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