- Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner
In addition to two dozen color plates and numerous illustrations and ornaments throughout the text, Stranger Magic includes a glossary, a list of abbreviations, a list of stories and their various sources, fifty pages of notes, a brief bibliography, and an index.
Marina Warner’s beautiful new book explores the effect the Arabian Nights has had on Western thought. It aims ambitiously to “present a different perspective on the interaction of imagination and reason, on the history of intellectual inquiry and scientific invention in Europe,” and thus to “move toward the reassessment of the exchanges” between East and West (20). The arrival of the Nights, in its first translation by Antoine Galland (1704–1717), is fraught with contradiction: it was established as a masterpiece of imagination in the Europe of rationality and Enlightenment, was received with rapt enthusiasm, and yet was also dismissed for its irrationality, and the magic that permeates its stories was both infantilized and exoticized—relegated to the nursery or to primitive cultures—in a process that coincided with the West’s rejection of its own tradition of magical thought.
Stranger Magic is organized into five parts, each taking up a facet of magical thought. Fifteen individual tales, clustered around the five themes and summarized in lively detail, provide points of departure from which Warner’s commentary sallies forth in multiple directions, weaving together in suggestive patterns the Oriental plots and “ideas of enchantment in the book’s afterglow” (29), in both Eastern and Western cultures, ancient and modern.
Part 1, “Solomon the Wise King,” opens, aptly, with the story “The Fisherman and the Genie,” which brings up the question of the jinni characters so important in the Nights. Warner discusses the role of the jinni both in relation to the plot (they “introduce a dynamic of pure chance which runs alongside the larger designs of fate,” adding “the energy of unpredictability to the plots” ) and in terms of their preferred mode of transportation (flying). The flying carpet, an image that epitomizes the Nights for our Western imagination, appears in Galland’s story of “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banu”; although we have some reason to suspect [End Page 203] that the tale was cobbled together by the inventive translator himself, Warner reminds us that it quickly became one of the favorite tales and also led to rich cinematographic recreations in the twentieth century, in particular Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed, the two Thieves of Baghdad films, and Disney’s Aladdin. The flying carpet is discussed both in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and its scientific experiments on flying, which culminated in the first hot-air balloons, and as an archetypal symbol of transport as both travel and rapture. “To understand the thinking that turned the folk motif of a flying carpet into such a prime symbol of fantasy today it is necessary to press a little further into the analogies between carpets, desire and narrative, specifically the narrative of dreamthoughts and fantastic, oriental plots” (79). This Warner does with breathtaking dexterity and grace, transporting us from Solomonic lore, to the art of rug weaving and the pleasures of pattern recognition, to Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb adorned with a mosaic rug.
Part 2, “Dark Arts, Strange Gods,” turns to witchcraft, clustering three stories in which black magic features prominently (“The Prince of the Black Islands,” “Hasan of Basra,” and “A Fortune Regained”) and weaving the readings of these stories with commentaries on witchcraft (Egypt, the land of hermetic knowledge, dominates this “fabulous geography” ) and dream knowledge. The chapter sketches the complex relations and blurry borders between religious orthodoxy and magic arts from the Renaissance onward, until the “splitting of magic and science” that occurred in the eighteenth century, when “imagination and reason [came] to be seen as irreconcilable processes” (111) and the quest for rationality relegated occult knowledge to the unspeakable margins of thought. This is exactly when Galland’s Nights took hold...