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Katie Antoniou interviews Marina Warner, writer and mythographer.

 

Photo by Dan Helldon

Marina Warner is a writer of fiction and also a 'mythographer'; examining the history of fairytales and myths.She was one of the first writers to re-examine the role of women in traditional literature-how the female is depicted from the likes of the virgin Mary to Joan of Arc to Sleeping Beauty. Having received countless awards and honorary degrees, Marina also received a CBE for services to literature in  2008. An absolute idol of mine, I was thrilled to be given the chance to chat to Marina about fairytales,video games and her latest book about the magic of The Arabian Nights ahead of her talk at The Richmond Literature Festival.

 

KA:I grew up in quite a strict,conservative household where I was never allowed to watch movies with any scary or sexual content-yet we had all the classics like the Greek myths on our bookshelves, so I used to read them over and over again, loving all the sex and violence.You had a Catholic upbringing,so did you have a similar experience?

MW:Absolutely-though I had rather an uncensored household because my father was a bookseller, so when I went to a convent boarding school when I was 9 in England, the nuns were absolutely shocked by the books I brought with me, and they were confiscated-Gone with the Wind, Rebecca- because I started reading rather young and a lot of the stuff that was thought quite suitable for children like the Greek myths and the Norse myths, and the brothers Grimm were all uncensored, even Shakespeare adapted for children in Lamb's tales-the extraordinary depths of human psychology and all possibilities of desire and disaster are in those stories, so I became very precocious in my taste.

KA:There seems to be a trend for retelling fairytales through film at the moment-there are two very different interpretations of Snow White about to hit our screens, one portraying her as a Joan-of-Arc sort of character in full armour, one more stylized and traditional..

MW: Yes- I've been asked to write about them for The Guardian but I haven't looked into it yet so I don't know too much about them

KA:Why do you think we continue to be drawn back to the same stories?

MW:The trend of retelling fairytales has become more and more adult-I don't know who the target audience is for these two Snow White films, but on the whole fairytales have leapt now beyond the nursery where they were confined by the Victorians and to some extent by Disney, though whether Disney is actually suitable for children is another matter..Disney's Snow White was meant to be a family entertainment film, terrifying as it is, and thats the first classic cartoon fairytale film from 1937-though I've written in my book about an earlier one on The Arabian Nights that was lost for a while, 'The adventures of Prince Ahmed' by Lotte Reineger,a female film maker.

I think 2 things are driving this-I think the generation that grew up with 60s feminism is now in charge-they're prodcuers, writers or they're sons and daughters of such women, so there's a real cultural strata of people who began thinking in psychoanalytical terms, in cultural terms about violence in the family, abuse, about incest, so fairytales were recovered as a mirror for unspoken experiences of people-for things that were hidden or couldnt be confessed . There's also a commercial reason,that stories are held in common, and its easier to get an audience behind something thats already familiar-so Snow White; thats already a film classic, to rework it, you can count on your audience already being with you, whereas if you start with a little known-say a Russian fairytale-or with the Arabian nights for example, one of the things that is rather distressing is that people know Aladdin and Ali Baba and perhaps one or two others, but there are over 300 complete stories and hundreds of little stories within those, of which very few are known.And it would be harder for a producer to raise the money if he said I want to do a story of Hasan of Basra-people would say,who's he? Whereas with Aladdin, he can say, I'm going to do a new take,a new version with Aladdin as a transvestite, people would say,ooh yes, that's very interesting!

KA:There are lots of more contemporary tales of fantasy and magical realism being played out on screen, like HBO's latest offering,Game of Thrones...

MW:I haven't seen that-the last film I saw was Sleeping Beauty which is a semi-pornographic film by Jane Campion, written by Julia leigh.Its her first film and its not very good- she doesn't have any sense of telling a story on film,its a very creaky rhythm and doesn't understand about development of plot or character at all,very episodic, but the young woman is ravishing to look at,and one of the things its definitely done which is interesting in terms of the history of fairytale on film, it takes the idea of the passive female and shows it to be a pornographic fantasy, and that of course is present in the original Sleeping Beauty story, and the film is a feminist critique of the idea of the virtue of the impassive female to whom everything is done and who doesn't do anything in return,totally unresponsive, the counterpart of the macho ideal- the Madonna who knows nothing of sex.

