Marina Warner, the English writer, lecturer, and former president of the Royal Society of Literature, is an authority on things that don’t exist. Magic spells, monstrous beasts, pregnant virgins—if the imagination can conjure it, she has probably written about it in one of her almost forty books, which quarry myths, folk and fairy tales, and religious texts for the human truths that they reveal. The work offers jolts of associative surprise: Oedipus, who blinds himself after sleeping with his mother, is linked to the Sandman of nursery rhyme, who scatters dust in children’s eyes to punish forbidden desires. In Warner’s hall of mirrors, there’s no predicting whose face—Scheherazade’s, Jorge Luis Borges’s, Derek Walcott’s—might glide by next.
Warner, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, is no stranger to controversy. “Alone of All Her Sex,” her study of the cult of the Virgin Mary, enraged Catholic conservatives with its feminist arguments, and she has published blistering essays about how market ideologies deform academia. (In 2014, she wrote about feeling pushed out of her professorship, at the University of Essex, after she protested the school’s treatment of faculty.) She has also written short fiction and novels. “The Lost Father,” which considers the situation of Italian women under Fascism, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1988, and draws on Warner’s own ancestry. Her mother, Ilia, grew up in Bari, and met Warner’s father when his regiment was deployed in Italy, in 1944. Soon after Marina was born, in 1946, the family relocated from London to Cairo, where a cosmopolitan élite flourished against a backdrop of resistance to the West. (Another novel, “Indigo,” scrutinizes Britain’s colonial legacy.) After the Cairo fire of 1952, in which Egyptian revolutionaries torched hundreds of foreign-owned businesses, including the Warners’ bookstore, the family decamped to Belgium, and then to Cambridge. “Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir” (New York Review Books), Warner’s first full-length work of autobiography, is out this month, and it traces both the early years of her parents’ union and the residue of her oldest memories.
To read Warner’s writing is to appreciate how stories, persisting over thousands of years, shape and are shaped by the societies that tell them. Her ability to tease out a stock character’s hidden relevance makes her a sought-after commentator on modern politics, gender relations, and Internet culture. And her willingness to listen when a tale’s message is unpalatable—when Mother Goose spews misogyny, say, rather than sisterly empowerment—distinguishes her from a crop of scholars who seek to press our collective dreams and nightmares into ideological service. I recently spoke to Warner about myths, #MeToo, and her turn to memoir. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
As a mythographer, you study the roots of all stories. Do you often have “Aha!” moments while reading the news? “This is just like Odysseus and the Sirens. . . .”
It’s not quite as one to one. I’m constantly marvelling at how the vicissitudes of human existence are covered by these very ancient texts. It’s really quite strange that people from so long ago seem to have understood so much. And, if you’re looking at things like sexual relations, it’s amazing: there’s hardly a permutation that has not been covered by a myth. They knew everything.
I remember once hearing John Berger give a lecture. It was about art, and it took place in a disused station of the London Underground. And we went down to the very bottom, and as we did he took us down a time line of art. At the beginning, we were looking at Renaissance portraits, and then we were looking at Egyptian mummies, and then we got to the bottom and we lay down on the platforms like the figures in Henry Moore’s drawings of people sheltering from the Blitz. And Berger came down the tunnel—he was a very charismatic man with an amazing voice, and his voice came gravelling out of the tunnel. He said, “In the beginning, there was no fumbling.” He was talking about cave paintings, the first paintings we have. There is something similar in literature: in the beginning, there was no fumbling. “Gilgamesh” is very rich in psychology, about death, about friendship, about love between men, and about monsters. And the Iliad, the Odyssey, as you said. These works are inexhaustible.
Is there a story or myth that you think is particularly illuminating of the present moment?
I suppose the stories that I like illuminate cruelty. Scenes that give warning about not attending to people’s inner worlds. One story that has obsessed me for a long time is the story of Callisto, who is seduced by Jupiter. He masquerades as the goddess Diana, to whom Callisto, as a nymph, is vowed. When Callisto gets pregnant, Diana throws her out, and she’s persecuted and scorned. That particular triangle of deception and cruelty is illuminating.
And the way that she wasn’t listened to. There was no mercy for her. So I suppose the lesson there is that we need to listen to people’s stories about what has happened to them. And then, of course, there’s also a very strong #MeToo element to Jupiter’s deception. He is in a position of power and destroys someone without power, and seems completely unrepentant.
Several years back, you offered a stunning reading of the Rapunzel story. You looked at the beginning, in which a pregnant woman so craves the parsley growing in a witch’s garden that she steals some, and the witch punishes her by taking her baby. The baby grows up to be Rapunzel, the girl with long hair who is locked in a tower. I’m thinking of the story now because our Supreme Court seems poised to strike down Roe v. Wade. [On Friday, the Court overturned Roe.]
Yes, I had read a book called “The Poison Principle,” by Gail Bell, whose grandfather was guilty of murder by poison. The author mentioned in passing that parsley was an abortifacient, and a poison in great quantities. This struck me as an absolute bolt of lightning. It’s not unusual for fairy tales to not make sense—it’s part of their charm, part of their power. But, in this case, why would the mother crave this particular herb and then apparently not mind giving her child away? So that’s how I worked it out: that the story showed a buried lesson, about both the need for abortion and the dangers of seeking or getting one. And, of course, you have the witch, too, who perhaps offers an insight into women who are childless and want children. So the story presents a double meeting of the need.
In 1994, you gave a series of lectures on “Managing Monsters,” describing six tropes that you found to be omnipresent in contemporary life: the evil mother, the male warrior, the innocent child, the cannibal, etc. Have your thoughts about any of these types evolved since then?
Well, they have all continued to flourish in a strange way. I’m still quite proud of those lectures. I’m rather surprised that they haven’t been superannuated more fully—it’s a bit alarming. The interesting thing about the diabolical mother is that this is now a subject of women’s work. There’s a lot of writing by women about their mothers’ oppressive role in their lives. I’d be interested to revisit the theme, in fact, because I was first attracted to studying fairy tales because there was so much misogyny in them. The same is true of myths. And I wondered why that was so, because it seemed to me that this was also a female form, a kind of writing or storytelling that was very associated with women. Why did women write and speak against each other in these stories? And I think that’s an interesting thing that one could continue to explore.