Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner

Essential as a King James...but more fun

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The Independent Culture

The Arabian Nights is a literary landmark with a dizzyingly complex history.

Even thinking of it as a single, stand-alone work is reductive, as Marina Warner demonstrates in this excellent study. The stories which make up The Arabian Nights originate from a vast web of oral folk-tales, mostly from India and Persia, and were first written in Arabic then translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704. It is Galland's translation which forms the basis of Warner's textual history, as he informed all subsequent European versions – and helped shape a perception of the East as an antiquated, slightly unreal place populated by lascivious, murderous kings, dewy maidens and wily courtesans.

The Nights became, for successive European generations from the Enlightenment on, a prism through which writers and artists could form and then articulate their own fantasies and prejudices about the Orient. Edward Lane's 1840 translation expurgated sex and violence from the tales, while in 1882 the explorer Richard Burton, infuriated by what he saw as Lane's prudery, put the sex back in, plus some extra obsessions of his own in the footnotes. Whatever the personal natures of their editorial decisions, both Lane and Burton believed The Arabian Nights, however ancient its myths, could be used to understand the contemporary Middle East.

Warner compares the absurdity of this to "pressing a copy of Macbeth on someone interested in the Highlands." The solipsism and condescension of believing an entire foreign culture can be explained in perpetuity by millennia-old fables was an attitude attacked by the critic Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientialism. Warner returns to Said's arguments throughout Stranger Magic as she balances the praiseworthy and more distasteful aspects of Europe's fascination with the East.

Warner juxtaposes her history of the Nights as cultural phenomenon with her own simple retellings of the tales, scattered throughout the book. They are principally, she makes clear in her introduction, for reference rather than being radical new adaptations. But her summarised versions are also enthralling in themselves, giving Stranger Magic a structure of narrative within narrative which neatly echoes its subject.

The range and subtlety of references in Stranger Magic is its greatest strength. Warner shifts rapidly between centuries, bringing in a Nabokov quotation or Rudolf Nureyev choreography to discuss the symbolism of the magic carpet. To explain the nature of mischievous spirits called "jinn" in the tales, she compares them to Ariel in The Tempest, and draws comparison between vengeful, lesson-imparting jinn and the ghosts in Dickens. Her historical analysis ranges from the Arab Spring back to Herodotus, and she shows what writers from Coleridge to Borges owe to Scheherazade. Warner's book makes reading The Arabian Nights seem as essential to understanding the Western literary canon as the King James Bible, and a lot more fun.