This August, I was fortunate enough to find cheap(ish) plane tickets to Edinburgh – no mean feat during festival time – so last weekend I went to visit friends, family and, of course, The Edinburgh International Book Festival. As both a past employee and a paying punter, I have always found plenty of inspiration amongst the tents of Charlotte Square, and this year was to prove no exception.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the events for which I had booked tickets had a distinctly fairy tale flavour. First up was Marina Warner who, as her website describes, is a ‘writer of fiction, criticism and history: her works include novels and short stories, as well as studies of art, myths, symbols, and fairy tales.’ I’m most familiar with Warner's literary criticism, especially her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, and I owe her a debt of gratitude, for her writings have been invaluable essay-writing resources during various university fairy tale/children’s literature courses.
Marina Warner was at the festival to talk about her new book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. I’m afraid I can’t say much about the rather weighty tome itself, as I was forced to leave it in Edinburgh to read another day, rather than argue with easyjet as to whether or not it counted as a separate piece of hand luggage. But I do know that, as well as dissecting The Arabian Nights, the books sees Warner retell some of the more significant tales, as well as discussing the nature of magic itself. As the blurb explains: Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact.
At a time when I think many are far too cynical about the imagination, I find this both intriguing and inspiring. And as Warner pointed out, even the NHS/children’s literature section of the Olympics Opening Ceremony proved how much we still identify ourselves by stories and magic (and oh, wasn’t it just so wonderful? JK Rowling reading from Peter Pan should have been preceded by some sort of warning - I was in pieces by the time the Mary Poppinses flew down. Click here to revisit.)
In person, Warner did not disappoint. Sporting magnificent pink tights, she gave us a condensed twenty-minute lecture at breakneck speed on the subject of Stranger Magic which, apart from anything else, made me envy the students who have her full-time. She then led a fascinating discussion focusing on The Arabian Nights more generally, in which I was particularly interested to hear that the female protagonists of the tales are apparently a little more cunning and resourceful than their Western counterparts, Cinderella et al. Warner is obviously staggeringly knowledgeable about her subject - I think of myself as an amateur fairy tale enthusiast, but I had to concentrate to keep up with all the vast and varied sources which she referenced – and it sounds clichéd, but I really could have listened to her all evening. Instead, I shall have to make do with the book – and perhaps revisiting The Arabian Nights for myself.
Sticking with fairy tales and magic, the following day, my friend Laura (Anderson, of Miss Read ) and I went to see Susannah Clapp at the Book Festival, where she talked about her role as the Literary Executor of the late Angela Carter and her new book, A Card from Angela Carter.
Angela Carter was novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and – unbeknownst to me until this event – a burgeoning poet. She is perhaps most famous for her use of magical realism and her retellings of fairy tales, particularly in The Bloody Chamber, which for many (including me) makes her something of a literary deity. To expand any more on my love of her work would descend into much embarrassing gushing, which is also the reason that I approached this event with some trepidation: when you admire someone’s work so much, it’s almost unnerving hearing about them as a real person, lest they disappoint you.
Fortunately, we were in safe hands with Susannah Clapp who is, it should be noted, hugely successful in her own right: as an editor, co-founder of The London Review of Books (through which she met Carter) and now a theatre critic. As Carter’s Literary Executor, she was very forthcoming with anecdotes about the woman herself (including a very funny account of her indomitable habit of pausing during speech) and throughout the hour she built up a very vivid picture of the woman behind the words. Of course, it is not necessary to know what an author is like to enjoy her work, but it certainly is interesting, especially when it is someone you hold in such high regard.
Laura and I were at the front of Susannah Clapp’s signing queue after the talk, and I managed to snatch a few moments’ conversation with her, which was lovely. She seemed genuinely delighted that I had studied Carter and I even managed to tell her of my recent experiments with ‘voice’, using Wise Children as a point of reference. I now cannot wait to get stuck into A Card from Angela Carter, a unique biographical work presenting Carter’s electric personality through the postcards she sent to Clapp over the years.
My all-too brief chat with Susannah Clapp, as captured by Laura
Since these two wonderful literary events, my mind has been awhirl with thoughts on fairy tales and storytelling, and particularly storytelling women. I think there is a strange kind of magic to stories and, without getting too tenuous about it, it’s stranger magic too. For these are storytellers - from Shahrazad to Carter, from the anonymous scribes of The Arabian Nights to many of the authors who have moved and enthused me – that I won't ever meet. But then, that doesn’t make these strangers’ stories any less powerful. And if that’s not a kind of magic, I don’t know what is.
Magic: Marina Warner reads from The Bloody Chamber