Jonathan Strange

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

By Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Anyone who reads fantasy literature is aware that rescuing people from worlds adjacent to our own is both a perilous and a strenuous undertaking. Simple objects may be drawn forth from other worlds with no more effort than that required to reel in an undersized trout, but the removal of ensorcelled prisoners is another matter entirely.

    Strength of will and fixity of purpose in no common measure are required of the rescuer. Consider Lord Juss, instructed by Queen Sophanisba in the only means of rescuing his spellbound brother Goldry Bluzco, who languished in a prison of bronze atop a mountain upon whose slopes it was death to set foot. Juss must ride to Goldry on a newly hatched Hippogriff. "Then only mayst thou mount him and if thou be man enow to turn him to thy will he shall bear thee to the utmost parts of earth unto thine hearts desire. But if thou be aught less than greatest, beware that steed, and mount only earthly coursers. For if there be ought of dross within thee, and thine heart falter, or thy purpose cool, or thou forget the level aim of thy glory, then will he toss thee to thy ruin."

    This idea that ruin awaits any would be rescuer who wavers in his or her task may be plainly seen in the Greek myth of Orpheus, the unparalleled musician, who sought to free his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. Hades, after being moved by Orpheus’ lament, agrees to allow Eurydice to follow Orpheus back out to the world above, provided that Orpheus never turns back to observe her coming. Orpheus, we recall, faltered at the end, and stole a glance, only to observe Eurydice make an anguished turn and redescend into the underworld.

    The story of Orpheus has resonated consistently over time. Who hasn’t wished to rescue someone who has passed beyond our reach, and who doesn’t blame an indulgence in the need for surety for the undoing of a quest of which we should otherwise have been sure. The Orpheus myth was particularly popular in England during the middle ages where we find many depictions of Orpheus rendered as a medieval troubadour. The most charming survival of Orpheus’ popularity in medieval England is the Breton lay, Sir Orfeo.

    Sir Orfeo transforms Orpheus into a knight errant, and combines Celtic, Greek, Norse, and British elements in a charming and delightful way. Orfeo’s rescue is required in the adjacent and perilous realm of faerie, and his task is to sway the fickle and dangerous King of the faerie realm. Sir Orfeo lies at the heart of modern fantasy. The task of Oprheus, the idea of a quest which requires steadfast resolution from beginning to end, during which the slightest wavering may prove fatal, may be easily seen in Frodo’s quest to cast the one ring into the fire.

    Yet it also is in the mingling of influences, Celtic, Greek, Norse, and British, that Sir Orfeo stands at the crossroads of Modern Fantasy. The early masters of fantasy, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison, all drew from that composite of sources. It was not until after J.R.R. Tolkien’s encompassment of all these composite sources into a unified, enduring and uniquely detailed world, that fantasy literature began to turn inward and copy itself.

    When we turn the pages of Susanna Clarke’s much commented on new work of literary fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, we find a book that has returned to the fountainhead of fantasy literature, to a composite of authentic historical sources, and, above all, to the world reflected in Sir Orfeo. For Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a subtle and effective retelling of the Orpheus myth.

S    et from 1806-1817 the premise of Clark’s book is that English magic, vital and active at its inception in the twelfth century, petered out in the seventeenth. Dormant for two hundred years, the preserve of scholars, rather than practitioners of magic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell chronicles the return of practical magic to England. Clarke is a self pronounced austenite, and the first hundred pages is very strongly marked as such. As the book sets down its own roots the author lets go of her overt debt to Austen, leaving behind occasional first person intrusions in the narrative, however charming, and settles in to the telling of her complex and compelling tale of overlapping worlds, of pandora’s box, and of the need for strength of will and fixity of purpose to carry one through the crossroads of magical endeavor. The fixity of will, the need to reach an objective, a separate heaven as it were, draws the narrative ever more towards the realm of Wuthering Heights, and away from that of Highbury.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell relates an authoritative history and bibliography of English Magic. The foundation of English Magic, we learn, was the three hundred year reign of The Raven King, John Uskglass, a human child raised in the Faerie realm. During Uskglass’ time the boundaries between Fairie and human realms were easily crossed by the King’s roads. Over time, the boundaries grew more distant and English Magic steadily weaker.

    Clarke’s fictional history nicely fits English literary history, for in the middle ages, particularly in the Breton Lays, a belief in the realms of faerie and magic were strong. Indeed the fantasy of Clarke’s world is intrinsically historical in a both a literary and a literal sense.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a long book, which is an excellent thing, because it as extremely enjoyable book, emotionally, aesthetically and intellectually stimulating. Her portraits of historical figures, Wellington and Lord Byron in particular, are great fun. Her descriptions of magic are compelling and insightful, her characters complex and morally challenging. The Faerie king, the Gentleman with the thistle-down hair, is delightfully dangerous. Jonathan Strange, the lead character, not without flaws, is bold, likeable, intelligent, and ultimately resolute indeed. His counterpoint, Mr. Norrell, is of great interest for the manner in which his manifestly repugnant character is offset by his overriding respect for the integrity of magic.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has old and deep roots. If the old wells had fresher waters, why not return and drink them. If the old spells had stronger magic, why not strain body and mind to cast them.