The Arabian Nights constitute, in Marina Warner's words, "a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales". The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts (also known as The Thousand and One Nightsand the Arabian Nights Entertainments) are Qur'anic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, among many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Márquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes. 1. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
2. by Marina Warner
4. Buy the book
Search the Guardian bookshop
1. Tell us what you think:Star-rate and review this book
The framing story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom recounted in the tales. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death. Although oral versions of the Nights long percolated through Europe (elements turning up in Chaucer, Ariosto, Dante and Shakespeare), the tales were established in the mainstream of European popular and literary culture with Galland's early 18th-century French translation. Galland purged the eroticism and homosexuality, added tales from the dictation of a Lebanese friend, and perhaps invented the two best-known and seemingly most "Arabian" tales of all: "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving this belle infidèleapproach to translation. "I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else." It's this changing aspect of the Nights as a time-travelling, trans-civilisational cooperation that fascinates Warner. She sees in it "a unique key to the imaginary processes that govern the symbolism of magic, foreignness and mysterious power in modern culture". Stranger Magic, influenced by the work of Edward Said, is an endeavour to uncover "a neglected story of reciprocity and exchange". One of Warner's central intentions is to show that while Christendom and Islam were politically and religiously in a state of hot or cold war, science, philosophy and art recognised no frontiers. Yet this openness closed somewhat from the Enlightenment on, when Europe sealed magic off from science, imagination from reason, and also east from west. The Enlightenment, of course, was the point at which the Nights was translated to such rapturous European reception, and not by accident. The "home-grown practice of, and belief in, magic was set aside to be replaced by foreign magic – stranger magic, much easier to disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual or political quarantine". So to the orientalisms of Edward Lane and Richard Burton's English translations, which not only presented the medieval fantastic as a documentary resource for understanding the "unchanging" and now colonially subjected Arab culture of the 19th century, but also projected on to the exotic foreign screen fantasies and fears that would have been taboo in a domestic context. Burton famously re-sexualised the tales with his own copious notes on the east's supposed perversions. Stranger Magic is an enormous work, 436 densely erudite and eclectic pages plus another hundred of glossaries and notes. In its relentless connecting up of diverse stories, from the Inferno to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, it's reminiscent of Christopher Booker's brick-sizedSeven Basic Plots. Warner's chapters, allocated into five parts, are beautifully illustrated and interspersed with 15 tales concisely retold. Part one focuses...