The Rumpus Interview with Marina Warner


A cultural historian, academic, feminist, and writer, I first encountered Marina Warner’s work when I recently read Phantasmagoria, her exploration of ideas relating to soul, ghosts, and spirit since The Enlightenment. This book, which investigates her questions regarding imagination, cognition, fantasy, and deception, motivated me to dig a little into Marina’s biography and bibliography. I discovered a diverse, vast range of work, ranging from nonfictional cultural criticism, articles, novels, lectures, and books. Her interdisciplinary approach to criticism is particularly notable, and includes an approachable, often anecdotal, stylistic voice more often located in non-academic narrative. She’s a pleasure to read.

Her work often focuses on mythology and the deconstruction of “myths of the feminine,” from Mother Goose, to the Virgin Mary, to Joan of Arc, and more, as found in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. She has received numerous accolades: the Booker Prize short-list in 1988, for her fictional work The Lost Father; the Fawcett Book Prize for her nonfictional Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form; the PEN Silver Award (1988); the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Lettres (2000), amongst others. Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2005, Warner was also made a CBE for Services to Literature in 2008.

While these demonstrate her significant contributions as a thinker and scholar, when we met in a small café on an unusually sunny day in Scotland’s Fife, I was especially impressed by her eloquence, laughter, and sincerity towards what she does. Over coffee, glasses of still water, and two slices of carrot cake, we talked about her latest work, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, and her passion for the art of myth.


The Rumpus: The first question I have is in regards to how you define yourself. I’ve seen you referred to as a “novelist and mythographer.”

Marina Warner: Mythographer was suggested by the man who made my website, actually. I do write a lot about myth and I do feel it’s a bit pompous to state it that way, but it does distinguish me from other writers. When it was first on the web, people began to use it in an ironical and satirical way. Now, however, people tend to use it straight. I do think that this represents a kind of shift towards myth, a recovery of myth, largely through the popularity of writers like Philip Pullman. Somehow myths have returned as a serious subject. It used to be scorned…really scorned. It was part of a nursery tradition, and it was also rather tainted—but not in an immovable way—by the association with right-wing ideologies after the World Wars. The fascist uses of myth, the mobilization of myths by Germans and Italians—this may have meant that myth was swept under the carpet.

I have always argued that we can’t live by or be made to exist outside of mythology, and that every group and nation has, possibly unacknowledged to themselves, some myths by which they live. It remains important to revisit them, understand them and possibly retell them—or at least own up to them—and then it becomes possible to move something. If it’s obscure or invisible to you, you can’t budge those understandings. I always have done work on mythic relations since I started writing. I really want to be a novelist, or at least a writer of imaginative work… I do try to make my critical studies imaginative and try to write them in ways that are more like literature than philosophy, but I have disappointed myself because I am still so wedded to criticism. I was writing a novel, and I got on rather well with it, but I was also writing the Arabian Nights book at the same time, and there were many reasons (which I thought were good ones) to finish the Arabian Nights book first. Pretty much now I’m free, almost free, and if I don’t write fiction now…well, it’s my fault.

Rumpus: What were the important reasons to finish the Arabian Nights book, Stranger Magic?

Warner: One was, interestingly enough, memory. The tales are quite hard to remember and I found that going back to it between bouts of writing fiction, I was having to retrace my steps quite a lot, because the stories are very intricate and the material is elusive, and possibly with age, my memory is not as malleable as it used to be. I used to retain information extremely fast, so perhaps it’s hardening a bit and I don’t take the impression as well as I used to. Instead of writing in free flight, I had to check on the stories all the time. So I have decided I better to do it while I am fresh! Though it’s marvelously entertaining, and I had fantastic fun writing the book, it’s not terribly easily, the material, and it’s not all that familiar…although we think it is familiar. The processes of the wonderful narratives are very intricate. It’s about the charm—the spellbinding charm—of ingenuity, and it’s not so easy to remember the plots or the structure or even the names.

Rumpus: How did you approach retelling the stories methodologically? Did you re-read different versions of the books?[1]

Marina Warner: I have many, many editions of the books, and they are all rather different. In the end, the one I used was the most recent French translation. French suits the tales well, and it’s a beautiful translation. The Italian one is good as well… English has fallen short. True to their history, the English are very domineering and have manipulated it in different ways. I wouldn’t say that there was an original, but there is a lot of expurgation in some of the Victorian translations, and there’s a lot of additional salacious nonsense in some of them, too. I also like the early French one, much-derided for being fanciful but which is actually very elegantly done. It’s very big, very capacious.

