Sir Richard Burton has said "there is no 'Nights' without the nights," and I agree with him. Without the frame story of the "Thousand Nights and a Night," the stories themselves--while still a fascinating collection of Oriental folklore filled with fine examples of the extemporaneous storyteller's art--lack resonance and depth. As told by Scheherazade, however, each individual story is not only a stratagem enabling her literally to keep her head on her shoulders for one more night, but--taken together--they also function as a three-year course in civility and tolerance for her murderous spouse, a man made vicious and half-mad by a former wife's adultery. The corpus of the tales--by exhibiting examples of a variety of women (the virtuous and resourceful as well as the manipulative and adulterous), by showing the consequences of revenge and the beauties of forgiveness--help Scheherazade heal the psychically wounded shah who in time becomes not only a good man but also a good king, one who appreciates not only the mystery of woman, but also the importance of mercy and compassion--praise be to Allah, the source of both!--in the pageant of human existence.
Like all great books--as opposed to the perfect merely good ones--"The Arabian Nights" can often be infuriating. Many of the tales are little more than examples of what Henry James termed the easiest form of fictional invention, the improvisation, and others are too coarse for the modern sensibility, with their humor or horror derived from dwarfs, paralytics and the maimed. At the best, however, the tales are mesmerizing, creating a world of marvels that is nevertheless so gritty and real that you can almost smell the scents of the bazaar and see the variety of people parading down the palace avenues, crowding into the alleys and streets. And then, of course, there are the maidens, each as beautiful as a moon.
The very best tales are the ones you already know--The Fisherman and the Djinn, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor--but there are others here almost as good: "The Tale of Three Apples" tells a story of rift and reconciliation across the generations that-in its bittersweet, twilight wisdom--reminds me of the tragi-comedies of Shakespeare, and "The Tale of Judar and his Brothers"--a darker, more marvelous version of the biblical story of Joseph--unites magic and tragedy in a surprising and memorable way.