PUBLICATIONS> NON-FICTION> REVIEWS of STRANGER MAGIC: CHARMED STATES & THE ARABIAN NIGHTS

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STRANGER MAGIC: CHARMED STATES & THE ARABIAN NIGHTS
Chatto & Windus (hardback) London 2011
Harvard University Press (hardback) USA 2012
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NEWS AND REVIEWS

WINNER - 2013 Sheikh Zayed Book Award
Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights
Full details here.

 

WINNER - 2013 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism
Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights
Full details here.


WINNER - 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights
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Full details here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Dominique Jullien published in Marvels & Tales, Volume 28, Number 1 July 2014 , pp. 203

'This book about a book, as sprawling as its subject, is rather like flying a carpet itself. Transporting us over so many lands in the space of a few hundred pages. With its delightful patterning and its breath-taking mobility, the flying carpet is the central and recurring motif in Warner's Book, which goes a long way to explain the power of the Nights over Western imagination, its enduring presence as the beating heart of repressed irrational forces."

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Patricia Storace, New York Review of Books 20th March 2014

"Warner explores the ways in which these fantasy tales have emerged as an inextricable element of Western culture, not only in literature but in art, film, theater, commerce, science. 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… [R]ich, diffuse, and unconventional scholarship."

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May 2013
MW interviewed by Omar Berrada about Stranger Magic for Bidoun Magazine #28 Summer 2013. Available here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Eric Banks, 14th February 2013

'Interlarding her book with several examples of the tales, demonstrating how the enchantment of Shahrazad's bed-time stories subtly co-exist with the purported disenchantment of the world, Warner has created a sparkling work of criticism, full of graciousness, learning, and fascination.'
The full review can be found here.
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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Florian Mussgnug,
L'Indice dei libri del mese, July 2012.

The review in Italian can be read here and more details can be found here.

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'Marina Warner seeks source of imaginative leaps in Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights'
- Reviewed by Alexander Varty, straight.com Vancouver, March 7, 2012

Novelist and historian Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights is a book that deserves to be read at leisure—preferably while reclining on that Middle Eastern invention, the sofa, and sipping a steaming mug of Coffea arabica.

At least that’s one of the first impressions it makes. Another is that, curiously, it’s a book that has taken on the attributes of its inspiration. Like the sticky bundle of folk tales, religious parables, erotic fantasies, protofeminist polemics, and swashbuckling lore supposedly invented by Shahrazad, Stranger Magic is a discursive skein of interrelated thoughts. Unlike the Arabian Nights, however, it’s also a work of scholarly diligence, although it’s no less readable for that.

Among Warner’s many arguments is that the Arabian Nights ranks with the Bible, the Odyssey, and the legend of Gilgamesh as one of the most important documents of oral literature—even if it has been variously debased, bowdlerized, and deceptively augmented since first appearing in print, circa 1704. This now seems true, even if Muslim scholars have long treated the Nights as little more than pulp fiction.

More contentious is her claim that the arrival of the Nights in Europe set the stage for an explosion of “magical thinking” that, ultimately, produced the nonlinear narratives and abstract art forms we enjoy today. Shahrazad’s story collection, Warner claims, not only is talismanic in itself, but acts to inspire other leaps of the imagination. The original tales, she argues, draw their audience “away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasize instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.”

That’s a fascinating thesis, although it hints at the book Warner hasn’t written: how have the legends of the Nights shaped Arab culture? Granted, in her conclusion she notes that “Shahrazad’s way” of telling truth to power is behind the new narratives of the Arab Spring. Others might argue that in this context the magical thinking of the Nights, with its emphasis on the miraculous, could breed the kind of fatalism that cedes power to tyrants. This is a line of thought worth following—but for opening the discussion, and for producing a brilliantly provocative volume of her own, Warner deserves high praise.
The review can be read here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Peter Hainsworth, The Brown Book 2012, Lady Margaret Hall Oxford

"...Like Shahrazad's story-telling, Marina Warner's own interlay between East and West is an invitation to potentially endless imaginative exploration of what she calls on her final page 'another side of the culture cast as the enemy and an alternative history to vengeance and war' ".
The full review can be read here.

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'Library Without Walls - Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights'
- Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Barnes & Noble Review, May 18th 2012

“Warner writes with clarity, and sometimes with exquisite beauty… But then 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.”

The full article can be read here.

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'Gardens of unearthly delights: Marina Warner pursues the enigmas of imaginative desire in 'The Arabian Nights.'
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Harold Bloom The New York Times Book Review, April 2012, p9

At 65, the British scholar Marina Warner is a veteran magus, and an adept mythographer of the vast global traditions of magic, metaphor and myth. Also an accomplished novelist, she augments her learning with her narrative skills. As a fan of her prolific enterprise for the last ­quarter-century, I regret that I have never met her, so delightful is her verve.

“The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights” is both more and less than a single, complete book. It has no named author or authors, no dates or places of composition and no single national tradition that informs it. You can trace elements of these tales to India, Persia and various Arabian lands, just as the enormous vogue in Europe, from the 18th century on, naturalized them in Voltaire’s “Zadig,” Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas” and Goethe’s “West-Eastern Divan.” This cavalcade continues in our time, from Borges to A. S. Byatt and Salman Rushdie.

Warner’s “Stranger Magic” is part of that procession of influence, or rather of what Borges encouraged all of us to do in regard to “The Arabian Nights”: “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.”

The principle of “The Arabian Nights” is always “something else.” Night by night, Scheherazade (Warner uses the more correct but less familiar Shahrazad) delays the execution ordered for her by an insanely jealous royal husband. This momentary reprieve becomes indefinite because always there is another story left incomplete at dawn. Of all the world’s storytellers, Scheherazade is at once the most fecund and the best motivated.

Warner wisely restricts her commentary to just 15 stories, all of which she begins by retelling in the spirit of a ­psychopomp guiding us into what the Sufi mystics of Persia called “the imaginal realm,” suspended between the empirical world and the totally visionary. She takes us into “stranger magic” in the hope that we will find ourselves there more truly and more strange. Her choice of narratives gives us jinn and peris (genies and fairies), magicians, speaking talismans and the archetypal figure of Aladdin, master of illusions, of flights and of vanishing acts.

Imaginative literature itself, in Warner’s view, finds its representative in Scheherazade, the muse of all great fantasy writing. Postponing death is one of the motives for metaphor, the desire to be different or elsewhere. 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. Shakespeare, as she knows, is the largest field of such enchantment, with Proust his worthiest modern descendant. 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.

Literary knowledge, difficult to define, can redeem some portion of our imaginative poverty in what seems an increasingly tenuous age for deep reading. Warner usefully locates in the Arabian Solomon a prime emblem of literary knowledge in “The Nights.” The biblical king is transcended by a Solomon who is the master of the jinn, unruly spirits that run wild without him. Greatest of mages, the Muslim Solomon, wise beyond wisdom, thus incarnates an absolute knowledge. Many esoteric traditions, including Jewish kabbalah and Hermeticism — ancient Alexandrian and Renaissance — resort to this occult Solomon as the patron of magic and alchemy.


Will and Frances Brundage/Blue Lantern Studio — Corbis
From "The Arabian Nights," circa 1893

Warner’s “Stranger Magic” harbors many richnesses, of which I find the most beguiling what she names, in her subtitle, “charmed states.” In her introduction she meditates on the use of such ­enchantments:

“It did not seem enough to invoke escapism as the reason for the popularity of ‘The Arabian Nights’ in the age of reason. Something more seemed to be at stake. Magic is not simply a matter of the occult or the esoteric, of astrology, Wicca and Satanism; it follows processes inherent to human consciousness and connected to constructive and imaginative thought. The faculties of imagination — dream, projection, fantasy — are bound up with the faculties of reasoning and essential to making the leap beyond the known into the unknown. At one pole (myth), magic is associated with poetic truth, at another (the history of science) with inquiry and speculation. It was bound up with understanding physical forces in nature and led to technical ingenuity and discoveries. Magical thinking structures the processes of imagination, and imagining something can and sometimes must precede the fact or the act; it has shaped many features of Western civilization. But its influence has been constantly disavowed since the Enlightenment and its action and effects consequently ­misunderstood.”

