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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Preternatural in Fiction
By Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890)
 
From the Essay on ‘The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night’

“AS the active world is inferior to the rational soul,” says Bacon, with his normal sound sense, “so Fiction gives to Mankind what History denies, and in some measure satisfies the Mind with Shadows when it cannot enjoy the Substance. And as real History gives us not the success of things according to the deserts of vice and virtue, Fiction corrects it and presents us with the fates and fortunes of persons rewarded and punished according to merit.” But I would say still more. History paints or attempts to paint life as it is, a mighty maze with or without a plan; Fiction shows or would show us life as it should be, wisely ordered and laid down on fixed lines. Thus Fiction is not the mere handmaid of History: she has a household of her own, and she claims to be the triumph of Art, which, as Goethe remarked, is “Art because it is not Nature.” Fancy, la folle du logis, is “that kind and gentle portress who holds the gate of Hope wide open, in opposition to Reason, the surly and scrupulous guard.” As Palmerin of England says, and says well:—“For that the report of noble deeds doth urge the courageous mind to equal those who bear most commendation of their approved valiancy; this is the fair fruit of Imagination and of ancient histories.” And last, but not least, the faculty of Fancy takes count of the cravings of man’s nature for the marvelous, the impossible, and of his higher aspirations for the Ideal, the Perfect; she realizes the wild dreams and visions of his generous youth, and portrays for him a portion of that “other and better world,” with whose expectation he would console his age.  1
  The imaginative varnish of ‘The Nights’ serves admirably as a foil to the absolute realism of the picture in general. We enjoy being carried away from trivial and commonplace characters, scenes, and incidents; from the matter-of-fact surroundings of a workaday world, a life of eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, fighting and loving, into a society and a mise-en-scène which we suspect can exist and which we know do not. Every man, at some turn or term of his life, has longed for supernatural powers and a glimpse of Wonderland. Here he is in the midst of it. Here he sees mighty spirits summoned to work the human mite’s will, however whimsical; who can transport him in an eye-twinkling whithersoever he wishes; who can ruin cities and build palaces of gold and silver, gems and jacinths; who can serve up delicate viands and delicious drinks in priceless chargers and impossible cups, and bring the choicest fruits from farthest Orient: here he finds magas and magicians who can make kings of his friends, slay armies of his foes, and bring any number of beloveds to his arms.  2
  And from this outraging probability and outstripping possibility arises not a little of that strange fascination exercised for nearly two centuries upon the life and literature of Europe by ‘The Nights,’ even in their mutilated and garbled form. The reader surrenders himself to the spell, feeling almost inclined to inquire, “And why may it not be true?” His brain is dazed and dazzled by the splendors which flash before it, by the sudden procession of Jinns and Jinniyahs, demons and fairies, some hideous, others preternaturally beautiful; by good wizards and evil sorcerers, whose powers are unlimited for weal and for woe; by mermen and mermaids, flying horses, talking animals, and reasoning elephants; by magic rings and their slaves, and by talismanic couches which rival the carpet of Solomon. Hence, as one remarks, these Fairy Tales have pleased and still continue to please almost all ages, all ranks, and all different capacities.  3
  Dr. Hawkesworth observes that these Fairy Tales find favor “because even their machinery, wild and wonderful as it is, has its laws; and the magicians and enchanters perform nothing but what was naturally to be expected from such beings, after we had once granted them existence.” Mr. Heron “rather supposes the very contrary is the truth of the fact. It is surely the strangeness, the unknown nature, the anomalous character of the supernatural agents here employed, that makes them to operate so powerfully on our hopes, fears, curiosities, sympathies, and in short, on all the feelings of our hearts. We see men and women who possess qualities to recommend them to our favor, subjected to the influence of beings whose good or ill will, power or weakness, attention or neglect, are regulated by motives and circumstances which we cannot comprehend: and hence we naturally tremble for their fate with the same anxious concern as we should for a friend wandering in a dark night amidst torrents and precipices; or preparing to land on a strange island, while he knew not whether he should be received on the shore by cannibals waiting to tear him piecemeal and devour him, or by gentle beings disposed to cherish him with fond hospitality.”  4