Although the stories are very present in my book, and very present in my mind, what I was most interested in was the question of why it had attracted such a following in the 18th Century. It’s less mysterious that it attracted a following in the Romantic period, and in the 19th Century, but the early 18th Century when the Rationalists fell in love with it…that was mysterious. What I wanted to look at was the forms of enchantment.

I consider it as a foreshadowing of modernity in many different respects, and the consistency of character is interesting to the emerging modern psychology. The emphasis on dream knowledge relates quite deeply to psychoanalysis, although I suppose psychoanalysis wouldn’t like to say that… Freud was always saying he was a scientist.

My last chapter in Stranger Tales is about the couch. I felt that Freud’s study, his consulting room, was a kind of mis-en-scène for the storytelling scene, which was a cure. That’s what The Arabian Nights is…it’s an extended storytelling scene where the Sultan is being cured for his mad, murderous rage. That’s just one example of a form of Medieval world view that is present in the stories…all about dreams and what they tell you, the prophetic nature of dreams, the power of them, the revelatory nature of them, and the pleasure of them. This was translated into a new kind of knowledge. It would have been denied at the time, with the exception of people like Jonathan Swift. Other writers became fervent Oriental imitators, which I explore as well. They could do things as Rationalists, in Oriental disguise, that they couldn’t do in their normal form to explore aberrational experiences. The Oriental disguise is Orientalist, and it is a way of exploring things sensuous or sensual, transgressive or cruel, but actually often to speak of the Other in order to speak about yourself. One of the main themes of the book, and what I found in The Arabian Nights, was this emphasis on the power of commodities. Many of the enchanted things in the book are lamps, carpets, sofas, gems, brass rings. It is a rather different landscape than the fairy tale landscape of the West. Though we have interiors and palaces, we don’t have bustling cities, and there isn’t the emphasis on the artisan making things. The ambiance from which they were written was an entirely different one. The Arabian Nights comes out of a huge world of markets and trade. Cairo, Basra, Damascus: trades and skills.

Rumpus: Does this mean you think that the stories lose valence today where the capitalist system, or the necessity of commodity, is usually taken for granted?

Marina Warner: No, not at all…I do not think commodities are taken for granted. One of the convergences in time I noticed, and to me seemed very important, was the emergence of paper money. There had been permissionary notes, exchanging money by writing it, but there was no duplicated form of guaranteeing an exchange. The French Revolution printed money because they didn’t have any, so they just printed it, and this was a revolutionary step which of course we are still reaping the huge consequences of today. It struck me that this was beginning to happen…there had been scandals where shares had been printed. For example, John Law’s Mississippi Company venture printed shares, and the money had gone up in smoke when it had been inscribed objects. The inscription made it magic and changed its meaning. That’s how objects become charmed in The Arabian Nights, and they are often originally ordinary objects. The carpet is an ordinary, paltry object. The lamp is a rusty old lamp, and the bottles jinns are imprisoned within are old bottles. They are changed by the magic and the jinn’s presence, and the jinn’s presence is often embodied in the seal or inscription. With Solomon’s seal on the bottle, the magic writing changes its meaning. The word that is used for this is “talisman,” which comes from Arabic, [and it] only gains currency in the translation of The Arabian Nights where the talisman is an extremely frequent object. Talismanic objects can be anything: clothes, flags, cups or saucers. It’s a question of infusing it with power.

It seemed to me to be a parable of the exchange of goods, rather Marxist in some ways, in the new world of global forces. What the forgers do is write the brand name to try and change it, and it works! Loads of people buy fake Prada handbags, or Chanel sunglasses; they’ve been changed. They have been truly, really changed. If you want a good handbag and glasses, it’s hard to get something without the brand name on it because it’s so important to have the charmed inscription. The only way you do it… This handbag was the only one in the shop without a charmed inscription. It’s just an ordinary bag. I went into the department store in Sloane Square, because I needed a new bag, because my old one lost its handles. Then I found this one, and I said  “Why is it so cheap?” and the seller said, “Because it doesn’t have a name!”