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 full article can be read here.

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'Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic Reconsiders the Arabian Nights. One of the world's greatest story collections, 'Arabian Nights,' gets a fresh appreciation from fairy-tales scholar Marina Warner. '
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Brad Gooch, Thedailybeast.com, March 25th 2012

Long before meta-fiction, blog fiction, expropriation, or hypertext, there was Shahrazad, the slinkiest, sexiest, most ineradicable trickster in global literature, telling stories every night toward the event horizon of 1001 nights to distract her abusive husband, the Sultan, from his resolve to behead each of his wives for infidelity—while her sister curled beside them on the divan, like a kinky teleprompter, or laugh-sigh-gasp track. The result, Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, as it became known after its first English translation, in 1706, kicked off a craze of Orientalism that morphed across supposedly rational Enlightenment Europe in spoofs, follies, turqueries, pantomimes, and lots of camping it up in djellaba, or lounging on “ottomans.” Some of its signature tales—Aladdin’s lamp, Sinbad’s voyage, or Ali Baba’s thieves—were likely only smuggled into the text later by French translator Antoine Galland, spun by him from mere parentheses of plot in the 14th-century Syrian manuscript he was busily mining.

In Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, the British theorist of fairy tales and folktales, as well as of Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary, Marina Warner, thinks her way through this elaborate frame-tale collection, and its significant aftershocks of response in the West, with lots of appropriate zigzags and dizzying detours of cultural free-association. Her book fits into a micro-genre that has been trending up recently, the book-about-a-book (think: Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife; Gary Wills Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography; Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick?) Like a preceding it micro-genre—the memoir—the book-about-a-book relies on personal voice, or what are now known as “reader-response” essays in colleges. The format fits especially well for trying to pick the locks of Arabian Nights, itself a collection of boxes within boxes of twice- or thrice-told tales.

Warner helpfully intersperses 15 paraphrased versions of the jump-the-shark stories Shahrazad interrupted each dawn so that her plot-driven husband would keep her alive to finish the next night, his moment of satisfaction infinitely receding: “The City of Brass,” “The Prince of the Black Islands.” She astonishes with the granularity of her accounts of the impact of these stories on their original European readers: inspired by the Arabian literature craze, as well as by the Persian poets Hafiz and Rumi, Goethe took to wearing a caftan and turban, known as “turning Turk” in the 18th century, while writing his West-Eastern Divan. Much of the narrative machinery of the original tales, such as Solomon’s flying carpet on which entire armies could be transported, both predicted and were then perfected in silent movies, especially the Hollywood “Easterns,” often prequels and sequels to Arabian Nights, beginning with Douglas Fairbanks’s lavish The Thief of Bagdad (1924), as well as musical theater and Walt Disney animation.


The jinni (“genie” or “demon”) in the bottle of Warner’s book, both menacing and inspiring, is Palestinian-Arab Edward Said and his paradigm-shifting study Orientalism. When I was a student at Columbia in the late 1970s, I audited Said’s course. He was an academic rock star of the moment, wore elegant dark-blue suits to class; as a snarky student exercise I kept note of the number of times he used the word “power” in every lecture. Orientalism was the equivalent of an academic beach book during in the summer of 1979—a “cult bible,” says Warner. While Said didn’t take on the popularization of Arabian Nights directly, especially as triggered by the “lurid and archaizing” Victorian-era version of Sir Richard Burton, he did take on his ilk, exposing orientalist scholars, adventurers, and explorers as trading in stereotypes of Eastern lassitude, femininity, and deception that helped stoke a colonialist, imperialist agenda.

Enough decades have passed for these ideas to be run through the word processor again, and reconsidered. While Said did not deconstruct Arabian Nights directly, he did indict one of its translators, the English Arabist Edward W. Lane, for fostering prejudice. “Said’s furious polemic against Orientalism,” Warner writes, “has dominated perception of the Nights and related Orientalist literature until now.” She stops along her way to absolve this or that orientalist figure of heavy-handed motives, restoring the impulses of sheer infatuation and curiosity that motivated so many of these Arabophiles from Goethe to T.E. Lawrence to Sigmund Freud, with his divan of a psychoanalytic couch covered with oriental rugs and cushions for Shahrazadian talking cures. Warner trots out Edward Lane as exhibit A of a “charmed encounter” with the Middle East. A sort of Method scholar, Lane lived in Cairo, admittedly dressing in Mameluke robes, while translating the Quran, producing a monumental Arabic-English lexicon, as well as his annotated Nights (1839-41) in three illustrated volumes.

The jinni (“genie” or “demon”) in the bottle of Warner’s book, both menacing and inspiring, is Palestinian-Arab Edward Said and his paradigm-shifting study Orientalism.

The trick to the success of book-books is timing. It’s not enough to say, “I read this great book….the Iliad!” Always hanging out there is the question “Why now?” 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. (A possible ur-source for Arabian Nights was a lost manuscript known as The Thousand Stories from Persia, a.k.a. Iran.) 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. Having begun her study during the first Gulf War and winding up in early 2011 with Egypt and Tunisia, she hangs her (our?) hopes on the circular ways that our heroine, not a warrior like Achilles, but a wily storyteller, speaks both truth and imagination to power: “to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was—and is—Shahrazad’s way.”

The full article can be found here
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Barnes & Noble Review’s “Long List” of featured books includes Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner
- Barnes and Noble.com The Long List, March 13th 2012

Noted mythographer and novelist Maria 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. By the conclusion of her lively study, readers will endorse Warner's contention that these Oriental tales underpin our modern age.

The full list can be found here.
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'One’s Thousand One Nightinesses'
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Steven Connor in LRB,Vol. 34 No. 6, 22 March 2012, pages 14-16

There can be no new reader, and therefore perhaps no wholly new reading of the collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights. Not because they have been exhausted by retelling and explication, but because we always seem to have encountered them, or some of them, already, somewhere else, at some other time in our lives we are not able quite to pin down. They are, in the phrase George Grote applied to Greek myths, a past that has never been fully present – translations without originals. And yet, just as there can be no authentic first time for the reading of The Arabian Nights, there can be no once and for all signings off either. As Marina Warner observes in her effulgent new study of the lives and afterlives of the tales, even the forms of their inexhaustibility are plural. First, despite the promise of a precise count held out in their title (or one of them at least), you can never be sure you have taken an exact tally of all thousand and one of their tellings. Erotically, they ‘spread and mount like arithmetic’, in the words of Middleton’s De Flores. Second, their complex, nested structure, in which stories mirror, invert and parody each other, gives them a labyrinthine internal relation that is almost impossible to disintricate. Finally, if one takes account of all the reworkings of the tales, it is clear that they are still in the process of being composed. Like Bottom’s dream, they have no bottom. Even in the final pages of this plethoric book, Warner confesses her reluctance to declare her case closed.

Before they ever appeared in print, the stories had been circulating for centuries, crossing the borders between the Christian and Islamic worlds, and commuting fluently between tongue and pen. The many narrative tributaries first came together in a single stream when the French scholar and antiquarian Antoine Galland used a 14th or 15th-century Syrian manuscript he had brought back from his travels in the Middle East as the basis for seven volumes of stories that he entitled Les Mille et Une Nuits, which appeared between 1701 and 1706. They prompted vigorous imitation, and the Orientalist infatuation that spread across Europe in the early 18th century ensured that, having been gathered together briefly in one current, the stories began almost immediately to spread and ramify once again.

