Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Overview

Our foremost theorist of myth, fairytales, and folktales explores the magical realm of the imagination where carpets fly, objects speak, dreams reveal hidden truths, and genies grant prophetic wishes. Stranger Magic examines the wondrous tales of the Arabian Nights, their profound impact on the West, and the progressive exoticization of magic since the eighteenth century, when the first European translations appeared.

The Nights seized European readers' imaginations during the ...

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Overview

Our foremost theorist of myth, fairytales, and folktales explores the magical realm of the imagination where carpets fly, objects speak, dreams reveal hidden truths, and genies grant prophetic wishes. Stranger Magic examines the wondrous tales of the Arabian Nights, their profound impact on the West, and the progressive exoticization of magic since the eighteenth century, when the first European translations appeared.

The Nights seized European readers' imaginations during the siècle des Lumières, inspiring imitations, spoofs, turqueries, extravaganzas, pantomimes, and mauresque tastes in dress and furniture. Writers from Voltaire to Goethe to Borges, filmmakers from Raoul Walsh on, and countless authors of children's books have adapted its stories. What gives these tales their enduring power to bring pleasure to readers and audiences? Their appeal, Marina Warner suggests, lies in how the stories' magic stimulates the creative activity of the imagination. Their popularity during the Enlightenment was no accident: dreams, projections, and fantasies are essential to making the leap beyond the frontiers of accepted knowledge into new scientific and literary spheres. The magical tradition, so long disavowed by Western rationality, underlies modernity's most characteristic developments, including the charmed states of brand-name luxury goods, paper money, and psychoanalytic dream interpretation.

In Warner's hands, the Nights reveal the underappreciated cultural exchanges between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and cast light on the magical underpinnings of contemporary experience, where mythical principles, as distinct from religious belief, enjoy growing acceptance. These tales meet the need for enchantment, in the safe guise of oriental costume.

Winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Lindgren
…formidable…Stranger Magic is obviously the product of a staggering amount of research and synthesis, and if it taxes the average lay reader, that is testament to its scope and ambition.
Publishers Weekly
This remarkable study is an arabesque, and an intricate Persian rug of themes, eras, tales, and authors—of the Middle East and West, playing on “states of consciousness” as well as state-cultures. With a basic knowledge of Arabic from childhood as well as a Catholic upbringing, Warner is almost divinely positioned to unravel the infinite strands of the wily Scheherazade, as she weaves her way through the Arabian Nights, exploring their boundless capacity to “keep generating more tales, in various media, themselves different but alike: the stories themselves are shape-shifters.” From Disney’s Aladdin to the works of Freud, Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, Warner explores the impact of the Arabian Nights on the West and the power of enchantment and fantasy. Like all myth, these of flying carpets, sofas, and beds of genies and heroic connivers grant lasting insights into human aspirations, transcendence, and love. Carefully documented, Warner’s ever shifting work takes its place alongside that of Edward Said, though she is refreshingly less polemical and less theoretical. No one need cover this enchanting ground again. 25 color, 55 b&w illus. (Mar.)
The Guardian - Hanif Kureishi
If we might forget how central [The Arabian Nights] tales are to our culture, Marina Warner's wondrous Stranger Magic is a scholarly excursion around some of the stories, her mind as rich and fascinating as the stories themselves, taking us on a magic carpet from Borges and Goethe, to Edward Said and the movies.
The Guardian - Robin Yassin-Kassab
Stranger Magic is an enormous work, 436 densely erudite and eclectic pages plus another hundred of glossaries and notes. In its relentless connecting up of diverse stories, from the Inferno to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, it's reminiscent of Christopher Booker's brick-sized Seven Basic Plots. Warner's chapters, allocated into five parts, are beautifully illustrated and interspersed with 15 tales concisely retold...Stranger Magic is a scholarly work that often reads like a fireside conversation. It's encyclopedic, a book to be savored in slices.
The Times - Iain Finlayson
[A] wide-ranging, erudite, wondrously polymathic exploration of the tales of magic, bound to the "huge narrative wheel" with which Scheherazade enchanted the Sultan Shahryar through one thousand and one nights of storytelling. Warner, too, is a beguiling storyteller: her fascination with true knowledge embedded in realms of wonder. She releases the jinn of cultural modernism and scientific progress from the bottle in which it has been long confined by Western tradition.
Literary Review - Eric Ormsby
Wonderful...Warner is herself something of a Shahrazad, though she weaves her account under less threatening auspices...Many of the stories in the Nights take place in a legendary Baghdad or draw on older Persian sources, but a few--such as the story of Hayqar the Wise--date back to ancient Egyptian tales from the seventh century BC. Warner is alert to these earlier echoes but she is more interested in the far-reaching cultural and literary impact of the Nights on artists, composers and writers...From Voltaire and Goethe to Hans Christian Andersen and William Beckford down to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino--on all of whom Warner offers illuminating discussions--the influence of the Nights has been pervasive; but composers (such as Mozart), artists and designers, illustrators and film-makers have also fallen under their spell.
Times Literary Supplement - Helen Simpson
My favorite work of non-fiction this year was Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. In her exploration of this immense, protean and much-translated Arabic collection of folk and fairy tales (fifteen of them banded in here at intervals) she has found a subject which seems an ideal fit for her own particular cast of mind. This book is like one of the densely patterned carpets it describes, rich in overlapping narrative strands and in associative weave of thought. A gorgeous last chapter, "The Couch: A Case History," glides from the coded site of passion, the flying sofa, to the magic carpet via prayer mat, festive balcony hanging, nomadic house, Smyrna rug on Freud's analytical couch--recalling the structural importance of eavesdropping in the Arabian Nights--then a description of Gabbeh, an Iranian film about tribal carpet-weaving, and back to Freud and his thoughts on levitation and sexual delight (with a side swoop over Goethe's Faust calling for a magic cloak).
Booklist - Jeffrey Meyers
This learned, lively, and well-written book concerns the wide-ranging influence of The Arabian Nights--a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairy tales--on Western culture...Warner's densely detailed, loose, baggy monster of a book covers an impressive array of subjects from Voltaire and Goethe to Borges and Nabokov.
Irish Times - Brian Dillon
Wondrous and lucid...When it comes to the tales themselves and their fantastical content, Warner is an excellent guide and a stylish storyteller in her own right: her renderings of 15 of the stories punctuate the book...The remarkable feat she has pulled off in Stranger Magic [is] nothing less than a history of magic, storytelling and centuries of cultural exchange between east and west. All in the guise of a book about one book, albeit an inexhaustible one. There are more dutiful histories of those subjects, just as there are scholarly studies of Arabian Nights that adequately describe its form, politics or translations but never truly fly. The product of Warner's meticulous research is a weighty volume that feels airborne on every page.
