The Arabian Nights, formerly known as One Thousand and One Nights dates back to the 10th Century, although its exact date is difficult to prove, as is its exact origins. Some argue the tales have Iranian roots, some Indian, some Chinese, and some that the collection is likely to be a mixture from all different parts of the Middle East.
The Arabian Nights is a frame story. This simply means it is a story within a story. In this case there are meant to be one thousand and one stories within a story – although this varies depending on the edition.
The frame story tells the tale of two brothers, both of whom are disillusioned by their cheating spouses. One murders his wife and her lover but the other spares his wife. Together they leave their homeland in order to find a man more wretched than they. Eventually they stumble upon a demon. Whilst the demon sleeps, the demon’s woman seduces both of the brothers, taking their rings as mementos to join the other 98, from 98 previous lovers. After discovering this the brothers decide they have found a man more wretched than they. Upon returning home the second brother orders his wife to be killed and swears to marry a new woman every night, purely to murder her in the morning as an act of hate against all women. One day a King’s daughter decides she wants to put an end to the relentless killing. She asks her father to marry her to the second brother in the hope of breaking the cycle. She does this by beginning a story. The brother cannot bring himself to kill her before he knows the end so he lets her live a day longer. The next day she finishes the story before embarking on a new one. And so the cycle begins, for one thousand and one nights. By the end of that time the brother’s rage has subsided and he decides to keep her as a wife.
For me, this was a wonderful way to structure a series of what are effectively short stories. Although in a way The Arabian Nights is considered to be the beginning of fairy tales, they are not fairy tales in a classic sense. They are tales of mystery and magic, sex and crime, but they are a much closer relation to the folk tale than they are to the fairy tale. This framing technique draws you in with a good story right from the beginning and the cycle is clever, really clever.
It’s amazing how much you miss when you read these stories as a child. They’re definitely worth a reread in adulthood!