Though Galland’s retellings of the stories were intended as documents of Middle Eastern culture, they were far from faithful even to his proximate source. In buffing them up for polite society and smoothing out their eroticism and abrupt shifts of scene and register, his translations appropriated the stories to which they gave release. Most remarkably of all, it seems likely that he was himself the author of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, the two stories that most audiences, in the ‘West’ and ‘East’ alike, would today think of as embodying the essential characteristics of The Arabian Nights. It would be easy and conventional to deprecate this as exoticising invention, but the ravelled history of these tales, early and late, discourages any such purism. Warner quotes with warm approval the judgment of Borges, who, in his essay ‘The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights’, insisted that some misprision is necessary for every reinvention of the tales in translation. Accordingly, Stranger Magic is an account, not just of the tales in The Arabian Nights themselves, but also of their many adaptations and transformations, in the work of writers including Voltaire, Coleridge, Diderot, Beckford, Goethe and Borges. The book devotes time to some of the less well known of these, such as Anthony Hamilton, an Anglo-Irish Jacobite who followed James II to France and there, writing in French, inaugurated the tradition of elegant mockery of the excesses of The Arabian Nights that opened the way for the rationalist arabesques of Voltaire and others. Warner might have included many more. James Joyce pays frequent homage to his antecedent in nocturnal fabulation throughout Finnegans Wake, often using it to suggest the millennial ‘miscegenations on miscegenations’ of which human history is made, and the impossibility of identifying origins with certainty: ‘It is a slopperish matter, given the wet and low visibility (since in this scherzarade of one’s thousand one nightinesses that sword of certainty which would indentifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone.’ The most conspicuous absentee is probably John Barth, in whose work, from Chimera (1972), through The Tidewater Tales (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) and On with the Story (1996), The Arabian Nights are interbred with many other tall tales and shaggy-dog relations.

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. Occasionally, her efforts to extol the ‘torrential energies of the irrational’ seem about to lead her into a reflex anti-rationalism, as when she describes the way in which The Arabian Nights taught Goethe ‘how to give free play to his imagination, and to pass beyond reason’s boundaries’ – though she adds, in the nick of time, that this is in order ‘to express its ideals more fully’. Later on, she tells us that the Iranian film Gabbeh ‘vibrates with unspoken resistance to the bringers of death and despair, to the forces of intolerance and injustice, and the destroyers of fantasy’, though she knows better than most how turgid with fantasy many of the purveyors of death and injustice are. Is war really possible without fantasy? Is racism? For, as Warner’s use of the phrase ‘reasoned imagination’ suggests, the opposite of reason is not imagination but unreason. Rather than simply rescuing the maiden Magick from her racking and ravishment by the wicked ogre Reason, there would be good reason to defend the latter against the more fantastical imputations laid against it. One trick for keeping your wits about you in the face of such rhetorical enchantments is to substitute for Reason (the capital letter here being an infallible sign that magical thinking is at work) the milder, more diffuse, but altogether more reasonable wish simply to have good reasons for thinking and doing things rather than bad ones, or none at all. On this view, someone who could see no rhyme or reason in the pleasurable extrapolations of fantasy would have a pretty cracked idea of what could count as reasonable in human life and thought. Without the possibility of free or unmotivated extrapolation, logic would be a limping thing indeed, and quite as stunted and ugly as imagination in the service of unreason.

Indeed, 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, for example in the fantasies of flight of Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, the amazing John Wilkins and the anonymous Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750), on whose descriptions of a flying people encountered by a shipwrecked sailor near the South Pole Warner dwells with particular relish. She shows us how Voltaire, while indulging himself in satirical mockery of the bizarreness and exaggeration of The Arabian Nights, also ‘seized this chance for exuberant play to envision, as Shahrazad does in the stories, different regimes of authority, emancipated erotics and prophetic technological innovations’.

The opponents of magical thinking often counterpose it to realism, as though it meant simply the belief in unreal or inexistent things. But magical thinking should be distinguished from a simple belief in magic. The most pernicious forms of magical thinking are those that are too spontaneous or deeply ingrained in habits of action to rise to the condition of thought, and express themselves instead in rituals and instincts – obsessional beliefs about dirt, for instance, or the dangerously deluded estimates most of us make of risk and probability. The form of belief involved in magical thinking is often a much more complex affair than this, and is significantly alloyed with irony. Seen in this way, the magical thinking involved in fairy stories or erotic fantasies is a play with the possibilities of thought itself, a reflexive thinking about the nature and reach of magical thinking. Warner’s book often effects and inspects this kind of chiasmic swivel, whereby the thinking of magic and the magic of thinking change places.
Thinking about magic always seems to involve thinking about the times and places of its origin and persistence. The ‘stranger magic’ of Warner’s title refers not so much to the strangeness of the magic as to its assumed origin among strangers. It could be called ‘the magic of the other’, after Jacques Lacan’s ‘desire of the other’. Where Lacan’s formula implies not just the desire for the other, but the desire to enjoy the other’s own desire, so the magic of the other involves the desire for there to be an other whose assumed belief can keep the possibility of magic alive. The waning of belief only strengthens the belief in what others believe. Attributing magic to strangers, Warner writes, means that magic is ‘easier to disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual and political quarantine’. ‘Quarantine’ seems brilliantly exact here, for it signifies not just hygienic separation, but also a suspension of time that promises a preservation and possible return of magical beliefs that would otherwise be irretrievable.
Ultimately, the magic of The Arabian Nights is self-designating, instanced in what the stories effect as much as in what they relate. ‘Shahrazad’s ransom tale-telling could be described as a single, prolonged act of performative utterance,’ Warner explains, ‘by which she demonstrates the power of words to affect reality.’ Stranger Magic carries forward the highly distinctive magical materialism that impelled Warner’s Phantasmagoria (2006). Where that book explored the many different material forms that have been used to body forth the soul, Stranger Magic finds in the many enchanted and enchanting objects of The Arabian Nights a repeated self-figuring of the operations of fantasy. Can there, after all, be a more literal embodiment of the animism that we see ourselves as having abandoned than the strangely eloquent object that we take a book to be?

The arguments about animation and animism themselves come to life when Warner writes about thing-magic and the magic of particular things in The Arabian Nights: lamps, bottles, rings and, in particular, magic carpets and couches. Paradoxically, though objects seem, in their mute inertness, to be the opposites and impediments to magic and dream, the intercession of objects nevertheless seems indispensable to them. Perhaps this is because objects are liable to remind us of ways in which, in a phrase from Michel Serres quoted by Warner, ‘the subject is born from the object.’ Warner reminds us that Baghdad was one of the richest cities in the world during the years in which The Arabian Nights was being compiled, and was, like Yeats’s half-mythical Byzantium, a city of manufacture, artefacts and energetic trade. The concern with the management of things – their acquisition, exchange, purchase, hoarding, theft – bulks large in the stories. Not only is what Warner calls the ‘thing-world’ of The Arabian Nights richly differentiated, the movements of the stories themselves shadow the movements of goods. They too ‘are objects being traded and exchanged’, as Shahrazad bargains with them for her survival.