  Both writers have expressed themselves well; but meseems each has secured, as often happens, a fragment of the truth and holds it to be the whole Truth. Granted that such spiritual creatures as Jinns walk the earth, we are pleased to find them so very human, as wise and as foolish in word and deed as ourselves; similarly we admire in a landscape natural forms like those of Staffa or the Palisades, which favor the works of architecture. Again, supposing such preternaturalisms to be around and amongst us, the wilder and more capricious they prove, the more our attention is excited and our forecasts are baffled, to be set right in the end. But this is not all. The grand source of pleasure in fairy tales is the natural desire to learn more of the Wonderland which is known to many as a word and nothing more, like Central Africa before the last half-century; thus the interest is that of the “personal narrative” of a grand exploration, to one who delights in travels. The pleasure must be greatest where faith is strongest; for instance, amongst imaginative races like the Kelts, and especially Orientals, who imbibe supernaturalism with their mothers’ milk. “I am persuaded,” writes Mr. Bayle St. John, “that the great scheme of preternatural energy, so fully developed in ‘The Thousand and One Nights,’ is believed in by the majority of the inhabitants of all the religious professions both in Syria and Egypt.” He might have added, “by every reasoning being from prince to peasant, from Mullah to Badawi, between Marocco and Outer Ind.”…  5
  Dr. Johnson thus sums up his notice of ‘The Tempest’:—“Whatever might have been the intention of their author, these tales are made instrumental to the production of many characters, diversified with boundless invention, and preserved with profound skill in nature, extensive knowledge of opinions, and accurate observation of life. Here are exhibited princes, courtiers, and sailors, all speaking in their real characters. There is the agency of airy spirits and of earthy goblins, the operations of magic, the tumults of a storm, the adventures on a desert island, the native effusion of untaught affection, the punishment of guilt, and the final happiness of those for whom our passions and reason are equally interested.”  6
  We can fairly say this much and far more for our Tales. Viewed as a tout ensemble in full and complete form, they are a drama of Eastern life, and a Dance of Death made sublime by faith and the highest emotions, by the certainty of expiation and the fullness of atoning equity, where virtue is victorious, vice is vanquished, and the ways of Allah are justified to man. They are a panorama which remains ken-speckle upon the mental retina. They form a phantasmagoria in which archangels and angels, devils and goblins, men of air, of fire, of water, naturally mingle with men of earth; where flying horses and talking fishes are utterly realistic: where King and Prince meet fisherman and pauper, lamia and cannibal; where citizen jostles Badawi, eunuch meets knight; the Kazi hob-nobs with the thief; the pure and pious sit down to the same tray with the pander and the procuress; where the professional religionist, the learned Koranist, and the strictest moralist consort with the wicked magician, the scoffer, and the debauchee-poet like Abu Nowas; where the courtier jests with the boor, and where the sweep is bedded with the noble lady. And the characters are “finished and quickened by a few touches swift and sure as the glance of sunbeams.” The whole is a kaleidoscope where everything falls into picture; gorgeous palaces and pavilions; grisly underground caves and deadly wolds; gardens fairer than those of the Hesperid; seas dashing with clashing billows upon enchanted mountains; valleys of the Shadow of Death; air-voyages and promenades in the abysses of ocean; the duello, the battle, and the siege; the wooing of maidens and the marriage-rite. All the splendor and squalor, the beauty and baseness, the glamor and grotesqueness, the magic and the mournfulness, the bravery and baseness of Oriental life are here: its pictures of the three great Arab passions—love, war, and fancy—entitle it to be called ‘Blood, Musk, and Hashish.’ And still more, the genius of the storyteller quickens the dry bones of history, and by adding Fiction to Fact revives the dead past; the Caliphs and the Caliphate return to Baghdad and Cairo, whilst Asmodeus kindly removes the terrace-roof of every tenement and allows our curious glances to take in the whole interior. This is perhaps the best proof of their power. Finally the picture-gallery opens with a series of weird and striking adventures, and shows as a tail-piece an idyllic scene of love and wedlock, in halls before reeking with lust and blood.  7
 
 
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