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Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights Hardcover – March 12, 2013
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Stranger Magic is a large volume, and it can sometimes be difficult not to get disoriented . . . However, one of the merits of the book is that it teaches us why getting lost now and again can be salutary . . . Stranger Magic reveals that the fate of the human spirit hangs not by a single thread, but by an extravagant skein of fancy. —George Prochnik
If we might forget how central [The Arabian Nights] tales are to our culture, Marina Warner's wondrous Stranger Magic 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. (Hanif Kureishi The Guardian 2011-11-26)
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...Stranger Magic is a scholarly work that often reads like a fireside conversation. It's encyclopedic, a book to be savored in slices. (Robin Yassin-Kassab The Guardian 2011-11-12)
[A] wide-ranging, erudite, wondrously polymathic exploration of the tales of magic, bound to the "huge narrative wheel" with which Scheherazade enchanted the Sultan Shahryar through one thousand and one nights of storytelling. Warner, too, is a beguiling storyteller: her fascination with true knowledge embedded in realms of wonder. She releases the jinn of cultural modernism and scientific progress from the bottle in which it has been long confined by Western tradition. (Iain Finlayson The Times 2011-11-05)
Wonderful...Warner is herself something of a Shahrazad, though she weaves her account under less threatening auspices...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...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. (Eric Ormsby Literary Review 2011-12-01)
My favorite work of non-fiction this year was Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. In her exploration of this immense, protean and much-translated Arabic collection of folk and fairy tales (fifteen of them banded in here at intervals) she has found a subject which seems an ideal fit for her own particular cast of mind. This book is like one of the densely patterned carpets it describes, rich in overlapping narrative strands and in associative weave of thought. A gorgeous last chapter, "The Couch: A Case History," glides from the coded site of passion, the flying sofa, to the magic carpet via prayer mat, festive balcony hanging, nomadic house, Smyrna rug on Freud's analytical couch--recalling the structural importance of eavesdropping in the Arabian Nights--then a description of Gabbeh, an Iranian film about tribal carpet-weaving, and back to Freud and his thoughts on levitation and sexual delight (with a side swoop over Goethe's Faust calling for a magic cloak). (Helen Simpson Times Literary Supplement 2011-12-02)
This learned, lively, and well-written book concerns the wide-ranging influence of The Arabian Nights--a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairy tales--on Western culture...Warner's densely detailed, loose, baggy monster of a book covers an impressive array of subjects from Voltaire and Goethe to Borges and Nabokov. (Jeffrey Meyers Booklist 2012-02-01)
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. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2012-01-23)
Wondrous and lucid...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 remarkable feat she has pulled off in Stranger Magic [is] 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. (Brian Dillon Irish Times 2012-01-21)
Insightful...It's fascinating and highly informed. (Doug Johnstone Big Issue)
Marina Warner is a veteran magus, and an adept mythographer of the vast global traditions of magic, metaphor and myth...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...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...Warner's Stranger Magic harbors many richnesses, of which I find the most beguiling what she names, in her subtitle, "charmed states."...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. (Harold Bloom New York Times Book Review 2012-03-25)
Marina Warner's Stranger Magic has a double mission: On the one hand, the author traces, with a swelling, orchestral richness, why the [Arabian] Nights held such potent sway over figures like Coleridge, becoming a runaway best seller in Europe and retaining a lock grip over the Western imagination for generations. But she also shows why its themes and preoccupations remain relevant today…...Stranger Magic explores, with immense learning and panache, how it might be possible to develop an intellectual, reasoned relationship to magic, conjuring an alternative to the binary choice between Enlightenment thought and esoterica...Warner sprinkles the historical detective work of Stranger Magic with her own versions of key scenes from the Nights, and her verve as a storyteller is among the book's delights...Stranger Magic is a large volume, and it can sometimes be difficult not to get disoriented, or suffer what Warner nicely dubs "eyeskip" in the twists and involutions of the arabesque patterns being traced. However, one of the merits of the book is that it teaches us why getting lost now and again can be salutary. In our absurdly busy, bottom-line-fetishizing lives, digression has become a bad word. But it's precisely the wide-roaming, whirling vicissitudes of Shahrazad's tales that dazzle the sultan and keep her alive. Stranger Magic reveals that the fate of the human spirit hangs not by a single thread, but by an extravagant skein of fancy. (George Prochnik Bookforum 2012-04-01)
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...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...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. (Steven Connor London Review of Books 2012-03-22)
Warner has long been recognized as one of the foremost scholars of the fairy tale and myth. Here, she brings her characteristic erudition and insight to one of the great works of world literature, The Arabian Nights, using the best-known as well as some of the lesser-known stories to demonstrate how the Nights contributed to the rise of magical thinking across European and world culture...She ably demonstrates how the tales loom large in European culture and have provided the basis for much creativity and imagination since their discovery by the West in the 18th century...General readers and scholars in folklore, history, and Arabic literature alike will appreciate Warner's ability to make connections between the Nights and the way the stories have resonated over time and space. (David S. Azzolina Library Journal 2012-04-15)
