Thursday, January 26, 2012

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


Marina Warner has a new book out this year, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, which has already been released in the UK but won't be available in the US until March. But the press is hot on it in the UK, so I wanted to share today. If you are in the UK, you can have joy now and order the book right away. In the US, you can order the book from the UK now or wait until March. I'm waiting to spare my budget, of course, but I must admit I prefer the UK cover (the one on the left). What about you?

Book description (UK edition):

From the Inside Flap

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.

The supreme fiction of this magical thinking is The Arabian Nights, with its flying carpets, hidden treasure and sudden revelations. Translated into French and English in the early days of the Enlightenment, this became a best-seller among intellectuals, when it was still thought of in the Arab world as a mere collection of folk tales. For thinkers of the West the book's strangeness opened visions of transformation: dreams of flight,speaking objects, virtual money, and the power of the word to bring about change.Its tales create a poetic image of the impossible, a parable of secret knowledge and power. Above all they have the fascination of the strange - the belief that true knowledge lies elsewhere, in a mysterious realm of wonder.

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.

About the Author

Marina Warner spent her early years in Cairo, and was educated at a convent in Berkshire, and then in Brussels and London, before studying modern languages at Oxford. She is an internationally acclaimed cultural historian, critic, novelist and short story writer. From her early books on the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc, to her bestselling studies of fairy tales and folk stories, From the Beast to the Blonde and No Go the Bogeyman, her work has explored different figures in myth and fairy tale and the art and literature they have inspired. She lectures widely in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, and is currently Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex. She was appointed CBE in 2008.

And from Stranger Magic by Marina Warner: review: Sameer Rahim revels in 1,001 tales that last a lifetime, reading Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, the first few paragraphs to whet your interest:

The earliest translations of The Arabian Nights appeared around the same time as the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume began debunking Biblical miracles from the “ignorant and barbarous nations” of the East. As the West became more rationalist, Nights-fever caught on among countless artists for whom the tales were an outlet for all sorts of fantasies, both magical and sexual.

Mozart was given a copy by his Italian landlady and picked up themes for his oriental opera The Abduction from the Seraglio; Coleridge read the tales with a “strange mixture of obscure dread and intense desire”, the same feelings he evokes in “Kubla Khan”; and Dickens’s homage to the Nights can be found in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge tries to trap the Ghost of Christmas Past with a candle extinguisher, like the Fisherman coaxing the Genie back into his magic lamp.

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic ranges widely, and somewhat wildly, from the earliest Western interpretations to Hollywood films such as The Thief of Baghdad. She takes 15 of her favourite tales and spins a knowledgeable but rather haphazard cultural history.

Warner does not read Arabic and shows little interest in the linguistic texture of the tales – how, for example, any attempt to imitate the rhymed, repetitive prose leads to monstrosities like Richard Burton’s Victorian version, but how turning it into neat English does not reflect its oral origins. She also makes a point of denying their Arab-ness: The Nights, she writes, “has no known author or named authors, no settled shape or length, no fixed table of contents, no definite birthplace or linguistic origin”. But while the stories are certainly universal, they are also firmly rooted in the medieval Islamic world.


  1. Marina Warner is a wonderful, imaginative author. If you are interested in this topic, check it out, and even if you're not, you'll be surprised!

  2. Marina Warner is a wonderful, imaginative author. If you are interested in this topic, check it out, and even if you're not, you'll be surprised!