Big Issue - Doug Johnstone
Insightful...It's fascinating and highly informed.
New York Times Book Review - Harold Bloom
Marina Warner is a veteran magus, and an adept mythographer of the vast global traditions of magic, metaphor and myth...Pursuing the enigmas of imaginative desire throughout her career, Warner persuasively redefines The Arabian Nights as an overgrown garden of the delights and hazards of desire...Warner quests for contemporary meaning in the major traditions of literary magic and carries with her, back to The Arabian Nights, our sore need for another way of knowledge...Warner's Stranger Magic harbors many richnesses, of which I find the most beguiling what she names, in her subtitle, "charmed states."...Warner takes an honored place in the sequence of those who have studied what Isaiah Berlin and others have called the Counter-Enlightenment, the speculations that renewed Neoplatonic and Gnostic heterodox versions of ancient wisdom. Her choice of The Arabian Nights, as a vital strand in the Counter-Enlightenment, is refreshing, since she shows some of the ways in which storytelling is essential to this kind of knowledge. As a contemporary scholar of myth and magic, she aids immensely in the struggle for literary values that has to be ongoing, whatever the distractions of our moment.
Bookforum - George Prochnik
Marina Warner's Stranger Magic has a double mission: On the one hand, the author traces, with a swelling, orchestral richness, why the [Arabian] Nights held such potent sway over figures like Coleridge, becoming a runaway best seller in Europe and retaining a lock grip over the Western imagination for generations. But she also shows why its themes and preoccupations remain relevant today…...Stranger Magic explores, with immense learning and panache, how it might be possible to develop an intellectual, reasoned relationship to magic, conjuring an alternative to the binary choice between Enlightenment thought and esoterica...Warner sprinkles the historical detective work of Stranger Magic with her own versions of key scenes from the Nights, and her verve as a storyteller is among the book's delights...Stranger Magic is a large volume, and it can sometimes be difficult not to get disoriented, or suffer what Warner nicely dubs "eyeskip" in the twists and involutions of the arabesque patterns being traced. However, one of the merits of the book is that it teaches us why getting lost now and again can be salutary. In our absurdly busy, bottom-line-fetishizing lives, digression has become a bad word. But it's precisely the wide-roaming, whirling vicissitudes of Shahrazad's tales that dazzle the sultan and keep her alive. Stranger Magic reveals that the fate of the human spirit hangs not by a single thread, but by an extravagant skein of fancy.
London Review of Books - Steven Connor
More even than an inquisitive, authoritative study of one of the greatest imaginative enterprises of human history, this is a further chapter in Warner's unfolding of the power--the magical power as it may be--of the magical imagination...Some of the most original and compelling arguments in Stranger Magic concern the uses of Arabian flights of fantasy as vehicles for scientific and technological speculation...Jung said that the job of the mythographer might be not so much to spell out the meaning of myth as to "dream the myth onward." This is in a sense what Warner has undertaken to do, for her account of The Arabian Nights and their transmigrations is itself knitted into the fabric of the history she presents. Each section of her account is prefaced by a retelling of one of the stories, usually a neglected or less well known one, and in the writing and the reading, the separate threads of her argument--her accounts of the history of magic, or the responses of particular writers to the stories, or the nature of magical things, or the politics of enchantment--pass under and over each other. Warner's scholarly imagination has never been less than compendious, but it has never before been so intricately wrought, or drawn together with such ingenuity the hitherto distinct currents of her writing, as mythographer, fabulist, critic, speculator and polemicist.
Barnes & Noble Review - Michael Dirda
In Stranger Magic Warner surveys just how pervasively The Arabian Nights has influenced art and literature since the eighteenth century. On the surface, her book covers what more dogmatic critics would call the West's cultural appropriation of the East...Stranger Magic is packed with information and insight...Warner writes with clarity, and sometimes with exquisite beauty...Warner possesses an exceptionally synoptic mind, almost Sherlockian in its sensitivity to connections and repeated motifs...Stranger Magic is, in fact, simply the latest in an exhilarating series of studies that reexamine the West's fantastic imagination. From the Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman, and Phantasmagoria explore the cultural meanings of folktales and Mother Goose stories, children's literature, and fairy tales, the fearful monsters, beasts, and ogres of nightmare, and all the ways humankind has attempted to represent the spiritual. Ranged together, these substantial works, now joined by Stranger Magic, look solid and magisterial on the bookshelf, calling to mind the encyclopedic scholarship we associate with an earlier age. Nonetheless, while Marina Warner is as learned as any Victorian polymath, she also employs contemporary feminist theory and the insights of cultural studies to make us look once more, or look more deeply, at the history of cinema, art, theater, and literature. Each of her books is an Aladdin's cave of wonders.
