Wonder in Bloomsbury: Robert Irwin in conversation with Marina Warner at the London Review Bookshop

A detail from an 1898 edition of One Thousand and One Nights, in which six of the stories from Tales of the Marvellous also feature. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A detail from an 1898 edition of One Thousand and One Nights, in which six of the stories from Tales of the Marvellous also feature. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What a wonderful thing it is to wonder. Wondering informs some of the most memorable and beautiful moments in literature; just think of the aptly-named Miranda’s amazement in The Tempest (“O, wonder!”, she exclaims, “O brave new world!”), or the astonishment of Milton’s Satan at seeing Adam and Eve for the first time: “O Hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold!/…Not spirits, yet to heavenly Spirits bright/ Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue with wonder”, a wonder so great as to make him “at [their] harmless innocence/ Melt”. More recently, Peter Pan admits himself to be a wonder (‘“Am I not a wonder, oh, I am a wonder!” he whispered to [Wendy], and though she thought so also, she was really glad for the sake of his reputation that no one heard him except herself”), while, across the Atlantic, Whitman’s endearing poem “Miracles” looks at daily moments of wonder, including “the wonderfulness of insects in the air,/ Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright”. One of my favourite wonderings of late has come from the newly fashionable Stoner, in which our protagonist falls heavily in love with literature upon reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. ‘“Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?”’, his professor asks.

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs… Sloane was speaking again. “What does he say to you, Mr. Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?”

Stoner’s eyes lifted slowly and reluctantly. “It means,” he said, and with a small movement raised his hands up toward the air; he felt his eyes glaze over as they sought the figure of Archer Sloane. “It means,” he said again, and could not finish what he had begun to say.

These are all very different moments of wonder, testifying to the protean nature of a term which includes feelings as wide-ranging as amazement, curiosity and awe. The mutability of wonderment has not gone unnoticed. “Wonder has no opposite,” Marina Warner writes in her introduction to the excellent collection, Wonder Tales: Six Stories of Enchantment. “[I]t springs up already doubled in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear.”

Wonder, then, is a shifting phenomenon. It prompts “dread and desire”, it attracts and repulses, appealing both to our unthinking approval and our critical faculties. In a conversation between Marina Warner and Robert Irwin on Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange at the London Review Bookshop, Warner returned to her definition of wonder: “to wonder” means, she said, “to admire” and “to inquire”. And both the book under discussion and the conversation itself elicited much wonderment from its admiring and inquiring audience.

Tales of the Marvellous, published in English for the first time last November, provides us with ample opportunity for just such a feeling of stunned inquiry. This collection of fantastical tales is believed to have been carried from Cairo and left in Istanbul by Selim the Grim in the sixteenth century, where it was discovered four centuries later by German orientalist Hellmut Ritter. The surviving manuscript, consisting of eighteen stories, is fantastically mad-feeling in its fugue of voices and figures, framing story after framing story, sorceress after centaur after jinn. This newly published translation is pleasingly loyal to the insanity of the original (if tidied up a little where the scribe appears to have forgotten the gender of his subject).

But is there a purpose to it all, our wondering minds must ask. For, as Irwin himself admitted to Warner, it would be “naïve to think that fantasy is just fantasy”. Rather, he continues, “fantasy is about reality”. And the reality here is a piety of purpose: that in reading these stories of extraordinary things people might comprehend the greatness and imagination of their divine creator. The collection’s title derives from the same root as the noun aja’ib, which, in turn, is the name of a particular strain of medieval Arabic literature that “dealt with all manner of marvels that challenged human understanding”, as Irwin describes in his introduction. (These marvels are not confined to works of fiction alone; such curiosities recur in medieval Arabic non-fiction also. Irwin notes in his introduction that the tales prove that “sex between humans and jinn was possible and indeed, in non-fiction, both medieval legal texts and guides to the etiquette of love envisaged this possibility.”) Incidentally, this piety of purpose is an unthinkable conclusion to draw from European, Christian-influenced stories because, as Irwin admits, “nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to believe in fairies”. On the contrary, the cosmology of these tales of wonder is coherent with the Muslim religion and the fable-like moments of magic to be read in the Qur’an.

Of course, a modern reader might wonder at other aspects of these stories. As Irwin conceded, The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands, the tale of a woman who murders every man she sleeps with, sends a virulently misogynistic message. Interesting, I think, for Warner to have suggested that the subsequent (but occasionally overlapping) Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade gently extricates herself from the female stereotype of wile and calculation created by collections such as Tales of the Marvellous, can be read as a mild reproof of these misogynistic forebears.

And then there are the moments where our inquiry and our admiration meet. So, the “general background of unanxious acceptance of religious diversity” which Rowan Williams finds in Tales of the Marvellous furnishes us with what has become a regrettably unfamiliar milieu of religious tolerance, which we can both approve and ask questions of.

These stories fascinate and, at times, bewilder, all the while attesting to the many aspects and manifestations of this thing we call “wonder”. Irwin spoke of the strangenesses he encountered whilst living in a Sufi monastery in Algeria: the everyday phenomenon of seeing people pass through walls, disappearing and rematerialising at whim. The realm of the supernatural, he said, is “topographically limited… Certain places are full of strange powers – and Bloomsbury’s not one of them”. And yet, the spellbound silences, the general air of wonderment, the admiration and inquiry which attended the speakers and their scrutiny of a book of marvels in that little shop in Bloomsbury would tell, I think, a very different story.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is available now in hardback from Penguin Classics.

Xenobe Purvis

About Xenobe Purvis

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

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