrel, they race up. They apprehend the man. Though he insist that she is his wife, the one in charge of the hunt takes it in at once. The woman is noble and he but a rough sort of fellow. Though a magician, perhaps. The leader of the hunt, of course, is ruler of this land, Cashmir, it happens to be.

Now, some say he immediately beheads the magician, but others (with whom I agree) say he puts him in jail. For can such ever really be done with? All say this King takes the beauty as well as the horse. You could say he puts each of them in prison too. For the horse is laid amid his treasure store, and this beauty he too swears must be, yes, alas, his wife. Haven’t we’ve heard this before?

Though this king seems a better match than that old magician, he’s still not her Prince, not the Beloved. For that she must go mad, or to all appear as quite mad. So when the King of Cashmir announces the marriage date, she charges him as befitting a lioness or even a tiger of Bengal. He’s not hurt but his pride. Still, he can’t deny her beauty. He keeps her secure while he’s calling all his physicians to cure her. She attacks them as well.

Perhaps having been given the Prince of her dreams, then losing her land, been stolen by that cruel deception, that hideous man, and now even the arrogance of the ruler of this land! Well, we wouldn’t be surprised at all if she’s lost her wits, her grace and her charm. Maybe she has transformed, into the tigress.

The ruler’s doctors cannot touch her, so he sends emissaries out through the lands offering treasure for a healer who can make her well. Well, well enough so he can wed her.

Back in Persia, the Prince sets out to find his beloved again. But this time he has no magical horse. Instead, he asks for the dress of a dervish. He grows a long beard. He goes alone and asks as he travels if any have strange tales to be heard. It’s sort of the work of a bard, a minstrel, this travel after the scent of a magical tale that is true.

How long does this take? Whether long or short, we’ll get there. He hears rumors of a land where a king asks for a healer. A healer of what? Of madness. Why a madness, he sighs, for it doesn’t sound like what he’s after. Well, they say, the story is that a horse brought a man with a maid. The Prince-dervish asks, “That could happen anywhere; why is it strange? Why do you make it a tale such as it is worthy of spending our time?”

Be patient. The horse was not just any horse, nor the man, nor the maid. The horse , they say, came not in the usual way, for it was wood, dark in color, perhaps? The dervish picks up his attention, “Say more.” And the teller goes on to say that the man called the maid his wife, but that she denied it. And she looked much too fine for such an old rascal. He might even have been a magician, an inventor, a man of science! “Where? Tell me where?” The eyes of the dervish look wildly mad as if he were whirling and whirling in one of their mad dances.

“Where? Why it’s a story, my man? I first heard it further on that way.” The teller points; the dervish slips him a jewel. Who would have thought?

Soon enough, although in our time it isn’t as fast as on that magical horse. For he’s going on foot, unless he knows to bring along a real horse. But one way or the other, the dervish prince has found that Cashmir land. He’s heard more tales and pondered them. How the maid was mad! How the ruler would wed her! How the horse had only been seen on the ground. But he still has questions, what of the magician? Could the horse yet be found? And the woman, how far is she gone?

He tells some messenger that he knows a bit of healing. He will take his chances with madness. The ruler welcomes him, warns him. Perhaps he even tells him what happens to false healers. In most stories, unlike life of course, the risk of trying is one’s life.

The dervish says that he will see her but it must be done quietly. Any chance of success requires he must see her alone. The king agrees. He’s sure that the tigress defends herself quite well. He cares little whether the dervish escapes unscratched.

The dervish is given admission to the tigress’ bare chamber, for all pots have been smashed and furniture broken. She snarls at the intruder. She’s never seen that long beard, those dusty robes. But his voice stops her at once. That she knows. What madness she has, the voice that had awakened her dreams, that finds a way through. He tells her yes, it is he, but hold, they must take care. That she well knows. Her madness is as nothing like that of the men who try to take her like an object of science.

“The horse?” he asks her. “I must be brief. Do you know if it still works? We must make a plan of escape.”

She thinks her captors have not discovered the ways of that horse. None there have seen it fly. The magician would not have disclosed it. They have beaten him and shut him away. They refuse to take him close to the king. They’ve just shut him away, as far as she knows.

