MARINA WARNER has never forgotten her first encounter with the enchanted world of the Arabian Nights.

She was six years old and already a passionate reader, but not so precocious that she was tempted to read the three, forbiddingly long volumes in her great-grandmother’s library, where she would eventually devour everything “from Hornblower to Conan Doyle”.

“The print in the Nights is very small,” says the writer, mythographer and academic, showing me a trio of tattered books held together by clear plastic bindings. They’ve seen a lot of action of late while Warner has been working on her own ambitious, mind-bendingly scholarly book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & The Arabian Nights.

She thinks that her father, Esmond Warner, “kind of led” her to the Nights. “We had just come back from Egypt. We had been living in Cairo, where he was a bookseller, so I always had books. Reading was a way of being; I really loved it because it was a way of being in other worlds, too. Yet I didn’t like the Arabian Nights very much as a child. They seemed dense.”

Nonetheless, the renowned writer and professor in the department of literature, film and theatre studies at Essex University, who will be 65 next month, recalls dipping into the three volumes, which include 600 engravings by artist William Harvey. “I always loved picture books, so was gripped by the images,” she remembers, thoughtfully stirring a pan of soup in the cluttered kitchen in her north London home, which is a bibliomaniac’s Heaven since there are weighty tomes everywhere, drifts of them silting up every surface and every corner, shifting dunes of literature.

Her Edward W Lane edition of the 1001 Tales, published in 1838-41, is one of only a few books from her very solitary childhood. “I don’t have any others from that far back, which is strange,” she says, toasting a crust of bread to have with the soup – it’s 4pm and she’s been writing a lecture about “passion, laughter and song” in the Arabian Nights and forgot her lunch.

The Lane edition is pretty fustian, she notes, because he “tranquillised so much of the book’s agitated emotions and adventures”, unlike another explorer-adventurer, Richard Burton, whose “lurid and archaising” version was printed 50 years later.

There are, of course, thousands of editions of the Nights, which were first published in French in 1704.

“You could never count all the editions,” Warner says. “It’s impossible. With their fantastic heroines and flights of imagination, they simply flowed into the bloodstream of literature, especially fairytale, which is my field.”

Warner – who was appointed a CBE in 2008 – began researching Stranger Magic during the first Gulf War and continued during the many appalling and unresolved conflicts in the regions where the Nights originated. She typed her final full-stop as the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and Egypt, and spread throughout the region, giving hope for change.

“I feel I am part of a general movement since 9/11, although for me this all started long before then,” she says, “It began when I was listening to the radio – I rarely watch television, the habit fell away because I travel so much – and there was a report on the march on Basra when they bombed a column of people who just got fried,” she recalls.

“I saw it very vividly in my mind’s eye, the horror of it. Like many people, I wanted to know more about this ‘enemy’. I decided to look at this culture, to try to see it in a positive light, and, of course, because of my work on myths and fables, the place to start was with the huge narrative wheel of the Arabian Nights, because I believe in literature as a cultural force.”

Her research opened up territories she never thought she would enter. “First of all, I am afraid that my lack of knowledge of the Middle East probably shows, but I did try to acquire some. My lack of knowledge even embraced the genies – jinn – of whom I grew very fond. They are so changeable and have such a wonderful narrative kick, more like fairies.”

People laugh at her, she continues, saying that she seems to believe in fairies. “Yet I see this book as entirely as an Enlightenment project. I think that unless one faces one’s own credulity, one actually cannot get past its perniciousness. In any case, interest in magic is growing in popular culture – look at the success of Harry Potter or Dan Brown, and at the spread of ideas about channelling, alien abduction and false memory syndrome.”

Over the soup and toast she remarks that we should never forget that the tales are told at night by a woman in bed with her husband. Inspiration must not stop flowing or he will have her killed. Shahrazad must continue summoning up stories on behalf of other women or they too will be killed. Their survival depends on the activity of her mind over 1001 nights.

So her book could not be more timely. “The whole model of the stories,” she says, “the idea that you ransom yourself by speaking, is so much the message of the Arab Spring – getting hold of your own story and being allowed to tell it, then changing people’s minds. Look at the way voices are being raised in the hope of lifting the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection. This was – and is – Shahrazad’s way.”

Something of a Sharazad herself, Warner, who grew up in Brussels and Cambridge and was educated at convent school, has been telling tales – five novels and two collections of short stories – since graduating from Oxford University, where she read modern languages. She was the first woman to edit Isis and, later, became only the second woman to deliver the BBC’s Reith Lectures.

She was known as the prettiest graduate of her generation, a bluestocking in 1960s’ mini-skirts (she once said she spent years expiating those). Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes, who was in the audience for the lecture she was writing the day we met, has written of her “incandescent intelligence and Apulian beauty”.

After graduating she became features editor of Vogue, where she wrote “extended captions” for celebrity portraits by Snowdon, Bailey and Beaton. She’s been married twice, first to author William Shawcross, with whom she has one son, the sculptor Conrad Shawcross – whom she frets she’s made too serious, rather like herself – then to the painter John Dewe Mathews. Both marriages ended in divorce. Now, she shares her life with mathematician and Oxford University professor Graeme Segal.

In 1976, she published Alone Of All Her Sex: The Myth And Cult Of The Virgin Mary, an impressive deconstruction of a sacred icon. It was followed by Joan Of Arc: The Image Of Female Heroism. Both books are being reprinted by OUP next year.

“I look back at these books, particularly the Virgin Mary book, and I simply cannot believe my hubris,” she exclaims. “That insouciance of youth is a terrific resource, not to be constantly second-guessing, looking over your shoulder, covering your back, worrying about the footnotes, terrified of this or that scholar. I just sailed in, completely unaware. But I’ve lost that, that has gone with age. I am scared about Stranger Magic, scared of this person, that person, of shadows in the dark. Scared.

“I am quite paranoid about the reviews. Increasingly so. I haven’t been sleeping very well already. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have not published a book since Phantasmagoria in 2006, so that’s a symptom. I’m a little like Shahrazad, delaying the moment of exposure, constantly adding more, pulling out threads, tying them in this direction or that in order to prevent the terrible moment of execution, which is public appearance.”

She’s also been under pressure from her publishers to write her memoirs. “It depends on my memory,” she laughs. “I certainly don’t want to do one yet and my memory may go anyway.”

She’s currently writing new introductions to the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc books: “I am very rusty on both books as I haven’t read them for ages. I am very pleased, though, about these beautiful new editions so I want to do a good job.”

Then there is a novel, Inventory Of A Life Mislaid, based on her father’s bookshop in Egypt in the 1950s. She spent a year on it before putting it aside to work in earnest on Stranger Magic when, two years ago, her Italian mother, Elia, died and Warner inherited her parents’ diaries.

“Lots and lots of material,” she sighs. “There are masses of letters, just masses of stuff. I planned to translate some of it into the novel but the handwriting is difficult, so it’s going to take a long time to read through. I am really quite curious. They were very unhappily married, extremely unhappy. Also, my mother had lots of affairs. I dread to think what I’ll find.”

Stranger Magic: Charmed States & The Arabian Nights by Marina Warner is published on Thursday by Chatto & Windus (£28)