Though the ‘eerie materialism’ of magic is often concentrated in charmed or enchanted objects in fairy and folk tale, the magical objects in The Arabian Nights seem to have a particular vitality and dynamism, and the stories are attentive to the ways in which goods are both themselves enchanted and capable of exercising enchantment. The most extended explorations of thing-magic in the book are of flying things and things that enable flight – the flying carpet flits in and out of sight throughout. As with many other objects in fairy tale, its role is to suggest the narrative transports of fantasy itself. Warner follows Philippe-Alain Michaud in making out a deep affinity between the flying carpet and the cinema screen. And, in a superb coup de théâtre in the final chapter of the book, she places Freud’s couch in the tradition of the flying beds and enrapturing sofas that throng The Arabian Nights. She identifies the rug thrown over his couch as woven by the nomadic Ghashgha’i people of northwestern Iran, and uses it to focus the interweavings of textile, fantasy and the navigations of dreaming in psychoanalysis.

Freud defined magical thinking as the omnipotence of thought, and dreams of power are indeed everywhere in magic – both in the kinds of power that one magically dreams for oneself, and the power such dreams have over us. Questions of power growl and grind beneath the candied and volatile delights of The Arabian Nights. We are not allowed to forget for long that their frame-story, in which the princess Shahrazad tells stories to divert the sultan and avert her own execution, involves storytelling for dear life. There is a consonance between this frame and the political circumstances which Warner tells us have bookended the writing of her book, which she began during the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and brought to an end during the Arab Spring of late 2010 and early 2011. Warner does not underestimate the cruelty and violence that run through the stories, which mirror the colonial relations between East and West that obtained during the years of the stories’ cultivation and circulation through Europe. At the same time, she is not prepared simply to reduce the story of the intercourse of stories between West and East from the 18th century onwards to one of ignorant domination. Early in Stranger Magic, she tells us that as a girl she saw the confederacy of Shahrazad and her sister Dunyazad against the cruel sultan as ‘the fullest metaphor for love against death, expressed through the alliance of girls against men in power over them, and ultimately for imagination over experience’. And throughout the book she offers a gentle but insistent qualification of the view associated with Edward Said’s Orientalism, that the fantasies of the West about the East can be reduced to the use of knowledge as power. Warner’s purpose is to engage more seriously than Said with the work of enchantment that is performed reciprocally between West and East, showing how the alternating movements of the stories emphasise connection and exchange as much as epistemic domination. One of the representative moments in this encounter is found in Scott’s The Talisman, in which Saladin visits Richard the Lionheart as he lies sick in his tent. He cures him by means of a magic talisman and thereby ‘transmutes conflict into reciprocity’.



One of the many unsatisfying things about Said’s concept of Orientalism – at least about the way it has been taken up – was its encouragement of the belief that there was, in what is so incautiously and incuriously known as ‘the West’, a single system of reifying fantasy that applied in the same way to the many different forms and locations of ‘the East’, including, improbably, large parts of North Africa (some of them west of the Greenwich Meridian) and the many cultures of India, China, the Far East and even the Pacific. Of course, this mad confection is supposed to be part of the fantasy that Said’s work allows us to recognise; and yet the doctrine of Orientalism itself may have bloomed into a fixated fantasy that eclipses its purported historical object. One of the many ways in which Warner’s book restores grain and texture to this picture is in pointing out that The Arabian Nights itself follows the logic of ‘stranger magic’, attributing the exercise of the more dangerous kinds of magic to other peoples – often the Zoroastrians or Persian mystics whose dualism was deprecated by Islam – such that ‘the Orient in The Arabian Nights has its own Orient.’
Among Warner’s revisions to the idea of Orientalism is her analysis of the much more specific, if still highly variegated, fantasy of ‘Arabianism’. The force of this diffuse body of assumption and projection is indicated clearly enough in the fissure between the word ‘Arabian’, from which images of scimitars, stallions and pomegranates emerge irresistibly, and the more worldly ‘Arab’ or ‘Arabic’. Indeed, it is likely that these latter terms have been systematically preferred in recent times in conscious disavowal of their predecessor – a political confederation of Middle Eastern states could never now be known as the Arabian League.
Stranger Magic has a lively and affectionate chapter on the pantomime history of Arabianism, in which mockery and burlesque are to the fore. One of the few areas here in which one might have wished for more is the discussion of the vulgar arabesque, which, as the degradation of the dream of the Oriental, often becomes an expressive figure for the tawdriness of dream itself. Joyce captures this ironic degradation in his story ‘Araby’, in which a young man’s dreams of erotic and exotic fulfilment move towards the sourest of epiphanies in a drab Dublin bazaar. The numberless Meccas, Granadas and Alhambras doing duty as bingo halls conjure its contemporary equivalent.

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.

The article can be found here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed by Pamela Toler blogging at History in the Margins, January 23, 2012

Warner succeeds in balancing entertainment with erudition. Like her earlier works, Stranger Magic is accessible enough for the general reader and rich enough to keep a specialist scribbling in the margins.
The full review can be found here.
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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
- Reviewed in Publishers Weekly, January 23, 2012

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.

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Kate Williams included Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner
for the Shelf Life list for The Spectator, January 18th 2012

The article can be found here.

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'Lust, betrayal and bottled genies'
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner
-Review by Brian Dillon, The Irish Times, January 21, 2012

MARINA WARNER’S wondrous and lucid study of Arabian Nights has been two decades and more in the making. She began her research during the first Gulf War and completed the book in the midst of the Arab Spring: a story still unfinished, but one Warner hopes in the end might “give the princes and sultans of this world pause”. Stranger Magic is not exactly an argument for the present “relevance” of these venerable tales – Warner is far too subtle, curious and vagrant a reader for that – but it is an extraordinarily rich and elegant lesson in cultural involution. Edward Said, a childhood friend of Warner’s in Cairo, famously accused certain stories of frankly racist attitudes, but Warner is at pains to show how complex the traffic was between orientalist fantasies and the cultures that produced the original (and they are not all original) stories.

The tales that comprise Thousand and One Nights (as the 12th-century Arabic title has it) have no named authors and arose from no discrete milieu; the collection includes narratives from India, Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. There are echoes of the Bible and Koran, as well as numerous rhymes with western folk tales. We owe the modern Nights to one Antoine Gallard, who produced a French translation in the early 18th century and most likely contrived several stories himself, including the most celebrated: the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba. English translations came later: Edward Lane’s rather chaste edition in 1841 – in a luminous essay on the Nights, Borges calls it an “encyclopedia of evasion” – and John Payne’s in 1882. Sir Richard Burton’s, three years later, was largely based on Payne’s but lacquered the tales with fin-de-siecle exoticism: Warner calls his translation “prolix and rococo”.

What all of these versions have in common, of course, is the framing story of Shahrazad – Warner adopts the modern transliteration, formerly Scheherazade – whose nightly tale-spinning (like “an Arabian Penelope”) staves off her slaughter at the hands of the sultan Shahriyar, her husband. This is just the first such frame around a work that sometimes appears entirely composed of prologues and digressions, tales within tales. Among other tricks and treasures, the Nights bequeaths us one of the basic narrative styles of world literature: the nesting of one story inside another in a manner that André Gide (borrowing a heraldic term) called mise en abyme . It’s one of the great pleasures and longueurs of the work, this elaborate process of deferral: a convoluted narrative line that is very precisely “arabesque”.
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 world she describes in the intervening chapters is in some ways familiar: a magical universe of princes, viziers, witches, virgins, bottled genies, flying carpets, mechanical horses and lethal automata. Among reflections on the themes of envy, lust and betrayal that animate the stories, she points out too the uncanny, inhuman nature of much of this fictional realm. Arabian Nights is a book replete with oddly animate objects, not least in the chilling The City of Brass : travellers in the Sahara discover a town arrested in time, where robots stand guard over a queen lying in state, jewelled and mummified, her eyes filled with quicksilver.
There are many later fictional counterparts to such visions – the doll Olympia, for example, in ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman – but perhaps the tales’ strange fixation with marionettes and machinery is also one reason they have flourished on stage and in the cinema. The story of Aladdin and the magical lamp was dramatised by the Irish actor and playwright John O’Keeffe and performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1788; it was a popular subject, too, for children’s toy theatres a few decades later. The Disney version of Aladdin is well known, Lotte Reiniger’s delightful animated silhouettes in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) less so. But very early film-makers seem already to have divined a magical link between the technologies they invented and the contraptions that appear in the Nights – William Dickson, an assistant to Thomas Edison, described the latter’s revolving black studio in Brooklyn as “the air-ship of some swart Afrite”, mimicking the “fancy, straining archaisms” of Burton’s Arabian Nights .
Warner’s chapters on the filmic afterlife of the Nights remind us that her last book was Phantasmagoria , a study of ghostly and occult technologies from the magic lantern to virtual reality. In fact, even that hugely ambitious and fascinating volume now looks like a sort of footnote to the remarkable feat she has pulled off in Stranger Magic : 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.


