Marina Warner
Stanford Humanities Center



Photograph by John Batten.  Used by permission.

Marina Warner is a writer and thinker of such range that her work defies easy categorization.[1]  Although one could perhaps list the major topics of her most important works — myths, fairy tales, ghosts, monsters, the supernatural, women, the female form, childhood, children’s literature, and the cultural histories of each of these — such a list does not nearly do justice to Warner’s range.  And yet oddly, reading some new work of hers, one is never in doubt as to whether the topic at hand is a “Warner” topic.  This is in part because a few broad themes happen to reveal themselves in her earliest major works, most obviously a penchant for some of the boldest of historical women: T’zu-hsi, the dowager “Dragon Empress” of late nineteenth-century China; Joan of Arc; the Virgin Mary.  But it is not only the great, high or mighty women that attract Warner’s scholarly attention: her masterful 1994 work From the Beast to the Blonde focuses not only on fairy tales — but also, and more originally, on the tellers of fairy tales: principally mothers, grandmothers, nannies; the simple, the low-born, the culturally marginal; but principally women.  Her more recent work certainly encompasses this broad theme of woman — as both subject and object — but it also transcends it in important and fascinating ways.  But let us first look briefly at the woman herself.[2]

Warner’s immense breadth of knowledge comes not only from her voracious research and writing as an adult scholar: she seems also to have had the enviable sort of pan-European upbringing that prepares one for a life of such scholarship.  Born of an English bookseller and an Italian teacher, she spent her school years in Brussels and in an English convent; before that, her father owned a bookstore in colonial Cairo.  She read French and Italian at Oxford in the 1960s, then became a freelance writer in London for the Daily Telegraph Magazine, Vogue, and others, completing her first monograph in 1972 (and adding others to that at the rate of at least one every several years) and garnering a number of awards for her work.  From the late 1980s through early into the 2000s she lived the life of an independent scholar, with a series of visiting professorships and academic fellowships around the world (including at Stanford, in 2000), all the while lecturing widely, curating museum exhibits, and of course writing.  In 2004 she was named a professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex.

Warner’s earliest major works reveal a sort of progression from particular women to women in general: first Tz'u-hsi in The Dragon Empress (1972); then the Virgin Mary in Alone of All Her Sex (1976), and Joan of Arc in an eponymous work (1981); then to the female form in Monuments & Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (1985); and finally to women as tellers of fairy tales in From the Beast to the Blonde (1994).  One might be tempted to see this progression as one from the general to the abstract, but the wealth of specific cultural evidence that Warner brings to each of her arguments, and the variety of creative works of all genres that she includes in her elucidation of each of her subjects, belie that simplistic idea.  Even when she focuses on female heroism generally, or on female agency, or on the very “allegory of the female form,” her richly described particular instances and cultural moments give unusual weight and substance even to what seem to be increasingly immaterial subjects.  As the New York Times has it in the title of its review of Warner’s Monuments & Maidens, Warner is particularly adept at “Finding the Her in Heroic,” even without a particular “heroic her” on whom to focus her work.

Those first books, through From the Beast to the Blonde, do have a noticeably female (and feminine, and feminist) focus.  But as Warner herself tells it, it was precisely the gendered nature of this last work that eventually led her to themes well beyond gender.  As she writes in the preface to No Go the Bogeyman (1998):

This book began with the problem of men.  After From the Beast to the Blonde was published, many people asked me why had I concentrated so much on women and on the female cast of fairy tales; they wanted to know about the male characters, too.  I began to explore stories in this light and was led to the theme of ogres, since princes were on the whole too insipid.  But the frighteners of fairy tales and related popular fiction and artefacts are not exclusively male, nor always specially masculine in character, so I found that No Go the Bogeyman took another direction, away from the historical study of gender towards a cultural exploration of fear, its vehicles, and its ambiguous charge of pleasure and pain.  (x)[3]

Warner’s sly feminist twinkle about insipid princes notwithstanding, it is clear that her initial attention to the masculine, which provided the impetus for this work, was simply waylaid by what turned out to be the much more interesting world of fright.  This is no morbid curiosity on her part, but rather a refocusing on a human phenomenon that is not especially susceptible to a gendered analysis.  At the same time, if there were any doubt, Warner shows with this move that she is far from a stereotypical feminist who concentrates only on “strong women.”

