Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner

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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner

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Category: Reference
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A gorgeous and inventive new exploration of the influence of the Arabian Nights on European culture. A blockbuster of an academic text that is sure to become the authority on the subject.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099437697

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'Arabesque' is, these days, a term little used outside ballet. However, in its original meaning it conveyed the idea of an intricate pattern, constantly and exuberantly multiplying in countless new twists and turns, like the interlinked curves on a Middle Eastern carpet. That notion of arabesque – things spreading and connecting gorgeously – is pretty much crucial to both the theory and the design of Marina Warner's fantastical and fantastic new exploration of the rich intercultural history of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic.

The Nights themselves, after all, are an endlessly evolving, endlessly involved series of tales. Within its stories, jinn erupt from bottles and rings, metal horses pound through the sky, carpets fly, fish speak, the future is seen in dreams and men and women travel the length and breadth of the world in the blink of a magician's eye. But as far as the reader seems to travel, they are really moving no distance at all: each wonder unfurls from the mind (and bed) of Scheherazade, a frame narrator who uses the power of stories to fight for her life.

Stranger Magic (the title a play on the oddness as well as the intrinsic otherness of the modern Western concept of magic, a concept that has in large part been shaped by the stories in the Arabian Nights) is a gloriously blockbuster work by a razor-sharp mind who's really having fun with her subject.

Warner begins with the first full translation of the Nights in Europe, by the Frenchman Antoine Galland in 1704, and moves outwards from there, giving an account so broad and deep that it sometimes seems like an alternate history of a whole magical world, similar to but far more marvellous than our own. Warner presents anecdotes like the one about the Cairo merchant in the 1970s who claimed he had a jinniya wife and five invisible children, and she tells them in way that makes such experiences seem delightfully probable rather than insane.

It's part of Warner's genius that she uses what she describes as the 'endlessly generative and cyclical' mode of the Arabian Nights to shape her own response to them. Stranger Magic's thoughtful and in-depth analyses of the themes and ideas at the heart of the tales are broken up by Warner's own delightfully lush and witty retellings of fifteen of the stories from the Nights. Her love of, and fascination for, her subject shines up out of every page, and her pleasure is infectious.

Warner's scholarship is both astonishing (she flips effortlessly between 1930s stop-motion animation, the history of paper money and famous Enlightenment scientists' hitherto unsuspected fascination with witchcraft) and refreshingly lacking in snobbery. As she charts the way the Nights have crept into the centre of Western storytelling conventions she mentions Voltaire and Tolkien, Borges and J K Rowling, often in the same sentence.

Her viewpoint is also admirably balanced. Warner doesn't simply criticise unthinking Orientalism, she illuminatingly explains where that exoticising drive came from. She re-examines the Middle Eastern roots of many of the most famous figures of Western myth and fairy tale – pointing out, for example, that King Solomon started his cultural life as a powerful magician with an army of jinn helpers and a supernatural wife. Be warned, though: despite the signals given out by its sumptuous cover and glossy plates, this is very much written for an academic audience. It approaches its material with rare humour and lightness, yes, but it is an academic text nonetheless.

This might be key to the one issue I had with Stranger Magic. At times (it's that arabesque again) the book becomes a little too diffuse, especially for readers who don't come to the book expecting academic discourse. In-depth analyses of the stories themselves are wonderful, but I think Warner spends slightly too long discussing the fine points of all the works which have responded to them. I didn't pick up the book hoping a chapter of it would be on Goethe's West-East Divan, and though a brief aside on the poems might have been interesting, too many such lengthy diversions combined to leave me slightly exhausted.

Despite that small niggle, though, it's hard not to be charmed and enlightened by Stranger Magic. It is a rich and strange text, a gloriously inventive combination of energetic story-telling and erudition. I finished the book feeling as though Warner had taken me on a mental journey to a place that was both endlessly bizarre and immediately recognisable. Stranger Magic is a wonderful achievement, a book to delight scholarly fans of magic and mystery and a lesson in how to write both academically and well.

If you're looking for a companion retelling of the Nights, try The Thousand Nights and One Night by David Walser and Jan Pienkowski. We've also enjoyed Warner's short stories.

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