Her work is distinguished by its ferocious intelligence, a slyly subversive feminism, rather in the mode of the late Angela Carter, and deftly handled language. She writes so beautifully that you are constantly reminded that she is also a successful novelist whose prose is distinguished by its richness and lushness. Her non-fiction marks her out as one of the great encyclopaedists. One of her talents is for what you might call polymorphous- perverse scholarship, defying outworn rules and boundaries, collecting up titbit treasures of information and re-combining them in startlingly new and illuminating patterns.
Psyche, in the old story, was set an impossible task as part of her quest for knowledge. She was commanded by the jealous queen Juno to sort out a mountain of mixed seeds. With the help of a kindly ant, Psyche got it right and triumphed. Warner is a combination of the passionate heroine and the busy ant. She takes us on guided tours of the hills of seeds and shows us, just as we fear being overwhelmed by landslides of learned asides, how these all shake down into one big picture. You know you will never see things in the same conventional way again. This is a writer with power to change your imagination.
Warner's most recent kaleidoscopic work was From The Beast To The Blonde, in which she shook up, twisted and re-spun conventional flashes of wisdom about fairy tales and their tellers, revealing that apparently diamantine fragments were simply beautiful and deceptive bits of glittering glass. Discarding readings which insist that fairy tales reveal nothing but timeless and essential truths about the human psyche, Warner provocatively grounded the stories in the cultures and histories that produced them.
Thus the Bluebeard tale distilled extra frissons because, on one level, it concerned women's very real fears of dying in childbirth and being replaced by a new wife. Equally, wicked stepmothers were not simply the emanation of some nasty feminine archetype but also images of real people struggling to fit into new families. As kinship structures shifted, Warner suggested in her mammoth but elegant book, so did fairy stories and how we received them.
No Go the Bogeyman concentrates more on the beasts than the blondes. This time Warner turns her attention to the forms we put on our fears: how and why we depict, in tales and art and all forms of popular culture, the terrors that stalk us by night and continue to haunt us by day.
In patriarchal cultures, the power for overweening evil as well as good is openly invested in men. This means that, fairly or unjustly, they can symbolise despotism and cruelty. So male images come to the forefront of the rogues' gallery and take a much larger place. A procession of bogeymen, ogres, giants, bugaboos, lords of the underworld and cannibalistic monsters streams past.
Marina Warner, like the good fairy- godmother she is, touches them with the sparkling wand of her analysis, and changes them, if not quite from frogs back into princes, then at least into creatures we recognise to be as close as family. Witches and bad mothers also occur in plenty, but in specific areas. The really big, rip- roaring devils and ghouls wear male masks, and bear the brunt of the fears of both men and women.
En route to her complex conclusions, Warner dashes across centuries and through continents, darts into new technology and the insect world, and finishes up with an extraordinary and eccentric tale of bananas and the shifting meanings assigned to them. All the reader can do is hold tight as she is whirled off behind this most competent of guides, trusting that the exhilarating and demanding journey is really necessary, that the dark wood will eventually give way to the shimmering bridge of the rainbow, and that the gold thread through the labyrinth of ideas will at last be safely ravelled up again.
The book's landscape is divided, like something out of Caesar's Gallic Wars, into three main parts; but, unlike Caesar's, its narrative is brisk and fascinating. Part One looks at how we cope with fears by entering into them and scaring ourselves; Part Two at how we lull ourselves against our terrors; and Part Three at how we can enjoy ourselves making mock.
All human life, you feel, is here. Just about everything seems to be included in this vast compendium, which looks at Hannibal Lecter and carnivals, at Goya and plastic trolls, at the black bogeyman invented by racism, at la Cicciolina and Punch and Judy. Each section traces its theme more or less historically, but also weaves sideways, knitting each fresh idea or emblem into the dense mass of the whole. A continuous subtext looks at the way that Jews and black people have borne the brunt of Christian and imperialist fears of losing control.
The book itself is like a carnival dance, seducing the reader, startling and shocking and delightful. It is a treasure trove of stories, an indispensable reference work, a compendium of cultural images; it is a library the ogre- reader gobbles whole. The copious and colourful illustrations add to its fascination, underlining the power of images to enchant and terrify.
Michele Roberts's latest novel, `Fair Exchange', will be published by Little, Brown in JanuaryReuse content