Animated arabesques: Rider and his harem, from an 1895 edition of Arabian Nights.
Photograph: French School Collection/Bridgeman/Getty

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner
-Review by Iain Finlayson, The Times, November 5 2011

Not the least effect of Antoine Galland’s first translation, published in France in 1701, of the ‘Arabian Nights’ was the fevered fashion for things oriental and arabesque, a taste that has recurred as persistently anachronistic, romantic and magical, in Western culture to this day. Such a static, unscientific orientalism, trenchantly criticised by Edward Said, is a long thread running through this wide-ranging, erudite, wondrously polymathic exploration of the tales of magic, bound to the “huge narrative wheel”, with which Shahrazad enchanted the Sultan Shahriyar through one thousand and one nights of storytelling. Warner, too, is a beguiling storyteller: her fascination with true knowledge embedded in realms of wonder, and with reason concealed in the beguiling patterns of artifice, pervades this profound study of magical thinking and the creative imagination. She releases the jinn of cultural modernism and scientific progress from the bottle in which it has been long confined by Western tradition.
The review can be found here.

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'Stories Told in Bed' - a review of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner
by Eric Ormsby,The Literary Review, December 2011/January 2012

On certain restless nights, despite the plush furnishings of his royal bed or the soothing melodies of his musicians or even the exquisite attentions of one or more of his 300 concubines, the mighty caliph Harun al-Rashid, fifth in the Abbasid line, could not find sleep. Accompanied by his favourite eunuch, Masrur, who also served as his headsman, he prowled the palace gardens or roamed in disguise through the souks of Baghdad; sometimes he summoned learned scholars for a chat - normally an infallible remedy for insomnia. If these expedients failed, he had his eunuch fetch Ali ibn Mansur, a wit from Damascus, to while away the long hours of the night with his fabulous tales. In the end, only stories could lull the caliph to sleep.

The sleepless Harun al-Rashid figures prominently, of course, in the vast compendium of bedtime stories we know as The Arabian Nights - Alf Layla wa-Layla in Arabic or The Thousand Nights and a Night. As the prolific scholar and novelist Marina Warner notes in her wonderful new study of the work, 'The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed.' She is right to emphasise this. At night stories expand in the imagination; they are made plausible and almost palpable by the darkness lying just beyond the lamp. They would not enchant us so in the light of day. Heard by dark the storyteller's voice seems to emerge from the oldest of human memories; it has the spectral authority of all immemorial voices.

The tales of the Nights have a contagious quality; they demand to be transmitted. Once bitten by a fable, we cannot help passing it on. (This irresistible aspect of storytelling is charmingly illustrated in the 149th Night, in which a fox tricks a wolf into falling into a pit with him where they end up swapping stories and quoting favourite verses back and forth; even in extremis, the need to fabulate prevails.) The same impulse motivates Shahrazad, though such is the charm of her storytelling that we almost forget that she spins her stories under the threat of death; only if she keeps the embittered sultan Shahryar in suspense, night after night, can she escape the fate that has befallen her predecessors, each one beheaded at dawn. As if to remind us of the threat, her father, the sultan's vizier, arrives punctually every morning with a fresh shroud for his daughter.

Warner is herself something of a Shahrazad, though she weaves her account under less threatening auspices. Shahrazad is recounting tales which she has read and memorised; her voice is a link in a chain of tales stretching back to antiquity, and Warner follows her example. 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. The Nights were first compiled in Mameluke Egypt in collections intended as prompt-books for itinerant storytellers (hakawati in Arabic), who formed their own guilds and found their audiences in Egyptian and Syrian coffee-houses. Despised by Arab literati, who considered them 'popular trash', the Nights became universally popular only after they were translated into French by the scholar, numismatist and collector Antoine Galland and published in twelve volumes over the years 1704-17. The impact of Galland's translation can hardly be overstated. 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.

To accommodate this huge range of reference, Stranger Magic employs an ingenious structure. The book is divided into five sections and twenty chapters, all arranged around her re-telling of some fifteen of the tales, from 'The Fisherman and the Genie' and the sombre 'City of Brass' - perhaps the greatest single story in the Nights - to 'Aladdin', one of the so-called 'orphan' stories (because no Arabic original has been discovered). Following each story, Warner engages in far-ranging explorations both of its context and its wider ramifications. She is especially interested in what she calls 'the not-sense that magic unfolds'. Whether discussing the lore of magic carpets or the occult properties of talismans, she applies what Borges called 'reasoned imagination' to her investigations. She is particularly good on what she identifies as the 'thingness in the stories', the fateful role that common, often household objects play in human destinies. And she has a splendid chapter on the now-forgotten German film-maker Lotte Reiniger, who created the silent shadow-film The Adventures of Prince Achmed on her Tricktisch, a fabulous cinematic contraption she and her husband designed in 1920s Berlin.

As her title indicates, Warner sees magic in all its forms as a key to the swarming world of the Nights, and in this she is surely right. But the magic of the Nights is not merely fanciful: it rests on at least two unspoken assumptions. In accord with the doctrinaire formulations of the mainstream theology of Sunni Islam, cause and effect are fictions; what we think of as causality is merely God's 'custom'. He recreates the world at every instant and whatever occurs is the direct result of His specifying will. The baffling and wondrous events that pervade the Nights are a dramatic illustration of this radical contingency. Moreover, for many Muslim thinkers, the creation was enwebbed by strands of secret sympathies; there was an occult intimacy - ulfa in Arabic - that bound disparate things together. This sort of thinking, which linked the meanest insect to the farthest star, underlies many of the abrupt reversals and enchanted transformations of the Nights. Things are not merely not what they seem; rather, they have no fixed and abiding essences. Even the distinction between animate and inanimate, between sentient and insentient, is dissolved in the magical thinking of the storytellers. This is one reason, I think, why the Nights rely so consistently on types rather than individuals; the merchant and the beggar, the prince and the princess, the dervish and the sorcerer are all ultimately interchangeable. This shifting conception gives the narratives their quicksilver fluidity.