Finally, from this 1998 study of the objects and uses of fear, one could perhaps trace a clear line to her next (and latest) major monograph, Phantasmagoria (2006), a treatment of ghosts, phantoms, replicants, and all sorts of scary things.  In spite of its nominally immaterial topic, this book too, like its predecessors, brims with the particular, the material, and the concrete.

Of course, such a neat characterization of Warner’s themes over the course of her distinguished career does not even come close to doing it justice.  For one thing, although From the Beast to the Blonde does have a clear “feminist” angle, its primary topic, like that of its successor No Go the Bogeyman, is the literature, culture and mythology of childhood.  And although Phantasmagoria is indeed about spooky stuff, its true focus is the stuff of spirit and soul and other immaterial forces as our cultures have understood them since the Enlightenment.  And while we’re debunking our own imagined trajectory of Warner’s work, we should not stop with her most recent writings.  For each of her earlier “strong woman” books was also not primarily about its particular subjects, but rather about the mythologies that grew up around them, the images of them that circulated and grew in our culture, and the uses to which those images have been put: in short, they are all cultural histories of particular moments, particular individuals and their cults, particular literary or artistic acts, particular aspects of our emotional and spiritual lives.  It’s an altogether richer tapestry than such a simple-minded trajectory might at first allow.

In addition to her meaty monographs, Warner has also authored several substantial collections of essays and lectures, among them her 1994 BBC Reith Lectures, Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, whose general topic is not unlike that of From the Beast to the Blonde.  Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self (2004) consists of the Clarendon Lectures in English that Warner delivered at Oxford, which takes Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the starting point for a far-ranging investigation into

the unstable, shape-shifting personae and plots [of] fairy tales, myths, and their literary progeny, in order to uncover the contexts in which ideas of personal transformation emerged and flourished, and to offer some historical background to the current high incidence of the phenomena, in poetry, fiction, films, video games. (2)

More recently, Signs and Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture (2003) is a sampler of previously published critical essays on a wide variety of subjects (Aesop; Struwwelpeter; Madonna — the singer, that is, not the Virgin; Shakespeare; Thatcher; Clinton — Bill, that is, not Hillary; body parts as legal and political entities; and so on in a fascinating litany).  Signs and Wonders is a cornucopian miscellany of writings from thirty years of work, and thus may lack an obvious, overarching organizing principle like the other essay collections.  But even the most focused of Warner’s works are too rich and complex in their approach to allow for simple description; and even the most apparently off-topic topic — every “new” library shelf onto which we might put her work — is easily identifiable as her own.

Like their subjects, the structure of Warner’s books is at once marvelous (in all its senses), clear-sighted, and inviting.  A signature device in the structural headings she invents for her books (tables of contents, subtitles, and the like) is the precise yet oddly whimsical spelling out of fantastical themes in a way that both clarifies her intentions in a book and draws the reader into it with promised delights: “Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts” (subtitle of the 1995 U.S. edition of Warner’s Reith Lectures, Six Myths of Our Time); “Mutating, Hatching, Splitting, Doubling” (the section titles of her 2002 collection of lectures Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds); “Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock” (the subtitle and major divisions of No Go the Bogeyman); “Wax, Air, Clouds, Light, Shadow, Mirror, Ghost, Ether, Ectoplasm, Film” (section titles from Phantasmagoria). 

Another frequent structural device in Warner’s work is her conscientious placement of memorable touchstones that run through a work, for example, the inter-chapter “Reflections” in No Go the Bogeyman: encapsulated discussions or episodes that stand alone as mini-essays, provide memorable “connective tissue” between chapters, and serve as evidence in their surrounding discussions.  No Go the Bogeyman has six of these “reflections,” including two revealing meditations on well-known paintings (“Goya: Saturn Devouring His Child” and “Caravaggio: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt”); brief, highly focused notes on less famous pieces such as the stunning, only recently (and only partially) reconstructed Nymphaeum of Emperor Tiberius; curious juxtapositions of disparate works such as Louis Desprez’s 1777 engraving The Chimera together with other chimerical architectural ornaments from remote corners of England; and an even more curious, but even less known, Catalonian festival of Corpus Christi, called the “Patum of Berga,” which she documented in 1996.  Although this particular type of intermezzo as touchstone is unique to the structure of No Go the Bogeyman, Warner herself identifies a similar approach in a much earlier work, Monuments & Maidens: “For each chapter, [...] I have taken a single figura, or common imaginative motif, to trace the overall pattern” (xxii).  The figura is not precisely the same thing as the “reflection” in her work, and yet they serve similar ends.

Warner’s explication of her themes is always so full of exempla from painting, myth and literature, and all from sources so disparate, that the reader may feel left adrift in the sheer plenitude.  But her structural clarity, in the form of memorable section titles, figurae and “reflections,” lends a focus to the discussion and its wealth of supporting material.  The architectural approaches in her books are not limited to these large-scale devices, though: in several of her recent works, Warner has carefully chosen design elements that not merely decorate, but more importantly illustrate and enhance her larger discussion.  These elements lend to her complex argument a sort of graphic thread that leads through the entire work, and with that thread she makes her argument more concrete, more memorable.  The end papers and a large number of the chapter-end graphic motifs in Phantasmagoria, for example, come from the fanciful “figured stones” in Athanasius Kircher’s 1665 work of geology, Mundus Subterraneus ­— a work that Warner discusses (along with several other Kircher monographs) in her treatments of light (e.g., the magic lantern) and clouds (e.g., fata morgana) as particular media of phantasmagoria.  Even though her discussion of Kircher in these several contexts does not directly treat his “figured stones” (pieces of obsidian or other stones in which the scientist and mystic perceived divinely inspired figures from nature or cosmology), Warner’s use of these fantastical miniature drawings as motifs comes very close to turning them into tacit leitmotifs for her entire work: memorably graphic “natural” phenomena in which the supernatural is perceived.  No Go the Bogeyman similarly has chapter initials and motifs all drawn from a single source, the thirteenth-century Parisian text Les Heures de Thérouanne, depicting grylli, which form a small but memorable part of her much larger discussion of monsters and monstrosities. 

Let us dwell on these grylli for a moment, not only because the tiny grotesque creatures might not be familiar under that name to those who haven’t read No Go the Bogeyman, but also because Warner’s discussion and use of them is at once unique, remarkable and memorable, and yet typical of her discursive method not only in this work, but in general.  To begin with an example that is likely to be familiar, here is Warner’s instructive interpretive caption for a well-known painting:

In The Temptation of St. Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490, the holy hermit is kept company by a pig, symbol of gluttony, idleness and lust, since he resisted.  His other assailants are embodied as grotesque grylli: combining fish and fowl, metal and fur, nature and artifice, they represent heterogenous mischief-making — devilry. (pl. 27)

But gryllus is not merely a fancy Latinate name for those little Boschian monsters we all know.  Warner traces both word and creature from a certain Gryllus, one of Odysseus’s men (in a Plutarchan retelling) whom the enchantress Circe had turned into beasts.  Unlike most of the others, though, Gryllus preferred to remain a pig and stay with Circe, rather than return to human form and to Greece with Odysseus: “A pig speaking fluent Greek, Gryllus engages Odysseus in a fleet-footed debate about virtue and speaks up wittily but passionately against the assumed superiority of the human condition” (274).  From there, Warner takes a short step back to describe the almost childlike pun of the nickname Plutarch gives to Homer’s character, “Gryllus” (a play on the Greek verb for “grunt”), then proceeds before the end of the chapter to elucidate later varieties of piggish words as English words of abuse, as well as the pig figure in Erasmus, Machiavelli, Dante, Spenser, Milton, Walter Crane illustrations to nursery rhymes, and Orwell.  In the next chapter, Warner introduces the gryllus as the generic grotesque beast, like those that appear in Greco-Roman gems, and notes that Pliny the Elder mentions both the character Gryllus and the grylli images named after him.  But then Warner points out a curious fact:

Plutarch and Pliny were writing in different languages, and the Latin modifies the Greek profoundly: for gryllus or grillus is the Latin word for cricket, and Pliny uses it in this sense as well.  Pigs and crickets have very little in common, but both were associated with gluttony [...].  Both animals have a domestic character, the pig in its sty more pejoratively than the cricket in the hearth.  (287)

