‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ Explores Magic, Morals, and Faith

Susanna Clarke’s magical alternate history reminded me that reality is bigger than we think; the King is watching, even when we think he has abandoned us; and his words will not return void.
Elijah David | Apr 28, 2015 | 3 comments |

Nota bene: Though I have tried to avoid major spoilers beyond what I project will be covered in the first two episodes of the show, there are some for the ending of the book ahead. You have been warned.

In 2004, after over a decade of work, Susanna Clarke published Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell1, an epic historical fantasy set in England during the Napoleonic Wars. I’m not usually one to read brand-new books (who has money for hardbacks?), and I didn’t stumble onto the novel until late 2005 or early 2006 (when the paperback edition was out). I picked it up largely on the recommendations of several trusted friends from an online community,2 who collectively summarized the novel as something like “if Dickens and Austen got together with Tolkien to write a novel.”

The reason that summary works so well for this book is that Clarke is able to imitate the style of nineteenth-century literature while still keeping a modern sensibility.3 The comparison with Tolkien stems from the extensive historical and mythological framework on which Clarke structures her novel. But her method of conveying this framework to her readers is something more akin to David Foster Wallace than to Tolkien: Footnotes, sometimes pages long, each explaining the story or spell or historical tidbit that gets a passing reference in the novel’s main text, but would disrupt the flow of the narrative if inserted. The beauty of the footnotes is that each reader can decide whether to take them in with the rest of the text or leave them for later. The audio version of the novel provides this option by separating the footnotes into tracks that are easily skipped if the listener just wants to get on with the story.

Right, the story. The story of JSaMN is that of two (well, maybe three4) magicians who are destined to bring practical magic back to England. Though theoretical magicians abound, no one has performed a real feat of magic in England almost since the days of John Uskglass, also called the Raven King.

Though the novel opens with neither of the protagonists, it isn’t long before we hear of Mr Norrell. Norrell, particularly in his opening appearances, is the boiled-down caricature of academics the world over. He has the largest library of magical books in England and keeps knowledge primarily for himself, except when he can be made to look brilliant and awe-inspiring by it. When it comes to politics and social situations, however, he is uncertain of how to proceed. After the Yorkshire magicians (all theoretical magicians, of course) ask Norrell to perform some practical magic to prove his claims, Norrell is whisked off to London. There, under the tutelage of Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles, Norrell becomes the celebrity of the town. This celebrity is furthered by his seemingly miraculous resurrection of Sir Walter Pole’s new bride, Lady Pole.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, however, is the means by which Norrell performs this feat. He summons a fairy, always referred to as the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair, and makes a deal with the Gentleman to bring Lady Pole back to life. In exchange, the Gentleman will take Lady Pole’s little finger. Norrell, concerned only with what will give magic the notoriety and respect he feels it deserves, agrees.

Some months later, Jonathan Strange becomes convinced that he, too, should become a practical magician and, after some minor misunderstandings, becomes Norrell’s pupil. What follows is the unraveling story of their friendship, as each becomes convinced of his own course in trying to save both England and English magic.

A number of bystanders, some innocent and some not so innocent, are caught up in this mess. Lady Pole and her husband’s servant Stephen Black are held captive by the Gentleman every night, she because of the missing little finger and he because the Gentleman takes a liking to him. Arabella, Strange’s wife, is later bound by a similar fate, in no small part due to her husband’s neglect of their marriage. Vinculus, a street “magician,” is bound to Strange and Norrell by a prophecy he is compelled to speak to each. Childermass, Norrell’s servant and confidante, spends a large amount of his time protecting Norrell from himself, Strange, and the combined efforts of Lascelles and Drawlight to control both Norrell and the public view of English magic.

Clarke explores a number of themes in her novel, among them women’s roles in society, the nature of madness, and the morality of magic in the world. There’s an oft-quoted passage in which General Wellington asks Strange if a magician might kill a man with magic, to which Strange replies, “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.” Strange’s journey is marked by this question of morality. It is Strange, not Norrell, who fights alongside Wellington against Napoleon, and it is Strange who must unravel the mysteries surrounding not only Norrell’s actions, but also the Gentleman’s. Although he never truly understands all that has happened, Strange’s exploration and questioning lead him to a discovery that shakes his and Norrell’s world, not to mention the reader’s.

Clarke’s story involves many of the moral warnings of both fairy tales and Faerie tales, such as “Be careful what you wish for” and “Don’t make deals with Faeries,” but it is her portrayal of Norrell’s struggle with faith that makes this novel resonate most with me now. Throughout the novel, Norrell disparages the Raven King and tries to discredit any attempt to revive his “style” of magic in England. Norrell views this older magic as dangerous and deceitful and claims that many of the stories about the King’s actions are embellished if not outright false. This disdain for the King and his allies shows itself most vividly in Norrell’s encounters with Vinculus, who claims to speak the words of the Raven King’s prophecy, and his dealings with Strange after the younger magician shows an interest in trying to take magic back to the Raven King’s time.