No figure is more ubiquitous in the Nights than the so-called genie, or jinn in Arabic. These supernatural beings, intermediate between humans and angels, were created, according to the Koran (15:27), 'from a scorching fire'. In Visions of the Jinn, the scholar and novelist Robert Irwin, author of the indispensable The Arabian Nights: A Companion and editor of the complete new translation of The Arabian Nights by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons (2008), has provided a magnificent and beautifully illustrated account of the various illustrators of the Nights from the eighteenth century onwards. Drawn mostly from the collections of The Arcadian Library, the 163 plates are stunning. In his accompanying text, Irwin provides detailed and perceptive accounts of the illustrators, many of them now forgotten. And his captions to the plates are as sparkling as his text: thus, one of Arthur Rackham's genies has a 'knobbly, scrawny look'. Alongside such well-known figures as Aubrey Beardsley, Edmund Dulac and Maxfield Parrish, brilliant artists such as Albert Letchford, Frank Brangwyn and, perhaps most impressive, the ill-fated Edward Julius Detmold (who shot himself in 1957) more than hold their own. Irwin also includes a colour reproduction of the 1943 Classic Comics version of the Nights (which I fondly remember reading as a child). In this vein Irwin notes that 'the ghost of Dulac hovers over the Disney animated Aladdin'. Just as beggars rub shoulders with princesses in the tales, so too these illustrations, the popular as well as the rarefied, merrily collude - a testimony to the all-embracing capaciousness of the Nights. This is a sumptuous book, and so is its price, but even Harun al-Rashid would have been happy to give it a place of honour on his bedside table.
The full review can be found here.

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Helen Simpson chose 'Stranger Magic' as one of her 'Books of The Year 2011' for The Times Literary Supplement, 2nd December 2011. The article can be found here.

MW interviewed by Katie Antoniou with a review of Stranger Magic in Run Riot Blog , November 2011 here.

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Hanif Kureishi chose 'Stranger Magic' as one of his 'Books of The Year 2011' for The Guardian, 25th November.
The article can be found here.

"If we might forget how central these tales are to our culture, Marina Warner's wondrous Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus) 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."

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner
- Review by Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Guardian.co.uk, 11 November 2011

"The Arabian Nights constitute, in Marina Warner's words, "a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales". The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts (also known as The Thousand and One Nights and the Arabian Nights Entertainments) are Qur'anic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, among many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Márquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes.

The framing story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom recounted in the tales. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death. Although oral versions of the Nights long percolated through Europe (elements turning up in Chaucer, Ariosto, Dante and Shakespeare), the tales were established in the mainstream of European popular and literary culture with Galland's early 18th-century French translation. Galland purged the eroticism and homosexuality, added tales from the dictation of a Lebanese friend, and perhaps invented the two best-known and seemingly most "Arabian" tales of all: "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves".
Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving this belle infidèle approach to translation. "I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else." It's this changing aspect of the Nights as a time-travelling, trans-civilisational cooperation that fascinates Warner. She sees in it "a unique key to the imaginary processes that govern the symbolism of magic, foreignness and mysterious power in modern culture".

Stranger Magic, influenced by the work of Edward Said, is an endeavour to uncover "a neglected story of reciprocity and exchange". One of Warner's central intentions is to show that while Christendom and Islam were politically and religiously in a state of hot or cold war, science, philosophy and art recognised no frontiers. Yet this openness closed somewhat from the Enlightenment on, when Europe sealed magic off from science, imagination from reason, and also east from west. The Enlightenment, of course, was the point at which the Nights was translated to such rapturous European reception, and not by accident. The "home-grown 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 or political quarantine".

So to the orientalisms of Edward Lane and Richard Burton's English translations, which not only presented the medieval fantastic as a documentary resource for understanding the "unchanging" and now colonially subjected Arab culture of the 19th century, but also projected on to the exotic foreign screen fantasies and fears that would have been taboo in a domestic context. Burton famously re-sexualised the tales with his own copious notes on the east's supposed perversions.

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.
Part one focuses on the jinn (or genies) – who behave, like the Greek gods, badly, capriciously, illogically – and also on the figure of Solomon, a master of the jinn in his Islamic version, here located in the white wizard tradition somewhere between Gilgamesh, Merlin, Prospero and Gandalf. It includes one of the book's many delightful discoveries: a 14th-century Syrian treatise on the legal status of jinn-human marriages.
The second part attends to the Arab and European habit of attributing foreignness to evil magicians. These dark enchanters come from dark places (Africa and India) and profess dark (pre-Islamic) faiths. During the Enlightenment, black magic became inevitably dark skinned; necromancy became inseparable from "nigromancy".

Warner also examines how the stories "test the border between persons and things" and how severed heads that speak, books that kill and carpets which fly can be linked to the objects of our modern world – not only cinema's animations but also the prosthetic goods of everyday life, the designer labels, gadgets and vehicles by which we project and define our personalities.

Warner moves from considering the derivations and meanings of the word "talisman" to reflect on her own attachment to talismans in her Catholic girlhood (her personal appearances in the book are apt, easing the academic tone) before launching into a fascinating discussion of the talismanic properties of paper money.

There is much on writerly responses to the Nights, including Voltaire's contes, Goethe's "East-West Divan", and (a great chapter) the neglected Gothic novelist and Islamophile William Beckford. The book ends with an examination of flight, cinema, shadow play and Freud. Warner describes the Hampstead cave of wonders that was Freud's final consulting room, "a darkling mirror of the furnishings of his mind", and the iconic analytical couch draped in oriental cushions and rugs. Specifically a Ghashgha'i tribal rug, which leads by glorious digression to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's rug-themed Iranian film Gabbeh, and to a reminder that oriental rugs, the Nights and psychoanalysis are all narrative forms.

Stranger Magic is a scholarly work that often reads like a fireside conversation. It's encyclopediac, a book to be savoured in slices, yet (inevitably) it's easy to think of further potential topics – giants, for instance, or dervishes, or magical realism from the Arabs via La Mancha to the Latin American boom. But Warner's conclusion reminds us of her organising principle: the uses of enchantment to open new possibilities of thought and sympathy – the necessity of magic, especially in a self-consciously "rational", secular world."
The article can be found here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner
- Review by Victoria Beale, The Independent, 13 November 2011

"The Arabian Nights is a literary landmark with a dizzyingly complex history. Even thinking of it as a single, stand-alone work is reductive, as Marina Warner demonstrates in this excellent study. The stories which make up The Arabian Nights originate from a vast web of oral folk-tales, mostly from India and Persia, and were first written in Arabic then translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704. It is Galland's translation which forms the basis of Warner's textual history, as he informed all subsequent European versions – and helped shape a perception of the East as an antiquated, slightly unreal place populated by lascivious, murderous kings, dewy maidens and wily courtesans.

The Nights became, for successive European generations from the Enlightenment on, a prism through which writers and artists could form and then articulate their own fantasies and prejudices about the Orient. Edward Lane's 1840 translation expurgated sex and violence from the tales, while in 1882 the explorer Richard Burton, infuriated by what he saw as Lane's prudery, put the sex back in, plus some extra obsessions of his own in the footnotes. Whatever the personal natures of their editorial decisions, both Lane and Burton believed The Arabian Nights, however ancient its myths, could be used to understand the contemporary Middle East.

Warner compares the absurdity of this to "pressing a copy of Macbeth on someone interested in the Highlands." The solipsism and condescension of believing an entire foreign culture can be explained in perpetuity by millennia-old fables was an attitude attacked by the critic Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientialism. Warner returns to Said's arguments throughout Stranger Magic as she balances the praiseworthy and more distasteful aspects of Europe's fascination with the East.

Warner juxtaposes her history of the Nights as cultural phenomenon with her own simple retellings of the tales, scattered throughout the book. They are principally, she makes clear in her introduction, for reference rather than being radical new adaptations. But her summarised versions are also enthralling in themselves, giving Stranger Magic a structure of narrative within narrative which neatly echoes its subject.

The range and subtlety of references in Stranger Magic is its greatest strength. Warner shifts rapidly between centuries, bringing in a Nabokov quotation or Rudolf Nureyev choreography to discuss the symbolism of the magic carpet. To explain the nature of mischievous spirits called "jinn" in the tales, she compares them to Ariel in The Tempest, and draws comparison between vengeful, lesson-imparting jinn and the ghosts in Dickens. Her historical analysis ranges from the Arab Spring back to Herodotus, and she shows what writers from Coleridge to Borges owe to Scheherazade. Warner's book makes reading The Arabian Nights seem as essential to understanding the Western literary canon as the King James Bible, and a lot more fun."
The article can be found here.