Rumpus: Really? She said that explicitly?

Warner: Yes! I think that a true economics thinker or a Marxist thinker would make nonsense of my argument, although I have given massive seminars and no one has demolished it so far. I did think that this idea from an artisanal and trading perception of the auratic quality of goods when they are given character and inscription, made the stories of phantasmic wealth read more powerfully in the 18th and 19th centuries than the stories of Cinderella’s wealth, because they are conjured out of nothing by these magic means. Our traditional stories are based on an aristocratic model without a middle class, whereas The Arabian Nights reflect people living in cities, traders, merchants, travelers, with a wide range of personalities.

Rumpus: I was wondering about the role of Scheherazade. How do you approach her in your own mind, and in your book?

Warner: I wrote a book called From the Beast to the Blonde, about the hidden voice of women in such stories, beginning with the question of why they are so misogynist. The Grimm brothers always said that their informants were women, which is possibly not true, women of the people. There is the constant evocation of women’s voices, in the collecting and arrangement of these stories, and yet the message of so many of them is incredibly misogynist. I was very puzzled by that, and that book explores that contradiction. Scheherazade, of course, was always in the back of my mind, because she’s also a storyteller identified as female who tells a lot of anti-female stories. There’s a parade in The Arabian Nights of sorceresses, adulteresses, ghouls, sirens, harridans.

Rumpus: There are a lot of problematic archetypes in the stories: women either as witches or sensual ladies of the harem.

Warner: Yes. There are a range of women not represented in the Western fairy tale tradition. Husband-beaters are particularly interesting, as well as male pederasts. Children are often told in The Arabian Nights, “This man likes to abduct boys, be careful of him.” These issues are explored through the medium of the stories, but actually the architecture of the book is such that there are many examples of women who are loyal, brave, devoted—especially to their lovers. The technique of the book and the technique carried by the figure of Scheherazade is one of opening the Sultan’s mind. He’s emblematic of the ignorant person: the ignorant, lock-in, raging man who wants to kill all he doesn’t understand. The model of the book is the extraordinary, very-large, Mirror of Princes.

Rumpus: Stories within stories.

Warner: Yes, the model of the educational Kalila Wa-Dimna. These are books of instruction to rulers and humans. The stories unfold a range of human psychology, a vast range of human psychology. The Sultan is being moved from his narrow and bigoted position into a wider, more subtle, more nuanced understanding of human experiences. This is the, if you like, humanist enterprise of the book, and amongst that there are many, many stories. And that is why at the end, when he says that the stories are so illuminating that they must be engraved and encased in gold and put in the palace library, the people who compile the book are telling us that this is a collection of human wisdom. An interesting example is that the worst woman in the book, who is so cruel and violent, is the sorceress in “The Prince of the Black Islands.” She’s a beautiful young woman, and she has turned her husband into stone from the waist down. A traveling sultan finds him, in his dreadful state, and the man petrified from the waist down tells his sad story…how his wife comes every afternoon and beats him until the blood runs down. She’s just unwontedly, arbitrarily cruel. It turns out that it is because she fell in love with a slave, because often adultery in the Nights occurs with a slave.

The other thing about the Nights is that it is quite racist. One parentheses is that I think this is one of the negative things that appeal to people, that The Arabian Nights could be used as a disguise for racism. It suited the West. You could smuggle racism into children’s literature, you see. The African magician in the story of Aladdin, he’s labeled explicitly as the “African Magician.” He’s not a character but a stereotype, and a lot of this got into nursery literature in this Oriental disguise.

Going back to the Prince of the Black Isles and his terribly cruel wife: it turns out she is in love with this slave, who doesn’t deserve her love. The slave degrades her when she comes to see him; he rapes her, and her husband finds him and as he lies dying, which is why she punishes her husband. The commentator in one of the French editions notes that even with the case of this evil character of the Nights, her actions are dictated by the fact that she’s passionately in love. There’s a largeness of psychology in this understanding. She’s like Medea: she does it for love. We can get through to her, we get a glimmer of the extremes to which she will go when they are smitten, possessed by love. Love can make you turn on yourself, and it can do harmful things to you. It’s a deep lesson in human psychology, as with many of the stories. Anyways, that’s just an example of one of the most wicked women in the Nights.