So the dervish returns to the Cashmir King. He says there is hope for she hasn’t scratched him. Well, not much. For his face looks a bit touched. “Now, to deal with this madness,” he goes on, “I must know of how you found her.” And thus he hears of the horse. He says he should see it. Such is done and under inspection, he believes it unharmed.

So he arranges for a healing. He says that the mad woman must return to that horse, to the place of enchantment. When they get there, he advises all around to make room lest they be harmed. They are well aware of that tigress and only too willing to grant them the space. They mostly want to see her scratch this dervish’s eyes out. What a spectacle this will make!

Indeed. But not as they’d thought. For when they’ve made room and she’s climbed up on that wooden horse, the dervish leaps on too. And before they’ve even taken a breath, the princess and dervish speed on that horse so far overhead! They hear that dervish-man shout to them all, “a woman will not be had.” A princess, this beauty of nature, will not be held and bent by heartless hands.

Or something like that. The whole thing made so little sense to them, but it is great for stories to tell and they do.

The Prince and the Princess do just what they should in such a tale. They safely return to that Persian land. They are formally wed. They invite the Princess’ dad. He is glad. The father of the Prince has the wooden horse retired. The unsought fruit of such desires as get carried on a mechanical horse-thing will not be brought upon him again, nor on his land. And in their time, the new Prince and Princess assume the throne and live, well, some want to say “happily ever after.” I’ll let it go, “as best they can.” And, as you know, for newly-weds, it’s not bad ‘til the first child gets the colic.


Versions of Ebony/Mechanical Horse

Based on Burton’s translation

Burton, R. Tales from the Arabian Nights. Over 50 tales edited by David Shumaker from Burton’s 10 volume The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night and his 6 volume Supplemental Nights (1885-1888). NY: Avenel, 1978. “The Ebony Horse” is on pp. 353-384. Burton has the footnote: “This tale (one of those translated by Galland) is best and fullest in the Bresl. Edit. iii. 329.” It begins in Night 357 and continues into Night 371.

Burton , R. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. (6 volumes in 3 books). NY: Heritage Press, 1885/1934(1962). “The Ebony Horse” is on pp. 1567-1598, notes begin on 1630. This appears identical to the Avenel copy.

Chagall, M. Arabian Nights. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1948/1999. “The Ebony Horse” is on pp. 9-36 and includes 3 color paintings and 3 line drawings by Chagall which he did around 1847. The publication says the tale is taken from R. Burton’s translation entitled The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night published by the Burton Club, London, in 1906. The wording is more concise than the 1885-1888 version cited above and it deletes the footnotes. It begins in Night 357 and continues into Night 371.

Zipes, J. The Arabian Nights. NY: Penguin, 1991. “The Ebony Horse” is on pp.74-104. Adapted from Burton’s unexpurgated translation. Zipes has night divisions but does not number them.

A Few Other Translations

Lane, EW. (Trans.) The Arabian Nights. NY: Tudor, 1927. (Complete 1838-1840 Lane Trans.) “The Story of the Magic Horse” pp. 523-540 with no night numbers nor breaks.

Lang, A. Arabian Nights Entertainments. NY: Dover , 1898/1969. “The Enchanted Horse” pp. 160-180 with no night numbers nor breaks. (Has one gift, the horse, and one daughter.)

Townsend, (Trans.). The Arabian Nights Entertainments. Chicago : Rand, McNally & Co, nd. (632 pp.) “The Story of the Enchanted Horse” pp. 153-169. (Has one gift from a Hindu, Prince Feroze-shah finds “behind the right ear another peg, smaller than the other (in the hollow of the neck)


Pinault dates Alf Layla wa Layla (The Thousand Nights and One Night) to 9th century manuscripts (p. 5). (Pinault, D. Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Leiden , the Netherlands : Brill, 1992.)

This tale is not in the earliest collection according to Mahdi (Mahdi, M. The Thousand and One Nights . Leiden:. E.J. Brill, 1995. ) & Haddawy (Haddawy, H., Trans. The Arabian Nights. NY: Norton, 1990 & The Arabian Nights II. NY: Norton, 1995.). It does not appear to be in Dawood, 1954/1973.

Other sources:

Irwin, R. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. NY: TaurisParke, 1994.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. New Arabian Nights. NYH: Current Literature Publishing, 1912.

Wesley, Kathryn. Arabian Nights (based on a screenplay by Peter Barnes). NY: Hallmark Entertainment Books, 2000.




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