‘The story of the Arabian Nights is as much the story of romantic Orientalism as it is of a particular story collection,’ argues folklorist Neil Philip in his assessment of Marina Warner’s latest book Stranger Magic: Charmed States & Arabian Nights, a study of the Arabian Nights and its significance.
If the Arab world had seized on the 16th-century The Facetious Nights of Straparola* and insisted on using it ever since as a prism through which to understand Western culture, we in the west might be a touch bemused. But that is what has happened in reverse with the Arabian Nights, which has the status of an imperishable classic in the west, but is excluded from the canon of classic Arabic literature, yet has inspired modern writers such as Naguib Mahfouz alongside magical realists such as Jorge Luis Borges. So the story of the Arabian Nights is as much the story of romantic Orientalism as it is of a particular story collection. That collection itself has been constantly remodelled to suit different ideas of the Orient. Richard Burton saw it as a magic mirror of erotic desire; Andrew Lang and many others including myself have reworked the stories as ‘entertainments’ for children; theatrical pantomimes have turned tales such as Aladdin and Ali Baba into comic-book caricatures of themselves.
So there is plenty for Marina Warner to consider in this elegant study of the Arabian Nights and its legacy. As usual, her text is both tightly argued and entertainingly discursive. Early on she argues that in the stories themselves ‘surprise is an essential trait’, and she incorporates that sense of surprise into her own intricate lines of argument.
From the moment the Frenchman Antoine Galland started work on his translation of Sinbad in 1701, Western readers have been entranced by the complex stories-within-stories of the Arabian Nights, whose elaborate formal qualities stand so intriguingly at odds with their abrupt outbreaks of violence, lust, and greed, and with the childlike simplicity of their wonders and magical transformations. In the ever-surprising narratives told by Shahrazad, the fairy tale is an imaginative resource powerful enough to save lives and change the world. It is this revelation of the intrinsic healing power of story that lies at the heart of the Arabian Nights, and explains its enduring appeal.
Central to Marina Warner’s argument is her insight that magic ‘follows processes inherent to human consciousness and connected to constructive and imaginative thought’. For her, the Arabian Nights offer a shining example of how magical thinking ‘structures the processes of imagination’. Her own imagination is subtly receptive to the magical world of the Nights, with its jinn made of shimmering flame, its evil enchanters and its one-eyed dervishes. She carefully unfolds the simple image of the magic carpet, for instance, in a luminous mini-essay on the prayer mat and the nomadic tent, before spiralling off into ever-more dazzling insights into the structural similarities of carpets and stories. Then towards the end of the book she returns to the subject in a fascinating analysis of the Smyrna rug that Sigmund Freud draped over his couch. Freud recognized, she says, the mirrored similarities ‘between the structures of the unconscious and the patterning and weave of a rug’.
If I have one criticism of this endlessly intriguing and marvellously-researched book it is that among its endless connections and speculations there is very little about the world of the oral storyteller. Now that we have such a rich haul of Arabic fairy tales recorded from modern storytellers, it would have been illuminating to compare their narrative strategies with those of the literary tales in the Arabian Nights. Instead, Marina Warner’s lengthy and wide-ranging bibliography is noticeably short on Arab folk and fairy tales. A work such as Hasan M. El-Shamy’s Folk Traditions of the Arab World might have added valuable cultural context for motifs such as flying carpets. And when considering the Nights as a monument to female storytelling, I would especially have liked to have seen Shahrazad viewed in the light of the spellbinding storytellers in Monia Hejaiej’s Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis.
Nevertheless, this is an important book, rich in scholarship and in understanding. It should stand beside Robert Irwin’s majestic The Arabian Nights: A Companion, and be read beside both Richard Burton’s extravagant confection of a Victorian translation and the sober and reliable modern versions of Husain Haddawy and Malcolm Lyons.
Stranger Magic: Charmed States & Arabian Nights (0701173319) by Marina Warner is published by Chatto & Windus at £28.00 hbk.
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist.
* By the Italian writer and fairy tale collector Giovanni Francesco Straparola. It is a collection of fantastical and bawdy tales which also contains the first known written versions of many fairy tales