Detail from The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner
-Book Of The Week Review by Daniel Hahn, The Independent, 11 November 2011

"There was a time, once, when the life of the Arabian Nights was lived more fully and more consequentially in places very remote from even the loosest notions of what might be called Arabia. It was 18th-century Europe where the stories' first print publications saw the light, and Europe, too, where the tales were so highly prized - while back home they were frequently dismissed as trifles, vulgar and insubstantial.

Not that they ever had one "home" at all, of course. The component stories have roots in Iraq, Egypt, India, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, and were strapped together as a miscellaneous bundle that Europeans labelled "Arabian", which meant simply that they had some approximately Eastern exoticism in common, slightly weird colours and tastes, and people in a far-off land behaving in ways that we probably wouldn't here.

It was the French orientalist Antoine Galland who gave us the first translation, Les mille et une nuit, published from 1704. This first translation was also our first print edition in any language. While based on Arabic manuscripts, it is a partial, expurgated reading, smoothed and shaped by the interventions of its creator. Indeed, it has been the book's "translators", if such we should call them, who over time have defined and re-defined its scope, not to mention its impact.

Before Galland, the stories had existed for centuries in a constantly shape-shifting collection. It came to be known as Alf Laylawa-Layla (One Thousand and One Nights), and it was a manuscript of this text (from the Syrian recension) which Galland took as his primary source. But he added stories not found in any of his predecessors, too, among them "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", which have since become perhaps the Nights' most familiar components to Western readers.

1706 brought the first English-language edition, anonymously translated, entitled The Arabian Nights' Entertainment. To many Europeans, the name stuck. Arguably the stories' most significant English-language ambassadors came more than a century after, however, with Edward Lane's expurgated version, published from 1838, followed some 50 years later byRichard Burton's ten-volume Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which reinstated the sexual content that Lane had delicately sidestepped. Opinions are divided about Burton's prurient, rather lurid version, but it certainly did much to popularise the Nights with readers. More than a century further on, Shahrazad and her stories remain vividly with us.

What we now find ourselves with, then, is a particular kind of cultural appropriation. The Nights have been wound into a Western canon, albeit to function as a representative of another culture. It's a sort of shorthand, for domestic consumption.

Speaking on a panel in the Gulf earlier this year, I heard discontent from local writers and translators that the Arabian Nights retain such a stranglehold on Western understanding of Middle Eastern storytelling that there's barely oxygen left for anything else more modern. It's a classic example of the orientalism scorned by Edward Said. Sir Richard Burton, I was told, has a lot to answer for.

The most recent English-language edition, however, comes from the pen of Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh. Her One Thousand and One Nights is described on the title-page as "a new re-imagining". Which indeed it is, but then so is every translation of this unique work. Naturally, any translation is a recreation, and in its simplest form to be a translator is to be a re-teller. But here there's something different at play.

Where the translator of, say, a contemporary European novel would usually see his or her role as transferring text A across a language divide and re-presenting it as new text B, constructed out of quite different materials but bearing as close an exterior likeness as possible, in this case - well, for starters, it's far from obvious what text A is exactly. There's no definitive "original" for a translator to work from, merely a long history of variants, often assembled by other translators. So each translator carries out work that isn't just textural, or even textual, but is significantly structural too.

Then, where a "regular" translator is aiming for a likeness in mode – translate a long novel into a long novel, a short poem into a short poem – translators of this work don't even have this to cling to. The assembly of stories is translated as often into different forms as its narrative prose into narrative prose, or its poetry into poetry.

Earlier this week, the de Havilland Philarmonic performed Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, while live on stage the artist James Mayhew translated those sounds into magical images, including a night-time townscape of domes, under a starry night sky with a crescent moon. His re-creational task was a translation of sorts, just as Rimsky-Korsakov's was before him.

In the Foreword to her book, Hanan Al-Shaykh writes that she fell in love with the Nights as a child thanks to a radio adaptation. Her own "re-imagining" had its origins in a commission for the stage, working with theatre director Tim Supple, who dramatised them for a pan-Arabic cast earlier this year. Now in book form she has stitched together 18 tales, all sitting within the famous frame-story. Young Shahrazad is taken to bed by the King who vows to kill her at daybreak, but by spinning out cliff-hanging stories, she manages to earn a day's reprieve, then another, a thousand times over, until she has changed his mind. (And borne him three sons along the way.)

Part of the stories' appeal to Al-Shaykh was their "flat, simple language" – and indeed many versions of the Nights find a voice to portray this vivid world that is knowingly stilted, calculatedly formulaic. For something to "read like a translation" is usually a cardinal sin, but translators of the Nights seem to revel in just that. So Al-Shaykh's cunning fisherman says to the jinni he has found in a bottle: "'This is what I love to hear! Just give me a second to think what I should ask of you.' But the jinni said, 'Tell me how you wish to die. I promise you that I will fulfil your desire.' 'Why me?' the fisherman shrieked. 'What have I done to you, you ungrateful creature? Let me tell you that until this day I never believed the proverb 'Beware those you help'."

Within this language, however, a spell is woven. We must be captivated, if we are to believe that our proxy-listener the King is too.

Al-Shaykh's One Thousand and One Nights is a treasure-box of stories, brimming with wily, deceitful women and power-hungry men, with fishermen, caliphs, viziers and jinnis, dervishes and demons, with lavish banquets and bustling marketplaces, camels and donkeys, excessive appetites, drinking, poetry and song, casual violence and generous amounts of candid, explicit sex. The stories link and loop and ensnare their readers. This paragraph, by the way, was just the kind of lazy shorthand described above, which the stories seem to encourage: a treasure-box! Camels and viziers, indeed!

"Translators are not usually thought of as novelists in their own right," writes Marina Warner; but "the history of the Arabian Nights in its European versions should warn against any such glib presumption". She describes Lane, like Galland, as "a fabricator". The same could be said of the skills Al-Shaykh has brought to her fine new telling.

Warner's Stranger Magic is an exuberantly clever investigation of the role of magic in the way we think, which harvests the Arabian Nights for stories and figures to demonstrate her case. It considers the fascination of the unexplained, and the uses of enchantment (a phrase inevitably reminiscent of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim) in a secular, sceptical world. The stories in the Nights are, after all, wild and fantastic fairy-tales that hit their massive European popularity at the height of the Age of Reason. Warner opens a portal to all the aja'ib – the wonders – in the Nights and shows us why such things have had, and continue to have, such sustained impact.

Just as any act of translation is by its nature a creative, or re-creative act, so storytelling itself is always fundamentally an enchantment. The reader of the Nights – like Shahrazad's king – is enchanted by stories that are themselves about enchantments. It's largely this inner wheel – the magical "content", if you like, with magicians, transformations, flying carpets and all – that is Warner's subject.

With the text of the Nights as her anchor, Warner's widely referenced argument spins outwards and back again - to some close relations, such as Lotte Reiniger's "shadow film", The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but also further to The West-Eastern Divan (Goethe's collection of lyric poems), and even to the symbols on the Persian rug covering Freud's couch. "The Persian rug, the Arabian nights and the psychoanalytic process," she writes, "are all forms of storytelling."