Daily Beast - Brad Gooch
[Warner] astonishes with the granularity of her accounts of the impact of these stories on their original European readers...What kind of stories is Shahrazad telling us now? Immediately obvious is the relevance of Arabian Nights to crucial questions of perception of the East by the West during this season of Arab thaw and Iranian freeze...Warner does a good job, especially in her "Conclusion: 'All the story of the night told over...'" to tease out these new interpretative figures in the textual carpet.
Choice - S. Gomaa
Warner's analysis of Arabian Nights aims at redefining the relationship between East and West, reason and imagination, science and magic.
Globe and Mail - Paul McMichael Nurse
Warner's massive work remains a powerful testimony to the enduring appeal of the 1,001 Nights. Complex, frequently subtle…her book will reward readers with sophisticated insights into the cultural exchange between West and East--a bit like The Arabian Nights itself.
The Guardian - Pankaj Mishra
I was entranced by Marina Warner's encyclopedic and pathbreaking study, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.
The Guardian - Jeanette Winterson
"Marina Warner's Stranger Magic is as absorbing, wise and playful as the Arabian Nights tales themselves. A book about the triumph of imagination over experience."
Barnes and Noble Review
Noted mythographer and novelist Marina Warner here turns her piercing gaze to one of the most influential set of fables ever assembled, The Thousand and One Nights. Analyzing the inner meanings of Scheherazade's tall tales, she finds in these familiar narratives fresh import and life-changing potential.
The Independent - Lesley McDowell
Warner's gentle authority proves to be the perfect guide not only through many of the tales themselves but also through their attendant history, and theories about them. What she's really exploring is the West's fascination with the Orient, and how it has accommodated that alternative culture into its own: why was The Arabian Nights, a text that wasn't sacred and wasn't even valued, the one that the West alighted on so eagerly? The fabulism, the shape-shifting, the play between the figurative and the literal, that is found in the tales, speaks to something in the West's psyche, a need for fantasy. Warner cleverly relates this to 20th-century psychiatry (Freud and his dreams), and new technologies such as cinema and aeroplanes (the allure of that magic carpet). Her immersion in her subject makes for an enthusiasm that proves to be infectious.
National Book Critics Circle blog - Eric Banks
Ebullient...With Stranger Magic, Warner has written a nimble but daring work of criticism that draws on her work as a novelist and scholar, combining aspects of literary history, formal analysis, personal essay, and cultural forensics into topics as disparate as the 'Smyrna rug' that draped Freud's couch to the flying turtles that Danish artist Melchior Lorck sketched in the 1550s. It's a remarkable feat of synthetic knowledge, with particularly rich forays into those whom the Arabian Nights provided both fantastic inspiration and parodic 'cover': from Voltaire, Goethe, who taught himself Persian to compose West-Eastern Divan, and William Beckford to such unexpected veins of influence as Sir Walter Scott. There are historical personages both familiar (Richard Burton, Edward W. Lane) and less so (John Wilkins, Robert Patlock) brought into an encyclopedic sweep of French, German, and British sources. Even given the thoroughness of her investigation into just how deep an impression Orientalist fantasies left on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, especially after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, she offers an inspired reading of why it was cinema--particularly the phantasmagoric chic-of-Araby 'Easterns' of the early silver screen--that offered a germane new life to Aladdin and Ali Baba...Warner has created a sparkling work of criticism, full of graciousness, learning, and fascination.
New York Review of Books - Patricia Storace
Stranger Magic is an unabashedly joyful work of scholarship, a study of the history of the human imagination as it shapes and reinvents reality through stories. Here, Warner comes close to inventing a genre of literary criticism: she takes fifteen tales from the Nights and uses them as her own frame tales to embark on a series of erudite adventures. She performs a kind of intellectual free association based on rigorous research and enhanced by handsome illustrations, a number from her own collection. In homage to the Nights, this is a scholarly entertainment…Warner demonstrates that there is nothing idle about imagining.
Harold Bloom
Warner takes an honored place in the sequence of those who have studied what Isaiah Berlin and others have called the Counter-­Enlightenment, the speculations that renewed Neoplatonic and Gnostic heterodox versions of ancient wisdom. Her choice of The Arabian Nights, as a vital strand in the Counter-Enlightenment, is refreshing, since she shows some of the ways in which storytelling is essential to this kind of knowledge. As a contemporary scholar of myth and magic, she aids immensely in the struggle for literary values that has to be ongoing, whatever the distractions of our moment.
—The New York Times Book Review
The Barnes & Noble Review