KA: When it comes to modern day myths like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or even Harry Potter, what do you think they have in common that gives them mass appeal?

MW:They obviously have certain characteristics in common, but I think one can differentiate between them in terms of quality of ideas-I suppose for me Philip Pullman is infinitely better than Harry Potter,he's doing something different,undertaking a profound visionary challenge to challenge ideas of absolute evil and absolute good...

KA: I was disappointed with the film adaptation of the first book of his Dark Materials trilogy though..

MW:It was very disappointing and of course very disappointing for him too,not continuing.There was much too much elaborate scene setting and not enough on the characters who were brilliant in the book

KA: It was such an amazing book it didn't need all the special effects

MW: No it didn't, it was spoilt by all that-the daemons didn't work either which is interesting because it seems when you read it like that might work but in film it was too literal-on the stage it worked much better with masks and puppets-it was much more open to our imagination so the metamorphoses were much more poetical and rich. I write quite a lot about special effects and the imagination in the new book,it interests me that the Arabian Nights in a way predicted a lot of special effects, and the most glaring is flying- Arabian Nights is packed with flying of one kind or another-by Jinns lifting you up, flying carpets,flying animals-flight is central to the magic of the nights and is essentially a kind of narrative device about displacement in time and place-the contrast with our enchantment is quite strong in our medieval fairytales-Tom Thumb, Puss in Boots, Snow White- there's no flying. This idea of the metaphorical ecstasy entered European, western imagination with the Arabian nights and spread all the way through-before that its gods and goddesses only who fly, and angels and devils in Christianity. The idea that ordinary people can fly, that enchanted idea gets into stories like Peter Pan after the popularity of Arabian Nights has been established. And of course film then realised this in convincing realism on screen-it was one of the first things people realised they could do, they could make people look like they were flying.

KA:You're a trustee of the Society for Storytelling- do you think its an art thats in danger of being lost to the world of film,video games and online entertainment?

MW:Well, oddly enough its definitely returned strongly in my lifetime- in my childhood it was definitely replaced by televsion around the house, very dramatically, but in fact theres been a big movement of resistance-the SOS has got many many professional storytellers working.In some ways tv and media are themselves rather oral,always changing and adding-I haven't got a knowledge now of games as my son is grown up,I used to know them through him, I don't play them myself,but I don't think all is lost-first of all many draw very strongly on legends and traditions,characters,and the people writing this material know that stuff pretty well-it isn't one to one storytelling and its not live so it does have limitations but it is a form of storytelling and then on the other side I think it has driven a longing for real storytelling-the virtual has made the desire for the human voice and the human touch grow-there's a great movement now.I feel not entirely apocalyptic about it-I think that the period of silent reading will be seen as a historical period,from the 18th century through to the 2nd world war, then after that society is returning to a form of oral culture, which is channelled through media.Its now extremely common that fiction is written as if its spoken, stories are on the page but the writer is pretending to be speaking, either as a character or a persona-look at memoirs-they're so popular.I've got very interested in the idea that literature is a sort of performance and stories are performed, writing pretends to be performing a lot of the time now.

KA:Your latest book is a retelling of some of the stories from The Arabian Nights- its been years since I read any of the original 1001 nights-I think I made it through one of the volumes as a teenager- but I remember it being pretty shockingly racist and sexist..

MW: That's good that you noticed that! My book is actually only 15 stories told really briefly-the rest is a commentary on different themes-there's a section on money, talismans,flying, and one on racism.But you're the first person thats brought that up-I'm a great fan of the Nights, but one area that I criticise quite strongly-and I also argue that the racism of the nights allowed us to give ourselves permission for a kind of racism cloaked in an exotic disguise-if you think of all the magicians and conjurers in Victorian culture and frightening figures like Vengali-they're always foreign, whereas before the Arabian nights came to Europe, malignant magicians or sorcerers were perfectly native born-we acknowledged our own possibility for bad magic that knowledge could be perverted to the wrong ends,but we borrowed from the nights their particular strategy of always projecting onto others, especially black others, these dark arts, the dark arts of seduction or wrongfully used magic.

KA: And what are you working on at the moment? I'm working on a kind of novel/memoir that will speak from the page as if I were in the room, about my childhood in Egypt.