Of course these nearly random similarities would probably not be enough to justify an equivalency.  And Warner does not stop here, but rather goes on to embrace the echoes of the cricket in Aesop, Collodi and (of course) Disney.  Even Jiminy Cricket is brought gradually, convincingly, in the course of these dozen pages, into the whole genealogy of grylli — of whom we see grotesque echoes throughout the book as graphic motifs.[4]  But Warner had warned us early on, introducing us briefly to Gryllus (and the curious pig/cricket linguistic ambivalence of his name) at the very beginning of the book, and hinting of her intention to go this roundabout and fascinating route — though we may not have understood fully its metamorphic implications:

The cricket is the idle songster of fable, and his spirit animates the tradition of tales, rhymes, nonsense and fun — for adults as well as children.  Metamorphic humour, which seizes the objects of fear, like beasts, and turns them into something different, something reassuring and even desirable, has been the most widely and successfully adopted stratagem in the confrontation of fear. (19)

And thus we realize that this is no mere play, no mere random cross-linguistic oddity, no mere juxtaposition of pop and classical cultures for shock value, no mere fantasy.  On the contrary, Warner has brilliantly brought this unexpected thread all the way through the body of her work, and has used it to sew up perfectly her principal thesis about the uses of memorable, shape-shifting monsters, leaving us more than enough touchstones to remember it by.

Though this example far from exhausts the riches of Warner’s writing, perhaps it can serve at least as an enticement to read more.  And so much there is to choose from!  Her first three pathfinding books on strong women, both heroic and anti-heroic, and another on the female form in general — all of which treat major works of art, literature and mythology — will be of use not only to those studying these particular people, but also to feminist scholars and students of cultural history generally.  Her two major works ostensibly on children’s literature and culture (From the Beast to the Blonde and No Go the Bogeyman), are among a precious few really serious treatments of this neglected part of the cultural landscape.  But in fact these works go far beyond, treating some of the myths most deeply held in human experience.  And her most recent monograph, Phantasmagoria, which focuses on the very stuff of the human soul (spirit, soul, anima or animus) — or at least, since she’s no abstract metaphysicist, on the many ways in which human culture has sought to perceive, express and understand the soul through the ages, from the ancients to the moderns and post-moderns, from low culture to high.

As if this cornucopia of scholarly work were not enough, Warner is also an accomplished belletrist, having written a dozen widely-translated and well-received novels and story collections, including The Lost Father (1987), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, The Leto Bundle (2001), which was also a Booker nominee, and a number of opera libretti and children’s books.  Our focus here on Warner’s critical and historical work doesn’t allow us to linger in her fictional worlds; suffice it to say that the web of connections between these two bodies of work is a rich one. Plot lines, characters, situations, and sentiments come into Warner’s fiction from history (both her own personal history, and world history), from myth, from art, and from her scholarly practice.

Marina Warner’s Stanford Presidential Lecture has a most intriguing title: “The Voice of the Toy: Writing Magic and Enchanted States.”  Whether this lecture will invoke a sort of thematic flip-side of Phantasmagoria — the uncanny animation of normally inanimate things; or will further Warner’s interrogation of the culture of childhood that she explored so dazzlingly in No Go the Bogeyman and From the Beast to the Blonde; or will turn out to be an altogether new direction in her work — whatever the case, we have every reason to expect an uncommon wealth of both substance and imagination.


[1] A library anecdote — a minor but not unknown genre in Warner’s oeuvre — might serve as a vivid illustration of this difficulty: to gather just her major works in the Stanford Libraries, one must visit no fewer than six different shelving locations, representing six completely different Library of Congress subject classifications!

[2] Warner’s own exceedingly rich website,, provides many of these biographical details; a recent and very useful 2006 monograph by Laurence Coupe, Marina Warner, in the British Council’s Writers and Their Work series, fills in much of the rest.  Finally, some of Warner’s own writings, though hardly ever strictly biographical, often do contain memorable anecdotes and episodes from her childhood.

[3] It is worth noting that No Go the Bogeyman was republished in the U.S. in 2007 under a different title, which echoes this sentence from her preface: Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasure of Fear.

[4] We have used a small number of these grylli from No Go the Bogeyman as illustrations throughout this website.  Warner’s citation for their original source is as follows: “Initial grylli from Les Hueres de Thérouanne, Paris, thirteenth century, drawn by hand in Le Moyen-age fantastique by Jurgis Baltrusaitis (Paris, 1955).

Text by Glen Worthey, Humanities Digital Information Service
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2008


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