Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.
If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did. Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one. Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources. Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,” “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission. For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.
As Warner says, the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade. Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting. Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.
Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer! Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!
[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]
Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill. One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis). As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London, where it is exhibited.
The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419). This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself. Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.
What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world? Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.” She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others. She writes:
“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)
She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).
As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing. The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…
- Scheherazade/Shahrazad ranks 13th on The Fictional 100. On her page you will also find other references to modern editions of The Arabian Nights.