Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds
Oxford University Press
Murderers I Have Known
Chatto & Windus
THERE WAS once a beautiful sylph named Marina, who lived near the fountain of Much Feigning, famed as a sage andsibyl. Her art flourished on crossroads and on borders, "points of interchange on the intricate connective tissue of communications between cultures" (as she liked to remark to her enchanted hearers). She wore her vast learning lightly, retrieving uncanny tales that mutated, pupated, hatched and doubled with astounding energy. Some held that Marina inhabited a "a zone of dreams" and wondered when a prince would come to awaken her to the common daylight.
Marina Warner's new mythographical work, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds, originated in the Clarendon Lectures she delivered in Oxford in 2001. It coincides with the current exhibition, Metamorphing, which she co-curated at the Science Museum. Warner is a modern Renaissance woman, at ease in a multi-disciplinary world of art, literature and science. She positions herself in a cultural flux whose circumference is nowhere and centre is everywhere.
Fantastic Metamorphoses is the child of Ovid, who fathered in Western society the myths that Christianity alternately demonised and synthesised. Warner intriguingly suggests that, with European colonisation of Africa and the Caribbean, these myths met an exotic plethora of lore that came whirling into European culture even as it cracked its angry whip to expel them.
Columbus, for instance, left behind the Jesuit monk, Ramn Pane, to study the lore of the Taino tribes. Pane's Account of the Antiquities of the Indians imported creation myths in which women are born as fruit, and the guava-fed dead party with the living. Warner's method of invoking these myths is deft and dextrous: unable to prove direct influence, she adopts a method known as "congening": the unwitnessed assimilation of one culture by another.
Although Warner has been quoted as saying that hers is an Enlightenment activity, her method approximates here to the exuberant excesses of Renaissance syncretists: mythographers happy to conflate anything with anything else, if some point of comparison existed. In its zest for the random fruits of research, Renaissance syncretism, nurturing new variants of ancient tales, produced a delicious, organised chaos. This is close to the yolky, juicy, sappy and fructifying cornucopia on which Warner feasts her readers.
Speak of fruit, and we enter the territory of Eden's apple, Persephone's pomegranate. From Pane, Warner glides to Bosch's fruitarian diptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, in which beaky birds and …