Rumpus: Do you think that this a lesson in love? Is Scheherazade teaching the Sultan about love?

Warner: The stories are most often about justice. In her stories, those who commit injustice, or act tyrannically, come to no good. They are punished.

Rumpus: She’s warning him.

Warner: It’s about justice. These are cautionary tales. There is a theory, that I rather subscribe to. The frame story implies that if he doesn’t change, she will kill him. It’s all very complex and subtle. The story is about a woman who persuades a man in power to a different temper and attitude, and so it is about women’s wiles, what women will get up to. She has a plan, she has a scheme. Women talk to each other in the bedroom. What Scheherazade tells Dunyazad to do is to ask for a story, like her little sister at bedtime needing a story. It’s about women talking to each other. They work together. The Sultan is eavesdropping on women’s stories. It is very much the model of this type of fairy tale. One of the arguments I make about Cinderella is that these are women’s stories, in which an older woman warns a younger woman about what could happen.

There’s a famous occasion. When the Grimms started telling stories, [they] heard that there was an old woman at the poorhouse, who knew a lot of stories, and she was a very good storyteller. They asked this woman, and she said no. They begged her, offered her money, but she refused to do it. So the Grimms paid the daughter of the arms house keeper to go and find this old woman; this granny told the little girl the stories, and immediately after the stories, the girl was instructed to tell the Grimms. Those are the violent ones they collected. We don’t know why the old woman didn’t tell the Grimms, there are many possible reasons… She may have been illiterate, scared of these young students. She might have felt this gender issue, where she didn’t want the Grimms to know these stories, which are about what might happen between women.

Rumpus: Are these stories then directed to women in a sense?

Warner: Well, I don’t think that there’s a target audience at all. These stories were in circulation. The stories were told by men, told in the marketplace by men, but also behind doors by women, but there’s no real record of this. It’s likely they were told by women to children in their interior rooms. The story could be a negative story, they could be presented as a, “Watch out! Women will get round you, do things to you, weave you in their toils.” It could be buried in it an old cautionary story about women and their wiles. It’s been transformed by different voices coming into this exemplary story where a bad king has been turned into a good king, which would mean that this original implied story, that she and Dunyazad are Judas-like. There’s one story in The Arabian Nights, called “The Story of King Saba.” She’s a jinna—a female jinn—and she does kill him. It’s a similar story. He wants to kill every woman, but she kills him instead. Nothing is certain. I am not asserting this underlying implied story, but it reverberates underneath.

Rumpus: Have you gotten the reaction you expected to get with this book?

Warner: No! Not at all. Much, much better. Although I had one book that was Islamaphobic. I try to negotiate around Saïd, and grant what is extremely valuable about his critique, but at the same time adjust his discourse.

Rumpus: In what ways have you adjusted Orientalism?[2]

Warner: One of the things I have tried to say, and I do think I have made the case…I have been asked to open the Conference for Edward Saïd, celebrating the tenth anniversary of his death. So they obviously think that I have paid tribute to him by moving the argument on. I make the argument based on entangled relations, not oppositional. I am not a great believer in dialectical struggle. I am much more of a fusion person. I see it as a dialogue, or trialogue, or polylogue: many, many, many voices, going back a long way. The cultural picture is much more mutually enriching at many different levels, manufacturers…absolutely, design and calligraphy. It’s an amazing amount of cross-interests between people. Then, you know, at this level of stories, there was no border between Christianity and Islam when it came to stories. They just poured across the frontier. Granted, in a complex range of feelings, some of them based on envy in either direction.

Rumpus: You have quite a lot of illustrations in the books. Is this something you see as important to the stories?

Warner: There’s a very good book with beautiful illustrations, called Visions of the Jinn by Robert Irwin, the great doyen of Arabian Nights studies. I didn’t study them much, and there are very few illustrations that I really like. The illustrations, therefore, are discursive. I tried to go for the meanings of the stories through the illustrations. I am interesting in flying. This buoyancy begins to saturate the literature of children, and is not the case in the West before The Arabian Nights are translated. Fairies are winged, but that’s different than humans being able to fly. It purely works as the mobility of the form—characters are moving from one place to another very fast. The narrative form has engendered this idea of flight, and is exactly magical realist, if you like. It’s the metaphor; flight of fancy becomes actual flight.

