by Pamela Toler
I’m fascinated by the Arabian Nights. By the stories themselves and the way they fit together into their complicated frame story. By their transformation from Arabic street tales to a established position in the Western canon. By their echoes in Western culture, from the Romantic poets to Disney.
So I was delighted to get a chance to review historian and critic Marina Warner’s new work on the tales.
Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights is a multi-faceted study of the popular tales of wonder and magic known as the Arabian Nights.
Warner discusses the tales in the Arabian Nights with the interdisciplinary approach that she used to good effect in her earlier study of Western fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde. She examines them through the lenses of literary criticism, history, folklore studies, feminist theory and popular culture. She pays particular attention to the history of the Arabian Nights in the west, from the reception of the first translation from the Arabic by Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century through its influence in works as distinct as Mozart’s operas and the Harry Potter books.
Not assuming that readers will have the same familiarity with “The Prince of the Black Islands” as they do with “Sleeping Beauty”, Warner retells fifteen tales before she unravels them into their constituent themes, symbols and assumptions. She moves easily from the Biblical story of King Solomon to magic carpets, from the reputation of Egypt as the home of ancient magic to Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemical experiments, and from the wealth of the Islamic world in the twelve century to post-Reformation anxiety about Catholic religious practices.
Warner succeeds once again in balancing entertainment with erudition. Like her earlier works, Stranger Magic is accessible enough for the general reader and rich enough to keep a specialist scribbling in the margins.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.