In 1704, Antoine Galland brought out the first four volumes of his twelve- volume French translation of a fifteenth-century manuscript of Alf Layla wa-Layla, i.e., The Thousand Nights and a Night. As cultural critic Marina Warner writes in Stranger Magic, the Age of Reason soon went wild for "a book which is a monument to the torrential energies of the irrational." In these tales anything could happen: An old bottle could house a wish-granting jinn, a severed head might talk, a carpet fly. At any time, and anywhere, the extraordinary and the marvelous would simply irrupt into everyday life. Here, in short, was a world of wonders, but also a realm of luxe, calme et volupté, a land of heart's desire.

The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, as it was titled in its earliest English translation, turned out to be a transformative work, a pivot point in the history of reading. In its wake, fantasy — what Dryden called "the Fairy Way of Writing" — emerged as a branch of modern literature, the "charmed states" of dream and ecstasy became desirable modes of experience, and fabulism or "reasoned imagination" was newly valued as a way of apprehending the world. The importance of The Arabian Nights cannot be underestimated. As the great scholar E. F. Bleiler once wrote, this "anthology of adventure, love and supernatural stories build up in the Near East over a thousand years or so," is "with the exception of the Bible, the non-European literary work that has had the greatest impact on modern western culture."

In Stranger Magic Warner surveys just how pervasively The Arabian Nights has influenced art and literature since the eighteenth century. On the surface, her book covers what more dogmatic critics would call the West's cultural appropriation of the East. But while Edward Said famously criticized such "Orientalism," seeing in it a series of distortions and demeaning simplifications, Warner shows us The Arabian Nights as "a kind of pattern book for later writers, artists and film- makers."

Thus Stranger Magic covers — take a breath — the legends of King Solomon as a "white" wizard; Western impressions of Sufi mystics, i.e., whirling dervishes; the history and meaning of the flying carpet; the use of Arabian Nights elements in Voltaire's contes philosophiques and William Beckford's macabre gothic extravaganza Vathek; the etymology of the word talisman; the haunting notion of sentient objects and talking toys; the development of stage machinery and theatrical special effects; Goethe's response to Persian poetry in his own lyrics for West-Eastern Divan; the emergence of the department store and — brilliant phrase — the rise of "promiscuous serial acquisition"; the use of the The Arabian Nights in early cinema, with a particular focus on The Thief of Baghdad and Lotte Reininger's animated shadow film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed; and, not least, Sigmund Freud's analytic couch, famously draped in Oriental rugs and pillows, the contemporary site of confession, erotics, daydreaming, and storytelling.

Those last activities, of course, remain at the very heart of the Nights. You will remember the opening frame: Sultan Shahriyar has been cuckolded by his wife and vows revenge on all womankind. He thus marries a new virgin each day, consummates the marriage that night, and cuts off his bride's head the next morning. Eventually, the vizier's daughter Shahrazad (a.k.a. Scheherazade) comes up with a daring plan. She weds the sultan, but in the bedroom that night she begins to tell her royal husband a story about a fisherman and a jinn, breaking off her exciting narrative just when.... The sultan, eager to learn what happens next, decides to keep Shahrazad alive for another night, if only until her tale spinning is completed. But, of course, it never is. Cliff-hangers abound, stories are embedded within other stories like Russian dolls, and one tale gives rise to another, as three years slowly pass. The narratives of that thousand and one nights cause the sultan to rethink his evaluation of women (and men). At the end of the last tale, Shahrazad brings forth the three children she has borne her husband, and the couple live happily ever after, or at least until "the destroyer of all joys" finally carries them away.

While Stranger Magic is packed with information and insight, the book isn't an introduction to the Nights per se. For that, the reader should turn to Robert Irwin's authoritative, crisply written The Arabian Nights: A Companion. While Warner does summarize "The City of Brass," "The Prince of the Black Islands," "Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banu," and a dozen other stories, using each as a springboard to wide- ranging reflections, her paraphrases shouldn't be regarded as a substitute for the original tales. Instead the twenty-first-century reader should turn to the two compact volumes of The Arabian Nights translated by Hussain Huddawy, one an Englishing of the most authoritative Arabic manuscript (but consequently only representing the first quarter or so of the known tales), the other a selection from the non-canonical "orphan stories" featuring, among others, the adventures of Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. Should you hunger for more wonder yet, you should then acquire Malcolm Lyons's three-volume Penguin edition of the complete tales. Be a little wary of all the earlier translations: Some are bowdlerized or abridged for children, while the Mardrus-Mathers version imbues the book with a distinct fin-de- siècle sensuality. The explorer Richard Burton's notorious translation, while complete, is composed in a rebarbative, archaic English, while its notes never wander far from lip-smacking accounts of bizarre Oriental customs and sexual practices — although these are, as I can testify, enthralling to read about.

