Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

“Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me…”

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of finishing the BBC television series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was not as great as the book of course, but I really enjoyed it. It is always a rewarding thing to watch a story that you’ve read and loved be transferred to the screen in an acceptable manner.

The novel, written by Susanna Clark and published in 2004, belongs to that class of great stories that just haven’t received as much attention as they really deserve from the general public. Probably because it was published as the magical world of Harry Potter was gaining such momentous popularity, it was never a book I heard much about. Indeed, certain people have called it “Harry Potter for adults.” This is not an accurate or fair description. In response, I would state instead that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell presents the most real and applicable form of magic found in literature, independent of any other fantasy book.

Most fantasy books these days that deal with magic have rules that the characters have to follow in order to harness their peculiar power. In Harry Potter they wave their wand and shout an incantation; Brandon Saunderson’s mistborn ingest metals that give them certain abilities; Brandon Mull’s candy gives kids certain powers. Now, it’s important to have limits to what’s possible in a story. Part of why I’ve always found Superman to be kind of boring is that there is barely any restriction on what he appears to be able to do. But when we use the term “magical” in our daily lives it is usually because we don’t have words to describe what we are experiencing. The birth of a child, a beautiful sunset, feelings of love for another person, Christmas as a child. In short, we can’t conceive of the bounds where this magic begins or ends. And we also can’t force these moments, feelings, or memories to happen. They just do. The magic in Susanna Clark’s 1800’s England feels the same. The characters learn methods and means to harness magic, but as they grow and learn they realize that this magic is beyond their complete control. It is tied to the nature and people around them in ways they cannot conceive of. Not only is it out of their control, but this magic has mysterious qualities, lost paths, and dark corners. There is a terrible magic in the wielding of authoritarian power, in madness, and feelings of hate or lust in our own world. Like the technology used to recreate the Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, there is an argument that perhaps this magic should be left alone.

He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.

What I’m saying is, it’s a great book! It makes you think, the characters are interesting, it’s fun to see how everything ties together at the end, and I really hope there’s a sequel. Beginning in the year 1806, the book tells the story of an alternative version of history where England has been without magic for the last 300 years. The practice of English Magic has been reduced to old gentleman meeting together to discuss and argue about the theory of magic as found in old books. That is, until Mr. Norrell (a hoarder of books about magic) comes out into the public proclaiming that he is a tolerable “practical magician.” Not long after a young man named Jonathan Strange picks up the practice of magic, quite by accident, and seeks Mr. Norrell to help him learn more. The two embark on a quest to restore English Magic to respectability. In the process they help win the war against Napoleon, develop a friendship, then a feud, and ultimately fight against the very powers they’ve tried to control. As is my practice, I recommend reading the book before watching the show. The book is long (about 800 pages) and there is an immense amount of detail (there’s even footnotes) that just can’t all be transferred to the screen. The ending of the television drama is a bit different than in the book, but I do feel that it was more suited to a viewing audience versus a readership.

So go get a copy and read it before school starts. You’ll enjoy it, I promise!

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?”

He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.”


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