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Season of Epiphany

Marina Warner, interviewed by Lucy Jakub

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


Dan Welldon

Marina Warner

In our Holiday issue, Marina Warner writes about the enduring myth of the werewolf. Antiquity is littered with stories of men transforming into wolves, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But the legend itself shapeshifted many times before giving rise to the lunar creature we know today, and werewolves have variously connoted brute violence, warrior courage, and a dark sexual allure. “As with mermaids, the figure’s meanings aren’t fixed but range widely,” Warner told me in an e-mail this week, saying she finds that “monsters of all kinds, especially the in-between ones, hybrids who are charismatic and ambiguous rather than purely terrifying, are good to think with.”

Marina Warner, it’s fair to say, is the undisputed Queen of Fairyland. She holds, among many honors, the distinction of being the first woman president of the Royal Academy of Literature, and has authored dozens of books, including several novels and books for children. In the Review, she has discussed sea monsters, mermaids, the Grimms’ folklore, and the phantasmagoria of the New Testament. Her prolific contributions to the scholarship of mythography have always been enlivened by her own palpable delight in the stories, and her respect for their original audiences:

It was because fairy tales and folklore are so strongly connected to women and children who, as subjects, transmitters, and primary audience, were disparaged as illiterate, credulous, and susceptible that I was attracted to this literary tradition in the first place. I had loved reading Greek and Roman myths, legends, and fairy tales when I was growing up and later I wanted to understand their hold on me—and am still trying to puzzle it out!

Warner was born in London, and her father was a bookseller who moved the family to Cairo and then to Brussels. “I feel very lucky to have grown up in a bookshop,” she told me. “Whenever I or my sister showed interest in something, [my father] would bring me a book about it.” She read Andrew Lang’s colorful series of Fairy Books, and still has her book of classic French fairy tales. “I used to sit on the floor of the shop and read. I was a bookworm, with my torch under the bedclothes after lights out, once I was sent to boarding school.”

Her mother, Ilia, was Italian. Her parents’ relationship is the subject of Warner’s latest book, Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir. Growing up, “I had thought of them as very ill-matched,” she said. “But the chasm between them was even deeper.” Her research into their unhappy union—begun in earnest in her mother’s last years, when Warner interviewed her and went through the boxes of old letters and diaries in her garage—delivered “a series of shocks, which I needed to take in before I could return to writing again.” The project took two decades:

It was an all-absorbing and very moving undertaking, to try to see them from the inside, as if they were characters in a book…which is what I was turning them into. I often felt they were talking to me, making sure I saw things I hadn’t known because I was a child during the period I was exploring.

In making sense of the past, myths and legends indeed gave Warner a framework to “think with”: in the book, she writes that her father’s volatile temper was “a curse that in the stories takes hold to turn a husband into a werewolf.”

Warner was raised in the Catholic Church, and received a convent education, but renounced her Catholicism and returned to interrogate her religious upbringing as a scholar. In 1976, she published Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, a bold study in which she explored the history of the figure of the Virgin and its influence on secular culture and notions of femininity.

After leaving the Church, she “used to feel very distressed at religious rituals, or even by religious music,” she told me, “because I had once been able to surrender to them wholly and feel all that consolation and safety and joy, but had now exiled myself.” Though she has gradually come to a dispassionate appreciation of religious art, “I have no belief at all in the story of Christian salvation,” she said. “You could say I fear its spell, so am much happier with stories that don’t ask me to consent to their principles or believe in their heroes. I like to have a Christmas tree, for the scent of the pine woods—a pagan ritual!”

For Warner, the legends of the holiday season are their own source of fascination: “I find I can almost now enjoy Christianity as if it were just another source of wonderful mythology.” Before it was Christianized in the tenth century, Yule was a pagan winter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples, honoring the Norse god Odin. When she was a child, one of Warner’s favorite stories was the Norse myth of Baldur the Beautiful; Baldur, son of Odin, was immune to harm, except by mistletoe. “Sure enough, his wicked, jealous brother Loki connives to have the blind god Hodr shoot a mistletoe arrow at him.”

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Her mother’s hometown of Bari in the south of Italy figures into the international amalgam of Christmas lore as well. The body of the Saint Nicholas, the gift-giving bishop who inspired Santa Claus, is preserved there; in 1071, Italian sailors rescued his bones from the basilica in the city of Myra, which had been conquered by infidel Turks. “Another vivid character in the local Christmas story in southern Italy is la Befana,” Warner told me:

an old witch-like figure whose name is a corruption of Epifania (Epiphany), because when the three kings asked her if she knew of any baby born in the neighborhood, she denied it. For this she has been turned into a bogeywoman with whom bad children are threatened at Christmas. But she also appears on the frontispiece of story books as the crone storyteller.

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