In Stranger Magic Warner surveys just how pervasively The Arabian Nights has influenced art and literature since the eighteenth century. On the surface, her book covers what more dogmatic critics would call the West's cultural appropriation of the East...Stranger Magic is packed with information and insight...Warner writes with clarity, and sometimes with exquisite beauty...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. (Michael Dirda Barnes & Noble Review 2012-05-18)
[Warner] astonishes with the granularity of her accounts of the impact of these stories on their original European readers...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...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. (Brad Gooch Daily Beast 2012-03-25)
Warner's analysis of Arabian Nights aims at redefining the relationship between East and West, reason and imagination, science and magic. (S. Gomaa Choice 2012-08-01)
Warner's massive work remains a powerful testimony to the enduring appeal of the 1,001 Nights. Complex, frequently subtle…her book will reward readers with sophisticated insights into the cultural exchange between West and East--a bit like The Arabian Nights itself. (Paul McMichael Nurse Globe and Mail 2012-08-14)
An elegant study of The Arabian Nights and the far-reaching influence of Scheherazade's endlessly unfolding takes on Western culture and on our visions of enchantment and fantasy. (Publishers Weekly 2012-11-01)
I was entranced by Marina Warner's encyclopedic and pathbreaking study, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. (Pankaj Mishra The Guardian 2012-11-23)
"Marina Warner's Stranger Magic is as absorbing, wise and playful as the Arabian Nights tales themselves. A book about the triumph of imagination over experience." (Jeanette Winterson The Guardian 2012-11-23)
Noted mythographer and novelist Marina 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. (Barnes and Noble Review 2012-12-03)
Warner's gentle authority proves to be the perfect guide not only through many of the tales themselves but also through their attendant history, and theories about them. What she's really exploring is the West's fascination with the Orient, and how it has accommodated that alternative culture into its own: why was The Arabian Nights, a text that wasn't sacred and wasn't even valued, the one that the West alighted on so eagerly? The fabulism, the shape-shifting, the play between the figurative and the literal, that is found in the tales, speaks to something in the West's psyche, a need for fantasy. Warner cleverly relates this to 20th-century psychiatry (Freud and his dreams), and new technologies such as cinema and aeroplanes (the allure of that magic carpet). Her immersion in her subject makes for an enthusiasm that proves to be infectious. (Lesley McDowell The Independent 2012-12-02)
Ebullient...With Stranger Magic, Warner has written a nimble but daring work of criticism that draws on her work as a novelist and scholar, combining aspects of literary history, formal analysis, personal essay, and cultural forensics into topics as disparate as the 'Smyrna rug' that draped Freud's couch to the flying turtles that Danish artist Melchior Lorck sketched in the 1550s. It's a remarkable feat of synthetic knowledge, with particularly rich forays into those whom the Arabian Nights provided both fantastic inspiration and parodic 'cover': from Voltaire, Goethe, who taught himself Persian to compose West-Eastern Divan, and William Beckford to such unexpected veins of influence as Sir Walter Scott. There are historical personages both familiar (Richard Burton, Edward W. Lane) and less so (John Wilkins, Robert Patlock) brought into an encyclopedic sweep of French, German, and British sources. Even given the thoroughness of her investigation into just how deep an impression Orientalist fantasies left on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, especially after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, she offers an inspired reading of why it was cinema--particularly the phantasmagoric chic-of-Araby 'Easterns' of the early silver screen--that offered a germane new life to Aladdin and Ali Baba...Warner has created a sparkling work of criticism, full of graciousness, learning, and fascination. (Eric Banks National Book Critics Circle blog 2013-02-14)
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…Warner demonstrates that there is nothing idle about imagining. (Patricia Storace New York Review of Books 2014-03-20)
Top Customer Reviews
Warner's enthusiasm for tracing the cultural effects produced by stories steeped in magic and fantasy on societies facing rapidly modernization is catching and she leads the reader down some fascinating paths as she links the spells cast in the Nights to the talismanic properties of modern currency exchange and the fascination with genies on flying carpets to the technological interventions leading to the rise of flying machines at the turn of the 20th century.
The study's strength, as well as its weakness, is its wide, expansive scope. Warner ranges over a wide variety of material and figures, from Voltaire to Anna May Wong. I sometimes found the jumps too dizzying and disorienting and would have preferred a more slow-paced tour through her large collection of source texts. But Warner does have a tale-weaver's charisma and one is compelled to stay on the journey despite its excessively rapid twists and turns. Warner, I suspect, would say that the scattered manner in which she has organised this thematic study is rather part of the point.
What this book most sorely lacks is a good copy-editor. The study is marred with moments of some severely undisciplined sentences. The worst passages are in her recapitulations of some of the stories from the Nights that preface the different segments of her study, each devoted to a particular, loosely-defined theme.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in revisiting the influence of the "Orient" to European modernity. Warner's examples, ranging from Goethe to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, provide useful starting points for reconsidering appropriations of the orient to a west increasingly defining its modernity as a process of demystification and disillusionment. Perhaps a clearer prose style would have allowed this study to capture more of the narrative magic contained in the tales comprising The Arabian Nights.