Marina Warner is surely the most complete and celebrated internationalist in the humanities departments of UK universities. Brought up in Cairo, the polyglot speaker of five languages; the grandchild of Plum Warner, the ur-ancestor of English cricket; an occasional novelist and author of nearly 30 books, she is almost as rare a bird as is to be found in the thousands of pages of her studies in myth, faery and folktales, as well as the complex dynasties of paintings, prints, cartoons and movies that have been born of them.
Her classic histories of Mariolatry and St Joan, oblique products of her devoutly Catholic childhood, brought her swift and justified fame. Her 2000 study of the interminable lineage of male monsters and their revolting résumés, No Go the Bogeyman, bore compelling witness not only to the toughness of her sensibility (some of the horror stories she retells with due objectivity and a touch of relish are horrible, all right) but also to her omnivorous imagination and her grasp of giant topics.
This new book, Stranger Magic, is much more, of course, than a gift to the dismaying crowds of New Age rejectionists of canonical science and their superstitious return to the purported wisdom of the folk. For it has been the great achievement of a century's work in anthropology to learn the truth of R.G. Collingwood's remark that "to the educated man as such there is no pleasanter kind of self-flattery than the doctrine that folklore, the one cultural possession of the illiterate, is merely their perversion of what his own class has bestowed on them".
Warner is a stout defender of just that cultural possession. It is then a paradox, although one she carries off with perfect poise, that this is a book about books, hundreds of them, and all of them collecting, reporting, retelling, revising, parodying, celebrating and wallowing in the uses of literacy on the part of the illiterate.
Not surprisingly, such a history commits her to a repetitiousness that sometimes threatens to swamp the book. For her subject is vast enough even to match her ambition. It is to pursue into their great tradition the tales of the thousand and one Arabian nights as told by Shahrazad (in Warner's orthography) during the three-year sentence of death pronounced by her husband, and nightly postponed by a new bedtime story (in the end she narrates her way out of ritual decapitation).
There is, by definition, no original text for The Arabian Nights, but we may be sure that Warner has her hands on all the earliest versions in print with their copious illustrations, as well as spotting with her keen, infallible eye echoes of the original fables in the Koran and the Old Testament, in the rich mythography around King Solomon, in Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Mozart and Goethe. Indeed, the list of the mighty writers whose imaginations were lit by Shahrazad's many inventions would fill any pantheon and comes bang up to the cinema screen with the great Michael Powell's 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad and Robin Williams in Disney's Aladdin.
The mere business of assembling her enormous multitude commits Warner to her repetitions, and one cannot fairly expostulate at this. Nonetheless, at the umpteenth appearance of the bottle, the jinn, the beautiful damsel, the sumptuous carpet, the desert sands, the conversational pots and pans, the cruel tyrant and the voice from the sky, anyone raised on the usual English-speaking literary diet of a realist aesthetic and a dependable connection between cause and effect has to discover the same reserves of patience as the amazing Professor Warner.
At the same time, however, we anglophone realists cannot surely have so far lost touch with a romantic childhood that the mere reiteration of magic symbolism does not once more run thrillingly off the tongue. The very piles of jewellery and precious stones - amethyst, emerald, porphyry, silver, crystal and carnelian, let alone the white silk pantaloons, the jewelled slippers, the cataracts of long black hair - are set deep in the collective imagination and throb in Warner's pages with all their old power.
It was Theodor Adorno who, in a marvellous note in Minima Moralia, recalled that gold and precious stones were once revered because their radiance was thought to be inherent not reflective; whatever was touched by their light came under their influence. "As radiant things gave up their magic claims," Adorno added, "they become promises of a happiness cured of domination over nature. This is the primeval history of luxury, that has migrated into the meaning of all art."
This is the light the book needs to shine over the great piles of its stories. Behind Warner, of course, stands the massive rectitude of Edward Said's Orientalism. But she is at pains to qualify and disperse Said's stern polemic and recover the delightfulness of the storyteller's art. She hasn't, however, found the key that, like Adorno's insight, would unlock the innumerable puzzles of her endlessly repetitious and dark materials.
Baffled as to interpretation and properly averse to theoretic moralising, Warner is left with a an exceedingly long chronology. In her very interesting chapter "Money Talks", for instance, she decodes the long history carried by the design of the American dollar bill and its Solomonic hieroglyphs, but the key she never picks up is John Maynard Keynes', when he writes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that "the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future". This is the source of its undoubtedly magical powers, and explains in Keynes' offhand dictum the reason why all those chests and coffers spill their great cascades of coins over the caves and carpets of those 1,001 nights.
Without a key one is just left, in both senses, wondering, and Warner is excellent on wonder. Naturally she resists any easy Enlightenment distinction between science and magic. Epistemology is shaped out of the methods and ideas that preceded it. Scientific concepts are necessarily formed by slow heat in a crucible baked by ancient, even dead principles of inquiry. But at the present moment of universal genealogising, we could have done with a lot more genealogy. Not of sources - Warner is utterly complete on them - but of that imaginative alchemy that turns old tales to new, imaginative purpose.
She tells us exactly how, for instance, William Beckford, Horace Walpole and M.G. "Monk" Lewis shared out their Gothic recipes and Islamic parodies to make an Orientalist trilogy. Her chronicle is attractively sociable in its storymaking, and her eye for vivid detail is mesmerising. The trouble is that she leaves her readers crying out for the meaning she finds in it all; then she vanishes through the shimmering curtains of heteroglossia. All she leaves behind is the enigmatic image of a doe she once encountered at Fonthill Abbey, near Bath, Beckford's vast Gothic folly.
In her closing pages, the grave and bearded visage of Sigmund Freud appears, and the reader is braced for theoretic explanation at last. But, characteristically, Warner tells us in intimate detail the tale of a beautiful rug on the analyst's couch, a prize item in Freud's rug collection. She is permitted to touch it by the curator. "It is unexpectedly soft and silky," she writes. Warner turns away from the rug to Henry James' teasing about "the figure in the carpet", and then to Ludwig Wittgenstein, of all people. The End.
Novelist and historian Marina Warner, professor in the department of literature, film and theatre studies at the University of Essex, was born in London. Shortly thereafter her family moved to Cairo, where her father opened a bookshop. She recalls daily trips with her nanny to the nearby sports centre, where there were high swings and a swimming pool.
"It was a colonialist upbringing," she says, "the last throes of the British imperial mindset, horrible and fascinating."
Anti-British riots in 1952 led to her father's bookshop and warehouse being burned in the "Cairo Fire", prompting a move to Brussels. "It was a drab place in the 1950s," Warner recalls, "except for the weekly bird market in the Grand Place. In those days, you could buy songbirds, and my sister and I had a cage full of them - terrible to relate."
From an early age, Warner dreamed of becoming a classical soprano. She was captivated by the paintings of the Flemish masters that she saw in Ghent and Bruges, and is now particularly interested in contemporary art, which she says has influenced her writing.
A trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and president of the British Comparative Literature Association for the period 2010-13, Warner, who is also a visiting professor at both Queen Mary, University of London and the Royal College of Art, says she was "proud, surprised and grateful" when she was appointed CBE for services to literature in 2008. However, she was also unsettled by becoming part of an Establishment she has always tried to keep at a distance in order to remain "independent-minded".
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights
By Marina Warner
Chatto & Windus, 560pp, £28.00
Published 3 November 2011