Rumpus: Flight seems to connect to the ways in which modernity is tied to space-time compression.

Warner: There’s a whole slew of wonderful speculation of flying in a fanciful way. Gulliver is one of the central examples; Swift has the hum of Arabian Nights in his ear with Gulliver’s Travels. The difference is in scale—Gulliver as a kind of Sinbad kind of figure, the way he is picked up and carried. Just to finish up with Scheherazade, I do think that The Arabian Nights could be considered as a great book on women’s position in the world.

Rumpus: In terms of the contents of the book, the way in which you create headings and title your work is always very specific. I find titles very interesting.

Warner: Yes, I love titles and organizing chains of ideas. I like that very much.

Rumpus: Was each section approached differently? Do you have a hodge-podge of ideas and then sort them out?

Warner: One of the metaphors of the book is the carpet. Not just the flying carpet, but the carpet as a woven surface in which many repetitions and motifs recur and mirror one another. This is very much reflected within the stories: they have borders within borders, repeated motifs which change. They have their feet in oral conventions, and for the mnemonics, the storyteller needs to have a structure in order to remember the stories. The tripartite structure—so you remember the third brother, second brother, first brother, or the first dervish, second dervish, and third dervish. This is very like embroidering a cloth, as you have to know where you are with the knots.

I see the carpet reflecting that narratological structure of the storytelling, with Scheherazade as the outside frame story on the outside, with the stories woven on the inside. It’s also demonstrative of the infinity of it, with no beginning and no end. The carpet is also a kind of metonym for cinema, this idea that the flat surface carries a terrific depth of imaginative field while remaining totally flat. The cinema took to interpreting the Arabian Nights with real enthusiasm. From the very beginning of cinema, in the 1890s, the first types of stories and the first dressing-up people did often referenced The Arabian Nights… Have you seen Hugo yet?

Rumpus: No…  Are The Arabian Nights a referent in that film?

Warner: Well, I actually don’t know. But [Georges] Méliès made various, tiny vignettes of Arabian Nights-inspired films.

Rumpus: The Arabian Nights is the main example that immediately springs to mind when I think of stories within stories. Are there others you’d recommend?

Warner: [Giambattista] Basile, the great Italian collector of fairy tales—his book Il Pentamerone is a series of inter-sheaved tales which come out at the end with the unmasking of the criminal. The last story exemplifies it, through a mirroring effect of the plot, similar to how Claudius in Hamlet jumps up and states, “It is I!”  It is, in a way, similar to The Arabian Nights, but the Sultan doesn’t actually say at any point, “I realize this is I in this story.”

Rumpus: Yes, there’s no explicitly acknowledged epiphany…

Warner: Well, he does acknowledge his own development with his actions, he just doesn’t state it. One of the things I try to do is try to make repetitions, rhymes, and mirrorings across the subject matter of my own books so that the chapter titles and the epigraphs and pictures all kind of form a tapestry. In this book, I retell fifteen of the stories. You have the critical frame, and then you have these rosettes like the motif in a carpet.

Rumpus: Are you sick of reading these stories now? Do you need a break from The Arabian Nights?

Warner:  No, no, no, no, not at all. I am not sick of it! I love the oracular ones: the danger is announced at the beginning and then it all comes out.

Rumpus: I’m not actually all that familiar with the stories, and I wish I knew them much better. You make me want to re-read them all. I read the Dervish stories last night…

Warner: Most people think they are familiar, but they aren’t really. It’s actually very unusual to know the book well. We know the atmosphere. I particularly like a long story, “Hasan of Basra.” It’s a fabulous tale. He marries a fairy wife… he has fairy children, and he’s not entirely doomed. It’s so wonderful.


[1] Warner used translations by Miquel and Bencheikh (2005), Galland, orig 1704, ed. Sermain in 3 vols (2004), Robert Mack, ed. Galland in English in Oxford Classics (1995). The Italian translation is by Francesco Gabrieli (1997). Please see the bibliography included in Stranger Magic for further details.

[2] Read about Stranger Magic and how it intersects with Saïd’s work here.

Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →