I liked reading first and then writing; and inside stories was the place I wanted to be, especially stories that went beyond any experience I could live myself at first hand. The very first stories I heard were saints’ lives: the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of the Virgin Mary, the terrible gory violence of the martyrs’ ends. I learned from my Catholic childhood how to visualise when praying and how to examine my conscience: both excellent disciplines if you want to write.
Then I discovered myths, wonder tales and fairy lore: ordinary life went on but I was diving to the bottom of the sea with weights on my feet to pick the flower of immortal life and then losing the magic elixir to a passing snake – for ever; I was dipping my finger in dragon’s blood and tasting it and then finding I could listen in on the conversation of the birds and hear what animals were saying; I was saving my numerous brothers who had been turned into swans by knitting them shirts made from nettles which I’d spun into thread with blistered, burning fingers; with Electra I was helping murder her father – I could go on, but these are the kinds of stories that kept me reading under the covers with a torch, stories that every culture created long before print or even, perhaps, writing itself.
When I first encountered myths and fairy tales, the wonder I felt was pure wonder. But as I have grown older, wonder has taken on its double aspect, and become questioning too. In all my writing, fiction and other, I wonder what the work of the imagination means, and what it does and can do. Using a historical perspective, I try to explore the way imagination leads understanding, how fantasy shapes goals and values for individuals as well as societies. I look for mythic material now in other places besides the covers of fairy books: my work explores the interactions of imagination and reality in art and literature and the effects they have both on individuals and societies: how ideas about the middle east, for example, are imbued with fantasies from Salome’s dance to Aladdin pantomimes. The literature of the imagination isn’t separate from ethical and political issues and facts; it develops in active dialogue with them, illuminates experience in history and now, and I believe its effects are overlooked and misunderstood, with sometimes dangerous consequences.
My critical and historical books and essays explore different figures in myth and fairy tale and the art and literature they have inspired, from my early studies of the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc to more recent work on the Arabian Nights. My fiction runs parallel to this, as I often draw on mythic or other imaginary predecessors to translate them into contemporary significance – to re-vision them. Stories come from the past but speak to the present (if you taste the dragon’s blood and can hear what they say). I need to write stories as well as deconstruct and analyse them because I don’t want to damage the mysterious flight of imagination at the core of storytelling, the part that escapes what is called rational understanding.
I hope, I believe that literature can be ‘strong enough to help’, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s wonderful comment about poetry.
MW, London April 2010
Photograph by Eamonn McCabe for The Guardian ‘Writers Rooms’
ABOUT MARINA WARNER
She was born in London in 1946, of an Italian mother and an English father who was a bookseller. After primary schools in Cairo and Brussels, she was educated in England at St Mary’s Convent, Ascot, and then read French and Italian as an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, of which she is now an Honorary Fellow.
Made a Companion of Honour, June 2022
Distinguished Fellow, All Souls, Oxford, 2019
The Holberg Prize, 2015.
Two Year Fellowship, All Souls College Oxford, 2013.
Honorary Fellow at St Cross College, Oxford.
Honorary Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.
She is Distinguished Visiting professor at NYU Abu Dhabi from January 2012.
She was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2005, and was made a CBE for services to literature in 2008.
She is President of the British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA) for the period 2010-2013 and was elected
a two-year Fellow at All Souls College Oxford in 2013.
She is currently a trustee of The National Portrait Gallery and patron of Hosking Houses Trust, Reprieve, The Society for Storytelling and is a patron of Bloodaxe Poetry Books.
She gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 1994.
She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates by:
King’s College London, 2009
Oxford University, 2006
University of Leicester, 2006
University of Kent, 2005
Royal College of Art, 2004
Tavistock Institute (University of East London), 1999
University of St Andrew’s, 1998
University of North London, 1997
University of York, 1997
Sheffield Hallam University, 1995
University of Exeter, 1995