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 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.
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.
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.’