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When you look into the wish trope, you tend to get pointed back to Aladdin from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights as the originator. But wishes in Aladdin really didn't work the way modern wishes do.

Modern wishes are covered with rules, you've got lists of things you just arbitrarily can't do because they would break the plot and/or be morally skeezy. They're legalistic and limiting, doing precisely what you say and nothing more even if common sense would say it should, because the story loves it some unexpected consequences. And you only get so many so you can't just address every problem in the story by throwing wishes at it until it stops being a problem. They're usually things that just happen, ontologically fundamental bits of the story which just happen, mechanism be damned.

Here's the jinn from Aladdin:

“Say whatso thou wantest of me? Here am I, thy Slave and Slave to whoso holdeth the Lamp; and not I alone, but all the Slaves of the Wonderful Lamp which thou hendest in hand.”

Here are some wishes being granted:

“O Slave of the Lamp, I am unhungered and 'tis my desire that thou fetch me somewhat to eat and let it be something toothsome beyond our means.” The Jinni disappeared for an eye-twinkle and returned with a mighty fine tray and precious of price, for that ‘twas all in virginal silver and upon it stood twelve golden platters of meats manifold and dainties delicate, with bread snowier than snow; also two silvern cups and as many black jacks full of wine clear-strained and long-stored.

“Ask, O my lord, whatso thou wantest.” The other replied, “I have demanded of the Sultan his daughter to wife and he hath required of me forty bowls of purest gold each weighing ten pounds and all to be filled with gems such as we find in the Gardens of the Hoard; furthermore, that they be borne on the heads of as many white handmaids, each attended by her black eunuch-slave, also forty in full rate; so I desire that thou bring all these into my presence.” “Hearkening and obeying, O my lord,” Quoth the Slave and, disappearing for the space of an hour or so, presently returned bringing the platters and jewels, handmaids and eunuchs; then, setting them before him the Marid cried, “This be what thou demandest of me: declare now an thou want any matter or service other than this.”

“Ask, O my lord whatso thou wantest;” and Alaeddin rejoined, “I require thee of a service grave and important which thou must do for me, and 'tis that thou build me with all urgency a pavilion fronting the palace of the Sultan; and it must be a marvel for it shall be provided with every requisite, such as royal furniture and so forth.” The Slave replied, “To hear is to obey.” It hath reached me, O King of the Age, that the Slave evanished and, before the next dawn brake, returned to Alaeddin and said, “O my lord, the pavilion is finished to the fullest of thy fancy; and, if thou wouldst inspect it, arise forthright and fare with me.”

...

And all this was the work of one night.

There's no limit on how many wishes can be granted, there don't really seem to be things the genie will refuse to do on moral grounds or whatever, the jinn is doing what Aladdin tells him to, but isn't exactly doing just enough and nothing not explicitly stated. The Jinn takes time to do big things, he's clearly using some sort of mechanism to get things done. He doesn't even seem to be granting concrete "wishes" so much as just "doing things that Jinns do while serving his master".

So, what story did the modern wish, or at least its characteristic embellishments, actually come from?

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    I need time to research a proper answer, but I believe that this may come, in part, from The Twilight Zone. The moral/twist ending predates that show, but previous story-tellers would never teach the protagonist a lesson and then give him no chance to redeem himself. Thus the consequences of wishing poorly would allow for those to be reversed. If this predates Twilight Zone, then my next best guess is a pulp magazine from the 1930s or 1940s. I seriously doubt it can go back further than that. – John O Nov 20 '15 at 19:00
  • Pedantic here but in the second Aladdin story, we do find that there is a limit to the wishes- wishing for the Roc's egg will typically end up with the Djinn killing you for your arrogance in absolute fury. The only reason why Aladdin survives is that the Djinn know what is really going on, but it's a real shock to read when it happens. – Broklynite Nov 20 '15 at 20:15
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    It's not clear that the jinn in the quote actually has the power to grant arbitrary wishes, as opposed to just having specific sorts of powers involving moving pre-existing objects from one place to another very rapidly. Did the jinn in the original story every do things like creating objects from nothing, altering human thoughts or memories, etc.? In traditional Islamic beliefs about jinn they were supposed to be mortal beings just like ourselves, so I'd presume their powers would have been imagined as more limited than those of, say, angels, and they definitely wouldn't be omnipotent. – Hypnosifl Nov 20 '15 at 23:04
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You're really talking about the difference between classic and postmodern storytelling. Traditional fairy tales are archetypal and filled with unexplained magic. They tend to be psychologically rich, but with few if any concessions towards realism and believability. Modern storytelling tends to be more self-aware and critical. Characters are expected to be more complex, and plots and settings to have at least some realist aspects.

In that context, authors who continued to be compelled by fairy tale plots and settings made alterations to them to better fit the modern style. Thus, in the Disney version of Aladdin, which marked that studio's transition from a more traditional storytelling style to a more modern one, the opportunity to make wishes was introduced with a set of rules attached. This was to prevent clever-minded audience members from spending the movie wondering "well, why didn't he just wish to...?"

By the time the movie came out, rule-governed wishes were already a cliche of revisionist fairy tale storytelling. There's likely no one single originator, the need to limit the power of wishes in the interests of believability probably occurred to any number of authors working similar terrain.

  • Good answer with a great first paragraph. I can add the classical storytelling is more honest with the audience in the way both the teller and the listener knows the whole tale is allegorical and focus on the archetypes and the message to be passed instead of pretending the magic is factibilie – jean Nov 20 '15 at 19:16
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    Funnily enough, part of why I asked this question was because I was thinking about how much less believable and realistic the modern version was. The Jinn in the original version was pretty much presented as a powerful critter with the property of doing what the person with the lamp told him to and an ability to perform certain tasks that far exceeded that of a human but was never implied to be unlimited. It's the sort of thing you can actually envision existing in some sort of coherent world, more so than the modern genie's literally limitless power with three arbitrary and unjustified rules. – Saidoro Nov 21 '15 at 1:54

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