Marina Warner

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Non-Fiction Monograph

Chatto & Windus (hardback) London 2011
Harvard University Press (hardback) USA 2012
Kalima (hardback) 2017, translated into Arabic by Abla Owdat

A dazzling history of magical thinking, exploring the power of The Arabian Nights and its impact in the West, and retelling some of its wondrous tales. Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. It used to be associated with wisdom, understanding the powers of nature, and with technical ingenuity that could let men do things they had never dreamed of before.

As part of her exploration into the prophetic enchantments of the Nights, Marina Warner retells some of the most wonderful and lesser known stories. She explores the figure of the dark magician or magus, from Solomon to the wicked uncle in Aladdin; the complex vitality of the jinn, or genies; animal metamorphoses and flying carpets. Her narrative reveals that magical thinking, as conveyed by these stories, governs many aspects of experience, even now. In this respect, the east and west have been in fruitful dialogue. Writers and artists in every medium have found themselves by adopting Oriental disguise.

With startling originality and impeccable research, this ground-breaking book shows how magic, in the deepest sense, helped to create the modern world, and how profoundly it is still inscribed in the way we think today.


WINNER – 2013 Sheikh Zayed Book Award
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WINNER – 2013 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism
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WINNER – 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
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"A celebrated internationalist's capacity for wonder adds lustre to a literary treasure... Marina Warner is surely the most complete and celebrated internationalist in the humanities departments of UK universities."

Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education, 3 November 2011

"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 Independent Book Of The Week Review by Daniel Hahn, 11 November 2011

"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."

Victoria Beale, The Independent, 13 November 2011

"Stranger Magic is a labor of love, an academic work which often reads like a fireside conversation. It’s encyclopediac, a book to be savored 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, indeed the necessity of magic, especially in a self-consciously “rational” and secular world."

Review by Robin Yassin-Kassab, The, 11 November 2011

"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."

Patricia Storace, New York Review of Books, March 20 2014

Other editions

First published by Chatto & Windus, 2013