Literary Learnings

In the Warp of the World: Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

By A.E. Decker

What is magic?

There are many real-world answers to that question. The birth of a child is a kind of magic. A spider’s web. The way certain strains of music send shivers down spines. But I am speaking of magic as an author of fantasy fiction. In fantasy stories, the impossible becomes real. Animals talk. Motorcycles fly through the night sky. Tiny objects, such as rings, contain the power to doom the entire world. These stories also usually feature a class of people with the ability to harness these uncanny energies. Sorcerers. Magicians. Wizards.

Wizard. It’s a strong word that conjures (yes, I see what I did there!) an immediate image in most readers’ minds. They might picture J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, or T.H White’s Merlin, or Tolkien’s Gandalf. An older man, generally, with a beard and pointy hat, wearing long robes. A wise and venerable figure who stands apart from and slightly above humanity.

That “standing apart from humanity” aspect of these characters often troubles me when I read fantasy literature. The trope returns over and over again. Magic is depicted as something out of common folks’ reach, and those who can manipulate it are superior to those who cannot. Take again Harry Potter, where non-magical folk (that’s you and me, reader!) are referred to as “Muggles,” a word J. K. Rowling specifically chose to indicate bumbling foolishness. And in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, while the small, earthy hobbits may play a part in defeating evil, they’re not permitted to wield magic. That’s left to the grand people; the otherworldly elves, the heaven-sent wizards, and the king in disguise—all the characters who would never deign to be concerned about where their second breakfast is coming from.

All of this is a preamble as to why I find Susannah Clarke’s award-winning historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a welcomely fresh twist on the interplay of magic and reality. The book takes place in England during the Napoleonic Wars. In this alternate history, magic has always been a part of the world. Everyone accepts its existence. In fact—and this is where Clarke’s delicious wit shines through—magic is humdrum. It is part of history; the stuff of musty old books and dull magazine articles written by a clique of fussy gentlemen. Far from being exalted, it is the kind of thing fussy scholars waste their time debating.

Everything changes when John Segundus, a member of the York Society of (purely theoretical) Magicians, asks his peers: why can magicians no longer perform magic? Although the simple question horrifies the staid society, it sets off a chain of events when the reclusive Gilbert Norrell announces that he is a “practicing” magician. After proving his claims by bringing the statues adorning York Minster Cathedral to life, he sets off to London in the hopes of having his talents recognized by high society.

Although a wizard, Norrell is as far from the likes of Dumbledore and Gandalf as it is possible to be. He is not grand or imposing, but rather prissy, secretive, and awkward. Instead of occupying a higher, envied plane of existence, Norrell struggles to be accepted by London’s elites, who regard his abilities as mere diversions without any practical use. His rival magician, the more personable if scatter-brained Jonathan Strange, encounters a similar attitude in the Duke of Wellington when Strange offers his help with the war effort. All of Strange’s initial suggestions of sorcery are rebuffed by the Duke. After Jonathan Strange actually spends time with the soldiers and comes to learn what they actually need, he is able to use his powers to aid them—not by flashy spells, but by the very jejune means of making smooth roads for traveling.

Jonthan Strange’s practical magic earns the Duke’s respect. But even while Jonathan Strange is marching with Wellington and Norrell is fussing about the government, darker and wilder magical forces are at play in the shape of an enigmatic Gentleman with Thistledown Hair. The Gentleman’s machinations go unnoticed because his victims are those society can ignore: women, vagrants, and servants.  Lady Pole, Stephen Black, and Jonathan Strange’s own wife, Arabella, are only some of the people who suffer because, for all their power, Strange and Norrell simply think of magic as a tool to be used.

And here Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell twists again. After opening her book with a dry and scholarly view of magic, it is the wild, chaotic magic that triumphs in the end. Ironically, Strange and Norrell turn out not to be magic’s masters, but tools of magic themselves. The pair of them were all along merely part of a spell written by the greatest wizard of them all, the unseen Raven King, who at the story’s end returns magic to England for all to use—women, servants, and children alike. Magic is no longer written in dusty books available only to learned and leisured gentlemen. It is part of the air and earth and water.  Like a spider’s web, or childbirth, or a strain of music. The wonder has returned, for any who care to look for it.

This, then, for me is the real joy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I am a regular human person. In so many fantasy stories, wizards are depicted as a breed apart; a club I can never join. Magic, in those worlds, in something I can never aspire to attain. Susannah Clarke offers a counterpoint. Magic is all around us, she says in her book. It was not made solely for us humans, although we are a part of it. It is not something that singles you out because we are all immersed in it. A wizard in this worldview is not someone who turns turtles into buttons or makes stones fly. It is anyone who creates something from the wonder they witness all around them.

Thank you for reading. Lift your head. Look around. Take a walk.

Find the wonder and fly.

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