In her way, Warner adopts this Burtonian style of rambling commentary, albeit eschewing the salacious and merely antiquarian. Take just one of her themes — the secret life of objects. Mechanical horses, beds and carpets fly; rings and relics possess strange powers. Throughout the tales non-living things move and speak, or display "qualia, the particular properties of consciousness." As a result, Warner points out, "the population of animate objects in fairytale and magic literature began to increase in the eighteenth century, under direct influence of the Nights, and has since exploded." Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, "gives personality to a candlestick, and invents a conversation between a darning needle and a glass splinter."

From here Warner goes on to discuss how talismans, fetishes, and amulets are "charged" or "ensouled," then segues into Susan Stewart's On Longing, which examines how we invest teddy bears, blankies, and lovers' mementos with emotive power through attachment and memory. This naturally leads Warner to recall her Catholic upbringing and her own youthful obsession with holy medals and scapulars. Finally, she concludes by observing, "We now exist in relation to any number of phenomena which work as if by magic. At least that is how it feels to use my BlackBerry, my laptop, my satnav, my blood monitor, my iPod, or to send you in Indonesia a photograph of Kentish Town from my mobile." As she stresses: "The investment of the individual in these technological and immaterial extensions of our faculties now goes very deep."

Warner writes with clarity, and sometimes with exquisite beauty. Speaking of a film by Georges Méliès, she observes: "The mise-en- scène of 'The Persian episode' includes sumptuous curtains, carpets and sofas, and a voluptuous liquefaction of silks and muslins, ribbons and gems sparkling and shimmering like the jinn themselves in the superby controlled chiaroscuro of Weimar cinema." At the same time, she's fond of the occasional technical term, such as proleptic, extradiegetic, or goety.

But then Warner possesses an exceptionally synoptic mind, almost Sherlockian in its sensitivity to connections and repeated motifs. She notes that the evil sorcerers in the Nights are always strangers, usually Persians and Zoroastrian in their beliefs, since magic tends to come from elsewhere and to draw on prohibited powers. Figures like Sauron, Voldemort, and Darth Vader, she adds, are later avatars of these swarthy magians. She notes that fantasies of flying, in the era before balloons and aircraft, are culturally determined: In the East people just float away on sofas and carpets; in the West they employ more mechanical means, often madly flapping umbrella-like wings attached to corsets. She points out, "Many sites of enchantment in the stories are underground or secret cells and labyrinths: the stories often mimic in their topography the characters' psychological descent into the abysses of passion." Similarly, she reminds us that "vows, blessings, curses, apotropaic and expiatory formulae, repeated and performed in the correct way, place language at the centre of ritual; these verbal rituals occupy the heart of fairytale."

Periodically, Warner brings home how often modern writers, from Joseph Roth and John Barth to A. S. Byatt and Salman Rushdie, turn to the Nights as a model and inspiration. She paraphrases Borges quoting De Quincey, who declared that his favorite moment in The Arabian Nights took place "when the evil magician, looking for the boy who will help him obtain the lamp, puts his ear to the ground and hears from the other side of the world in China, the footfalls of Aladdin and recognizes that he must be the one." She notes that Borges could never find this scene in the actual text, so that he finally concluded that De Quincey had produced "a marvelous example of an ideal response to the Nights, in which the reader or listener's fancy plays freely with the material."

