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Marina magic

An interview with Marina Warner

 

MARINA WARNER STILL has her great-grandmother's copy of the Arabian Nights. It's in three volumes, very small print, with woodcut illustrations. As a child, she pored over the pictures but didn't quite read the stories. 'It was rather a fustian Victorian translation,' she says.

When she came back to the book again in recent years, she thought she knew it. 'But I found I didn't. It's a theme, a mood, a décor, a kind of feel. Everybody has a sense of the atmosphere. Like grotesque, baroque, gothic, one has the ambience. But the actual stories are not so well known.'

We are sitting outside a café in Collins Street in Melbourne. Warner is in Australia as a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival, where she will give the closing night address, based on her latest book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Chatto &Windus, 2011).

A world-famous and best-selling cultural historian, Warner has written books on the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc; two seminal studies of fairy tales and folk stories (From the Beast to the Blonde [Vintage, 1994] and No Go the Bogeyman [Vintage, 1998]); as well as novels, essays and short stories. She's on the international lecture circuit, she is Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and she was appointed CBE in 2008.

I had expected to meet someone stern and formidable, the queen of fairy tales, or as Harold Bloom called her, 'a veteran magus'. But she's not at all stern: gentle, unassuming, friendly and a little flustered (that might well be jet lag). She won't stay in her hotel, she wants to find somewhere with fresh air. Once she's settled outside the café with an herbal tea, she's unfailingly eloquent, talking about everything from flying saints to Julia Gillard, but mostly telling the story of the Arabian Nights and Stranger Magic.

She watches the Collins Street traffic: she's very taken with the trams. Basra and Baghdad in the twelfth century, the setting for many Arabian Nights stories, had a mercantile-rich culture with hundreds of trades, she says – something like Melbourne in the nineteenth century.

So why write about the Arabian Nights? 'I started thinking about it during the first Iraq war. I wanted to get away from the monomythic view of Islam as a hotbed of terrorism.' She has a natural sympathy for Islam that dates back to her childhood: until the age of six she lived in Cairo with her Italian mother and her English father, a bookseller who later gave her 'hundreds of books' to read. 'I had a colonial childhood, I went to school with French nuns. I like being in Arab countries, I like the sound of Arabic.'

So it's not too surprising that among the prizes given to Stranger Magic is the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Arab Culture in Non-Arabic Languages, for telling 'the story of the Arabian Nights in Western Civilisation from a thoroughly new and, until recently, little understood angle'. Warner says: 'I was keen to try to show that this book – the most influential book in Arabic in the world, apart from the Koran – is full of a totally different Islam. Poetry, philosophy, pleasure, civilisation. Ideas of justice and equality, emancipated women.'

Although twenty-two manuscripts still exist, we don't really know the stories in their original form. There is no author or authors, no fixed shape, no definite origin. Some of the best-known tales, such as Aladdin and Ali Baba, were imports: the European translators heard the stories and wrote them down.

Since the tales were first popularised in the West during the Age of Enlightenment, translators have put their own stamp on them. The Victorians thought fantastic tales were for children, so they cleaned them up. No incest, no homosexuality. They banned stories such as the bawdy romp The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad, Warner says: 'You couldn't have children read that the porter is sad because he doesn't know ten words for a woman's fanny.'

On the other hand, Richard Burton played up the erotic element in his translation for a private connoisseur's edition. 'It is still possible to meet people who, when I say I am working on the Arabian Nights, lean into my ear and impart some piece of extraordinary sexual information they have learned from Burton's specialist footnotes,' Warner wrote in her book. She adds now: 'They were fascinated with insider gossip about what Arabs do to each other, full of salacious and prurient detail. It involved things like red pepper…'

Given that the cycle has such a patchwork past, transmitted from voice to page and from page to voice throughout its history, what can be said with assurance about it? In her book, Warner retells some of the stories and builds a convincing case for certain recurring elements that have a lasting power and still resonate in modern times.

The tales are similar to European fairy tales but also different, she says. There's the same principle of recognition, where a long horrible ordeal will be rewarded, and heroic lovers will win through. But the Arabian tales are much longer, often nested one inside another: 'The chain of narrators goes further and further down the rabbit hole.' They are full of wonders, exaggerations, enchanted landscapes, sensuality. And they hold 'any permutation of human behaviour you can imagine'.

She's fascinated by jinns, those supernatural beings we know best as giants who stream like smoke out of little bottles. They are like fairies or goblins, she says, but they are complex, morally ambiguous creatures. 'They have a distinctive narrative presence which is tremendously exciting. If you lie down in a shelter at night and you disturb a jinn in his hiding place and he appears out of the wall, a huge fierce thing, you don't know if he's going to do you harm, and he might decide to do you good.'

