Saturday, 1 December 2012

Marina Warner - Stranger Magic, a talk

Flying is not just for birds

Marina Warner’s talk at Foyles this week on The Arabian Nights – the subject of her new book, Stranger Magic – was itself rather like a magic carpet ride. We took in a rich landscape of ideas, many of them surprising. Marina admitted her own surprise at discovering, on reading the 1,001 tales, that she didn’t know half as many as she had supposed. This made me realise how little I could say about them either, beyond alluding to the genies and flying carpets that have become a modern shorthand for this sprawling collection.

Her main claim stood in opposition to the idea that such exotic flights of fancy provided a kind of escapism for Europeans in the throes of the Enlightenment. It might seem obvious that, for societies interested in empiricism and rational thought, Arabian stories full of magic and fantasy were a way of releasing repressed imaginations. Marina suggested instead that the stories were complementary to this new mode of thought. They provided a space for thought experiments, for example around flight.

In our traditional Celtic tales there is little flying; in old fairy tales and classical myths humans taking to the air are either demonic, or doomed (or in religious stories, must otherwise be angels), viz witches, Icarus. In The Arabian Nights all sorts of things fly, and with no terrible consequences. Most significant in the tales seem to be the flying automata, including both vehicles and a mechanical flying horse amongst others. These hint at human ideas about flight long before we took to the air, and are backed up by other methods of human flying denoted in the tales – being picked up in the claw of something that can fly (becoming a passenger of sorts), for example. Marina seemed to be hinting that the flights of imagination in the tales were appealing during the Enlightenment precisely because of the accord with exploratory, innovative thought.

The reason I found this argument so intriguing was that I had made a similar assumption about the current popularity of fantasy and fairy tale in Western culture. Rather than using these fundamental narratives set in (often) bucolic landscapes as a way to forget the cities of technology in which we live, are they in fact complementary? I began to consider the role of ‘magical thinking’ not only in fairy tales but in our everyday ways of understanding the technologies we use. Most of us don’t even know how radio works, let alone smart phones. I asked Marina what she thought about this. She agreed, saying that in her youth machines were things you could piece back together with your hands, whereas now we have mysterious objects around us that we cannot fix ourselves, powered by djinn-like forces. She went on to complain about many of the current cinematic takes on fairy tales, drily observing that the quality is usually inversely proportional to the budget. Snow White and the Huntsman she despised, but approved of the low budget French film Bluebeard. (I’m still waiting to see it via Lovefilm so will report back here.)

My favourite part of the talk came towards the end when Marina discussed the power of words to change reality, both in tales and real life. She showed images of gorgeous 17th century talismanic clothing, written all over with words to protect the wearer. She also discussed the power of brand names to change the meaning of clothing, and I wondered which words I would choose for protection, or luck. How much lovelier to have a secret line of poetry in the neck of your shirt rather than a name tag or washing instructions...

I hope to read Stranger Magic in its entirety, but to do so might necessitate reading The Arabian Nights too, so a project for 2013 perhaps. In the meantime I’ll be considering the resurgence of fairy tales in contemporary culture in a whole new light.

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