In the past, people recognized that The Arabian Nights emphasized certain themes: "the wiles of women" and "the injustice of tyrants," obviously, but also "the caprices of destiny, the perplexity of desire and the power of love, luck in money, and its opposite, misfortune." Today, however, the book possesses an even deeper, metaphysical attraction. As Warner notes: "The central proposition that reality is a phantasmagoria, that the individual mind creates its own reality, and that other consciousnesses are entering and controlling it, has become a central modern myth, paranoid, solipsistic, and deeply determinist. It has gained purchase because it matches the way many experience their lives."

That use of the unusual word phantasmagoria may remind some readers of Warner's previous book of just that title. Stranger Magic is, in fact, simply the latest in an exhilarating series of studies that reexamine the West's fantastic imagination. From the Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman, and Phantasmagoria explore the cultural meanings of folktales and Mother Goose stories, children's literature, and fairy tales, the fearful monsters, beasts, and ogres of nightmare, and all the ways humankind has attempted to represent the spiritual. Ranged together, these substantial works, now joined by Stranger Magic, look solid and magisterial on the bookshelf, calling to mind the encyclopedic scholarship we associate with an earlier age. Nonetheless, while Marina Warner is as learned as any Victorian polymath, she also employs contemporary feminist theory and the insights of cultural studies to make us look once more, or look more deeply, at the history of cinema, art, theater, and literature. Each of her books is an Aladdin's cave of wonders.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays, including Classics for Pleasure. His latest book, On Conan Doyle, has been published by Princeton University Press.

Reviewer: Michael Dirda

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055308
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2012
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Marina Warner is Professor of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and a distinguished writer of fiction, criticism, and history.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Six: Magians and Dervishes



The Arabian Nights conjured an enchanted virtual world that could be safely entered and explored, accepted and naturalized by the Enlightenment and modern reader and writer precisely because they often unfold in an elsewhere that is different from the native habitat of Judaeo-Christian demons and eschatological visions. A homegrown practice of, and belief in, magic was set aside to be replaced by foreign magic – stranger magic, much easier to disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual and political quarantine.

The stories provide a stimulus to this legitimate – and hypocritical – pleasure. Powerful, fiendish enchanters appear in several of the tales to work their terrible will on their victims; in the book these characters are almost invariably magians, obdurate in their rejection of Islam. Their allegiance is to earlier gods, such as the Egyptian pantheon in half animal form, or Fire, as worshipped by the Zoroastrians from Persia. If ancient pagan Egypt with its Pharaonic mysteries and science throws a long shadow across the enchantments of the Nights, it is the magians of Persia who wield the most sinister and potent magic, as the romance of Hasan of Basra shows through the hero’s relations with the implacable Bahram.

‘The Tale of Hasan of Basra’ is a raveled tapestry of a story, frame within frame, border within border, with knots and clusters and repeats of motifs; a performance of ebullient story-spinning fancy, an endlessly mobile picaresque romance, which increasingly breaks out into outbursts of verse and song that echo the erotic lyricism of the Song of Songs from the Bible. The tale is technically shorter than a sira, or romance of chivalry, and longer than a khabar, the equivalent of a fairy or folk tale. It combines many other literary modes: the travel yarn, a moral lesson in the conduct of wives, a recognition tale about parents separated from beloved children, and a romance of initiation.

The story also presents strands which the more famous ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’ picks up and winds into a different overall pattern: the lazy, disobedient boy who brings nothing but grief to his widowed mother, and the stranger magician who uses the boy for his own purposes and abandons him to die when he does not comply. Interestingly, Borges, in one of his passionate essays about the Arabian Nights, recounts De Quincey writing that his favorite moment in the book took place in ‘Aladdin’, when the evil magician, looking for the boy who will help him obtain the lamp, puts his ear to the ground and hears, from the other side of the world in China, the footfalls of Aladdin and recognizes that he must be the one.

Borges, having looked in vain for this scene in ‘Aladdin’, takes it for a marvelous example of an ideal response to the Nights, in which the reader or listener’s fancy plays freely with the material. It is indeed an illustration of creative reading as advocated by Borges, but it does also suggest that De Quincey had read another story of fated pursuit from the Nights, for his memory echoes the scene when Bahram cries out to Hasan, ‘It’s been years that I’ve been looking for you and now I have you.’

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Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

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