Other elements common to the tales include a mercantile city setting (unlike European fairytales, which are usually set in a forest or a palace); flying furniture or artefacts (the flying carpet is the most famous); and money, 'a phantasmic demonic power. You can suddenly have this wonderful magic fortune, and then lose it.' These tie into our ideas of commerce, the magic of brand names and phenomena such as Ponzi schemes and the GST.

Above all, the Arabian tales recognise justice, exposing and defeating tyranny and corruption. It's one of the principles of folklore that the just are freed, the tables are turned on the wicked and the weak and disadvantaged supported. The method here is not war, Warner says: 'There are very few battles in the Arabian Nights, but numerous stories of ransom. Someone is rescued by a story. It's close to one aspect of modern life: how important it is to enshrine thought in words.'

The ultimate ransom is the frame story, where Shahrazad, the wife of the Sultan Shahriyar, weaves an enchantment by telling tales every night so that her husband won't cut off her head until he's heard the end of the story – by which time he's hooked on a new one.

If you look at the broad sweep of the stories, Warner argues, you will see a subtle shift in how women are portrayed. Shahriyar executes his wives out of revenge because he caught his first wife and her handmaidens having group sex with slaves. 'That vision of jealousy is completely conventional: you turn your back on your wife for a moment, and she's having an orgy with every Tom, Dick and Harry. Shahrazad takes the convention and combats it with a series of versions of different kinds of female behaviour – not all of it by any means virtuous.'

So while the Arabian Nights offers us its own versions of the wicked witch and the perfidious wife, there are also 'strong female lovers who will go through thick and thin and cross deserts… I loved that kind of heroine as a child, and I still do, in dreams of adventurous and intrepid life.'

Warner first came to such stories not through the Arabian Nights but through tales of the saints, which she learnt at school at St Mary's Convent, Ascot. That was where she first encountered miracles and fantastic acts such as flying: 'St John of Capistrano was in the habit of levitating and people couldn't bring him down.' The martyred women also trained her in the idea of female heroism, involving rebellion, adventure and great courage. 'The education stamped me with an abiding, irrepressible interest in the irrational, both as an expression of the mind in its most mysterious mode, and as a terrifying force in history,' she wrote of her schooldays.

It was the subversive English novelist and feminist Angela Carter who really gave writers permission to use fairy tales, she says. 'I was always taught they were rather low, that if you were a serious person you shouldn't admit to a love of fairy tales. Years ago, the parents of some of my students used to say "You're not going to university to study fairy tales?" Now it's totally changed, the power of fairy tale is recognised almost without challenge.'

She has just finished writing an introduction to A Very Short Introduction to Fairy Tales in the Oxford University Press series, and finds herself still fascinated. 'I had to think very hard, I'm perplexed about why they deliver so much pleasure… I was very disturbed by stories in which there is such manifest vitriol against older women.'

This is curious, because as Warner says, it's essentially a female tradition of storytelling, from one generation of old wives and grannies to the next, even though many of the collectors of fairy tales are men. In From the Beast to the Blonde, she looked at the material circumstances of women in order to explore why stories told and passed on by women should carry such hatred and distrust of their own sex.

It still bothers her. The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that 'it's good for children to have dark thoughts about wicked stepmothers – they can expel all bad feelings about their mothers into the stepmother. I've always been worried about that, I don't think it takes into account how it appears in the real world. Julia Gillard suffered from exactly that. When people said bad things about her they were saying them about her, not because there's a good Julia Gillard somewhere. This was a straightforward hostile attack, not a projection that allows the good to survive.'

Unlike public life, however, fairy tales can offer a counterbalance to Ditch the witch.

They also give us permission to transgress, to have dirty or naughty thoughts. 'They share this with genre forms: thrillers, horror, porn. But the narrative plot of fairy tale tries to bring us back to the position of what is generous and just. You travel with Shahrazad into the depths of iniquity of a witch. But in the end, her reign is overthrown and a good woman is in her place.'

While the fairy tale tradition is oral, the Arabian Nights is a tribute to the power of the book, such a valued item in Islam. Shahrazad doesn't just make things up; she is an educated scholar who has read and memorised a wealth of stories, and her husband admires her learning as well as her invention. 'Every time the story is particularly striking, it's agreed it will be written in letters of gold and put in the library.'

And how could the stakes be any higher? 'The power of stories to forge destinies has never been so memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner's sword lies on the storyteller's neck,' Warner writes. 'The Arabian Nights present the supreme case for storytelling because Shahrazad wins her life through her art.'

 

Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner (Vintage, $45).

 

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