Posted by: Nyxks | September 19, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke © 2004
Bloomsbury
ISBN 1-59691-053-4
1006 pages
Paperback
$9.99 (U.S.)
reviewed by: Mike Gleason

First things first, as they say. This is not a novel written (to the best of my knowledge) by someone with a working knowledge of magic. It is not aimed at the magickal/Pagan community. It is intended for the mass media, where it has been very well received, having appeared on several best sellers lists. Having made that disclaimer…on to my review.

No sooner had I begun to read of the author’s concept of the early 19th century’s society of magicians than I found myself being swept along on the swell of a well-told story. A story, furthermore, which was both compelling and plausible. A society of magicians? No, a society of those knowledgeable about magicians, knowledgeable about the history of magic, but one whose members could not trouble themselves to exert the slightest bit of energy to actually perform a magical act. After all, they were gentlemen and couldn’t be expected to actually do anything.

The book is not fast-paced in the modern sense (or in any sense). It proceeds at a leisurely pace, much in tune with the time in which it is set (1806 to 1817). For some younger readers this may prove to be a bit of a problem, but this is a book which is intended to be savored and enjoyed, not read in a hurry. It is a leisurely stroll through the park, not a race to the finish line.

In many ways, it is a story which is very current. It is a story about the conflict between the majority of magicians (theoretical) and the minority (practical). It is a story about the ego necessary to be a practical magician, and the ease with which one may be seduced from practicality to mere theory.

Although in no way a novel about modern magic, it is an extremely enjoyable story. Ms. Clarke spins a tale which is, if not probably and believable, at the very least illustrative of the powers of belief and self-delusion. Mr. Norrell, who fancies himself Great Britain’s only practical magician is far more given to research than to actual workings. In fact, the majority of his practical work is confined to making sure that no other practical magicians arise to challenge his supremacy. Mr. Strange, on the other hand, finds himself thrust into the role of magician and, due to the lack of magical texts to learn from (all those available having been snapped up by Mr. Norrell for this personal library) forced to create his own spells from inspiration, desperation, and other “non-classical” sources.

From the standpoint of those of us used to magical thinking this fantasy is far, far removed from what we have come to expect. There is no Hogwarts here; no friendly fairies; no ceremonial conjurations. It is a world where the “how” of magic has been sadly neglected for centuries in favor of the study of past magical events. Study has replaced practice. And the arrival of one practical magician leads to megalomania (and not a little paranoia). This is not a world many modern magicians would want to exist in.

The transition of Jonathan Strange from non-magician, to a student of Mr. Norrell; from student to opponent of that same Mr. Norrell is, perhaps, not unexpected. Indeed, it seems almost pre-ordained because of the very temperaments of the individuals involved. It illustrates the gulf which exists between the magician with almost unlimited access to research sources and the magician who must rely on his wits and native intelligence. It illustrates, admirably in my opinion, the need for “field work” to grow in the area of magical workings. However, the transition from opponent to respected equal comes as a bit of a shock.

Ms. Clarke illustrates how easily one may be led astray by the opinions of others, as Mr. Norrell is by his “friends” Mr. Drawlight and Mr. Lascalle. His isolation from the greater society, and his dependence simply on his magic serve to show how necessary it is for those in the magical community (whether real or fictional) to continue to interact with the “normal” world in order not to drift into their own little universe. A magician who loses touch with reality is of no use to anyone, including himself.

Mr. Norrell spends much of his time dwelling on the dangers inherent in the practice of magic (of which there are, admittedly, many) and the reasons why some things should not be done. His former pupil (Mr. Strange) goes to the opposite pole by doing magic without a concern for the dangers which are, in fact, present. Both err by assuming that their personal beliefs are “reality” and disregard the equally valid opposing point of view.

The end of the novel caught me a bit by surprise. I really had expected a very different ending.

This is NOT something to read if you are not able to give it your full attention. It will, very likely, grab you by your collar and compel your full attention. It is not for everyone, as the pacing will undoubtedly put some people off. American readers may have some surprises with the spellings included (chuse for choose, for example); still it does give a unique flavor to the writing. Overall, however, I have to say that I am glad I got this book. Rating it on a basis of one through five stars, it is easily worth four stars.

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