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Stranger Magic

Stranger Magic

Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Marina Warner

ISBN 9780674725850

Publication date: 11/18/2013

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Our foremost theorist of myth, fairytales, and folktales explores the magical realm of the imagination where carpets fly, objects speak, dreams reveal hidden truths, and genies grant prophetic wishes. Stranger Magic examines the wondrous tales of the Arabian Nights, their profound impact on the West, and the progressive exoticization of magic since the eighteenth century, when the first European translations appeared.

The Nights seized European readers' imaginations during the siècle des Lumières, inspiring imitations, spoofs, turqueries, extravaganzas, pantomimes, and mauresque tastes in dress and furniture. Writers from Voltaire to Goethe to Borges, filmmakers from Raoul Walsh on, and countless authors of children's books have adapted its stories. What gives these tales their enduring power to bring pleasure to readers and audiences? Their appeal, Marina Warner suggests, lies in how the stories' magic stimulates the creative activity of the imagination. Their popularity during the Enlightenment was no accident: dreams, projections, and fantasies are essential to making the leap beyond the frontiers of accepted knowledge into new scientific and literary spheres. The magical tradition, so long disavowed by Western rationality, underlies modernity's most characteristic developments, including the charmed states of brand-name luxury goods, paper money, and psychoanalytic dream interpretation.

In Warner's hands, the Nights reveal the underappreciated cultural exchanges between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and cast light on the magical underpinnings of contemporary experience, where mythical principles, as distinct from religious belief, enjoy growing acceptance. These tales meet the need for enchantment, in the safe guise of oriental costume.


  • My favorite work of non-fiction this year was Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. In her exploration of this immense, protean and much-translated Arabic collection of folk and fairy tales (fifteen of them banded in here at intervals) she has found a subject which seems an ideal fit for her own particular cast of mind. This book is like one of the densely patterned carpets it describes, rich in overlapping narrative strands and in associative weave of thought. A gorgeous last chapter, ‘The Couch: A Case History,’ glides from the coded site of passion, the flying sofa, to the magic carpet via prayer mat, festive balcony hanging, nomadic house, Smyrna rug on Freud’s analytical couch—recalling the structural importance of eavesdropping in the Arabian Nights—then a description of Gabbeh, an Iranian film about tribal carpet-weaving, and back to Freud and his thoughts on levitation and sexual delight (with a side swoop over Goethe’s Faust calling for a magic cloak).

    —Helen Simpson, Times Literary Supplement


  • Marina Warner is Professor of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and a distinguished writer of fiction, criticism, and history.

Book Details

  • 560 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press