Norrell dismisses Vinculus and takes extreme measures to have the street magician discredited and outcast beyond his already meager living. But as the novel progresses, and especially in the climactic chapters, the words of Vinculus (and consequently, the Raven King) seem to come true with an almost perverse exactitude. The conflict between Norrell and Strange over the Raven King and his magic ultimately leads to the split between the friends and the founding of two opposed branches of English magic.

Norrell’s seeming hatred of the Raven King is revealed in the end to be born of broken faith. Despite a childhood idolizing of John Uskglass, Norrell felt that the decline of English magic was due to the Raven King’s abandoning England. When Norrell reached this conclusion, he determined to erase the King’s memory and legacy from England. When Norrell and Strange reunite at the novel’s end, they attempt to summon the Raven King back to England. The resulting awareness of someone far larger and more powerful than both of them shakes Strange and Norrell to the core. Their reactions are not unlike Isaiah’s lament, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”5

Now, John Uskglass is no more God than Gandalf is Jesus, but in this passage he parallels the Lord’s immensity similarly to how Gandalf’s death and resurrection parallel Christ’s.

Whatever social ideas we may have danced with over the course of the plot, at the end of the novel it is the reality of magic, of prophecy, and of John Uskglass that confronts both the characters and the reader. The lowly man is crowned king, lost loved ones are restored, judgment is passed, and prophecy is fulfilled. Even if the preceding hundreds of pages were not filled with humorous, insightful, and entertaining characters, the last section of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would be worth reading because of its bringing home this truth: reality is bigger than we think; the King is watching, even when we think he has abandoned us; and his words will not return void.6

In late 2012, the BBC announced that JSaMN was slated to be adapted for television.7 Rumors of a film or TV adaptation had been running rampant since the book’s critically acclaimed release, but now we were getting somewhere. As the months passed, fans gobbled up every bit of information they could find on the production, with a particular interest in when this astounding show would be aired. In April 2013, the BBC said the show would air in 2014, but though fans kept watch on the BBC schedule, no sign was seen of the show’s appearance.8 At last, in December of 2014, a teaser was released as part of a series of clips promoting shows and films coming to BBC in the next year.9 After two years of waiting, this seemed almost enough to drive fans over the edge. Finally, earlier this month, the BBC announced that the show would air in May of this year, though no specific date has been released yet. E10 (May 5 editor’s note: The BBC has announced the first episode of the “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel” series airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 14 in the UK.)

The cast for the series seems promising enough, though I have only seen two of the actors’ work before.11 Eddie Marsan (Mr Norrell) plays Lestrade in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films and Marc Warren (Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair) plays the psychopathic immortal-killer Teatime in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather. While Marsan’s Lestrade gives me hope for his Norrell, Warren’s Teatime has to be the reason he was cast as the Gentleman. Both characters seem to draw from the same vein of storytelling, and I can’t wait to see him in action as the Gentleman.

  1.  British style leaves off the period in abbreviations like Mr and Mrs.
  2. Narniaweb.com.
  3.  But not too modern. We are in the 1800s, after all.
  4. John Uskglass becomes such a major figure in the book that it might as well have been called Jonathan Strange, Mr Norrell & John Uskglass.
  5.  Isaiah 6:5, ESV.
  6.  Isaiah 55:11, KJV.
  7.  Danny Cohen looks ahead at the five key themes to define BBC One in 2013, and announces new commissions, BBC One website, Nov. 30, 2012
  8.  BBC AMERICA to Premiere ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ Series in 2014, BBC America website, April 8, 2013.
  9.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UijYwmlCJQ.
  10.  Facebook.com/JonathanStrangeAndMrNorrellOfficialPage post, April 9, 2015.
  11.  Discounting small roles or guest appearances; I’ve apparently seen Bertie Carvel in several productions, but I wouldn’t know that without IMDB.
Elijah David wrote the fantasy novel Albion Academy and edits Lorehaven Magazine. He and his wife are raising their first child in Georgia.

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Jason Brown
Jason Brown

With the music in the trailer, that made me think it would be some kind of comedy, I was wrong with that archetype. It’s more of a quirky, dark, Victorio-urban fantasy series. From BBC. Translation- it has my attention!

Timothy Stone

Great review. I’ve thought of reading this book but never did. I’ll have to correct this.

Julie D

I am seriously looking forward to this.