Where Al-Shaykh gives us a translation that, like any translation, reveals and acknowledges its origins as it simultaneously dissembles, Warner cracks open the frame to expose the workings of the component parts. She dismantles and rearticulates them on an exhilarating scale, in a book dense with allusions and wide-ranging new associations. Which is, I suppose, a sort of re-creation too."
The article can be found here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights
- Review by Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education, 3 November 2011, Pp 50-51

"A celebrated internationalist's capacity for wonder adds lustre to a literary treasure, says Fred Inglis.
Marina Warner is surely the most complete and celebrated internationalist in the humanities departments of UK universities. Brought up in Cairo, the polyglot speaker of five languages; the grandchild of Plum Warner, the ur-ancestor of English cricket; an occasional novelist and author of nearly 30 books, she is almost as rare a bird as is to be found in the thousands of pages of her studies in myth, faery and folktales, as well as the complex dynasties of paintings, prints, cartoons and movies that have been born of them.

Her classic histories of Mariolatry and St Joan, oblique products of her devoutly Catholic childhood, brought her swift and justified fame. Her 2000 study of the interminable lineage of male monsters and their revolting résumés, No Go the Bogeyman, bore compelling witness not only to the toughness of her sensibility (some of the horror stories she retells with due objectivity and a touch of relish are horrible, all right) but also to her omnivorous imagination and her grasp of giant topics.

This new book, Stranger Magic, is much more, of course, than a gift to the dismaying crowds of New Age rejectionists of canonical science and their superstitious return to the purported wisdom of the folk. For it has been the great achievement of a century's work in anthropology to learn the truth of R.G. Collingwood's remark that "to the educated man as such there is no pleasanter kind of self-flattery than the doctrine that folklore, the one cultural possession of the illiterate, is merely their perversion of what his own class has bestowed on them".

Warner is a stout defender of just that cultural possession. It is then a paradox, although one she carries off with perfect poise, that this is a book about books, hundreds of them, and all of them collecting, reporting, retelling, revising, parodying, celebrating and wallowing in the uses of literacy on the part of the illiterate.

Not surprisingly, such a history commits her to a repetitiousness that sometimes threatens to swamp the book. For her subject is vast enough even to match her ambition. It is to pursue into their great tradition the tales of the thousand and one Arabian nights as told by Shahrazad (in Warner's orthography) during the three-year sentence of death pronounced by her husband, and nightly postponed by a new bedtime story (in the end she narrates her way out of ritual decapitation).

There is, by definition, no original text for The Arabian Nights, but we may be sure that Warner has her hands on all the earliest versions in print with their copious illustrations, as well as spotting with her keen, infallible eye echoes of the original fables in the Koran and the Old Testament, in the rich mythography around King Solomon, in Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Mozart and Goethe. Indeed, the list of the mighty writers whose imaginations were lit by Shahrazad's many inventions would fill any pantheon and comes bang up to the cinema screen with the great Michael Powell's 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad and Robin Williams in Disney's Aladdin.

The mere business of assembling her enormous multitude commits Warner to her repetitions, and one cannot fairly expostulate at this. Nonetheless, at the umpteenth appearance of the bottle, the jinn, the beautiful damsel, the sumptuous carpet, the desert sands, the conversational pots and pans, the cruel tyrant and the voice from the sky, anyone raised on the usual English-speaking literary diet of a realist aesthetic and a dependable connection between cause and effect has to discover the same reserves of patience as the amazing Professor Warner.

At the same time, however, we anglophone realists cannot surely have so far lost touch with a romantic childhood that the mere reiteration of magic symbolism does not once more run thrillingly off the tongue. The very piles of jewellery and precious stones - amethyst, emerald, porphyry, silver, crystal and carnelian, let alone the white silk pantaloons, the jewelled slippers, the cataracts of long black hair - are set deep in the collective imagination and throb in Warner's pages with all their old power.

It was Theodor Adorno who, in a marvellous note in Minima Moralia, recalled that gold and precious stones were once revered because their radiance was thought to be inherent not reflective; whatever was touched by their light came under their influence. "As radiant things gave up their magic claims," Adorno added, "they become promises of a happiness cured of domination over nature. This is the primeval history of luxury, that has migrated into the meaning of all art."

This is the light the book needs to shine over the great piles of its stories. Behind Warner, of course, stands the massive rectitude of Edward Said's Orientalism. But she is at pains to qualify and disperse Said's stern polemic and recover the delightfulness of the storyteller's art. She hasn't, however, found the key that, like Adorno's insight, would unlock the innumerable puzzles of her endlessly repetitious and dark materials.

Baffled as to interpretation and properly averse to theoretic moralising, Warner is left with a an exceedingly long chronology. In her very interesting chapter "Money Talks", for instance, she decodes the long history carried by the design of the American dollar bill and its Solomonic hieroglyphs, but the key she never picks up is John Maynard Keynes', when he writes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that "the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future". This is the source of its undoubtedly magical powers, and explains in Keynes' offhand dictum the reason why all those chests and coffers spill their great cascades of coins over the caves and carpets of those 1,001 nights.

Without a key one is just left, in both senses, wondering, and Warner is excellent on wonder. Naturally she resists any easy Enlightenment distinction between science and magic. Epistemology is shaped out of the methods and ideas that preceded it. Scientific concepts are necessarily formed by slow heat in a crucible baked by ancient, even dead principles of inquiry. But at the present moment of universal genealogising, we could have done with a lot more genealogy. Not of sources - Warner is utterly complete on them - but of that imaginative alchemy that turns old tales to new, imaginative purpose.

She tells us exactly how, for instance, William Beckford, Horace Walpole and M.G. "Monk" Lewis shared out their Gothic recipes and Islamic parodies to make an Orientalist trilogy. Her chronicle is attractively sociable in its storymaking, and her eye for vivid detail is mesmerising. The trouble is that she leaves her readers crying out for the meaning she finds in it all; then she vanishes through the shimmering curtains of heteroglossia. All she leaves behind is the enigmatic image of a doe she once encountered at Fonthill Abbey, near Bath, Beckford's vast Gothic folly.

In her closing pages, the grave and bearded visage of Sigmund Freud appears, and the reader is braced for theoretic explanation at last. But, characteristically, Warner tells us in intimate detail the tale of a beautiful rug on the analyst's couch, a prize item in Freud's rug collection. She is permitted to touch it by the curator. "It is unexpectedly soft and silky," she writes. Warner turns away from the rug to Henry James' teasing about "the figure in the carpet", and then to Ludwig Wittgenstein, of all people. The End.

THE AUTHOR
Novelist and historian Marina Warner, professor in the department of literature, film and theatre studies at the University of Essex, was born in London. Shortly thereafter her family moved to Cairo, where her father opened a bookshop. She recalls daily trips with her nanny to the nearby sports centre, where there were high swings and a swimming pool.

"It was a colonialist upbringing," she says, "the last throes of the British imperial mindset, horrible and fascinating."

Anti-British riots in 1952 led to her father's bookshop and warehouse being burned in the "Cairo Fire", prompting a move to Brussels. "It was a drab place in the 1950s," Warner recalls, "except for the weekly bird market in the Grand Place. In those days, you could buy songbirds, and my sister and I had a cage full of them - terrible to relate."

From an early age, Warner dreamed of becoming a classical soprano. She was captivated by the paintings of the Flemish masters that she saw in Ghent and Bruges, and is now particularly interested in contemporary art, which she says has influenced her writing.

A trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and president of the British Comparative Literature Association for the period 2010-13, Warner, who is also a visiting professor at both Queen Mary, University of London and the Royal College of Art, says she was "proud, surprised and grateful" when she was appointed CBE for services to literature in 2008. However, she was also unsettled by becoming part of an Establishment she has always tried to keep at a distance in order to remain "independent-minded"."
The article can be found here.

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights
- Review by Jackie McGlone in Glasgow Sunday Herald, 31 October 2010

Full article can be found here.

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LINKS
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