What Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Says about the Church

strange_and_mr_norrell_coverSusanna Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell begins in a peculiar place for a story about magic. As it commences in 1806, magic has ceased to be done in England for 300 years. There are magicians, but they meet in societies and discuss magic. They are theoretical magicians, not practical magicians. And in fact the doing of magic has become a bit disrespectable—associated with parlor tricks and fortune-telling done by grimy street performers. Thus, the “Learned Society of York Magicians” is taken aback when a newcomer named John Segundus shows up at their meeting having the temerity to ask why—Why has magic not been done in England for 300 years?

The book, published in 2004, was a runaway success–winning the Hugo award for science fiction/fantasy and being nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Probably not a lot of books achieve that kind of cross-genre acclaim.

It is written in the style of a 19th century novel, combining the fantastical elements of magic with a comedy of manners. It outlines an alternative history of England, including the Napoleonic Wars, debates in Parliament, and the madness of King George III, as if all of these events were affected by the reemergence of English magic.

Gilbert Norrell makes the first appearance despite his counterpart’s top billing in the title. An introvert and a bookworm, he has been hoarding books on magic in his country estate in Yorkshire for decades. At the prodding of the Society’s new upstart member, Segundus, he makes a bet with the Society. He will perform an actual act of magic, if they will cease calling themselves magicians. On the appointed day, never leaving his precious library, he demonstrates his magic to the Society by making hundreds of stone statues and carvings in York Minster Cathedral come alive and talk. In a scene straight out of Acts, chapter 2, the statues all begin babbling in their various tongues—mainly Old English and Latin—protesting and arguing about terrible deeds done in the Cathedral the last 400 years. Like the Pentecost moment, this is the new birth of the spirit of magic in England.

Norrell reluctantly moves to London to begin promoting his magic, which he thinks will aid the English government, military, and economy. He wishes to establish magic of a “modern” sort—industrious, practical, by-the-book, and avoiding any entanglements with ancient magic, including fairies and the Medieval magical ruler of England, the Raven King. He soon gains an apprentice, Jonathan Strange. Strange is an idle gentleman of some means who stumbles onto magic when his wife insists he find a suitable profession. He is as brilliant and rash as Norrell is careful. Despite Norrell’s clinical teaching, Strange soon finds himself drawn to the wild and ancient sources of English magic, which he accesses by traveling into the land of Fairie through mirrors which act as doorways. Their disagreement on methods soon leads Strange and Norrell to separation, rupture, and rivalry.

In June 2015 the BBC and BBC America debuted a miniseries of the story. Finding a copy of the series is a little like digging up ancient books on magic—it is not streaming anywhere. If you want to see it, you will have to renew your Netflix DVD subscription, or practice some dark arts on certain torrenting web sites. I assure you, your effort will be rewarded.

This is one of the few examples where it’s better to see the movie before reading the book. It pays to get a handle on the contours of the story before diving into Clarke’s 800-page fantasy history with its copious whimsically “researched” footnotes.

The TV miniseries offers the special effects orgy you would expect. Seeing stone figures talk and the French navy befuddled by a fleet of ships made out of rain is interesting for the sake of the story, but seems kind of un-magical these days, as we know CGI when we see it.

What brings the miniseries to life is Eddie Marsan’s Norell and Bertie Carvel’s Strange. Marsan plays Norrell as a curmudgeonly introvert with a pitch-perfect Yorkshire accent. He hoards his books and is paranoid even of his own pupil. Carvel plays Strange as a blithe novice with a “what the hell, let’s try it” cheerfulness. It is through his experiences as the Duke of Wellington’s magician in battles with Napoleon that he begins to see the darker possibilities of his chosen profession. When Strange’s wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley, excellent) is abducted into the land of Fairie, Strange’s attempts to find her lead him further into dark magic and madness.

Bertie Carvel (left), as Strange, and Eddie Marsan (right), as Norrell in the 2015 BBC production of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Bertie Carvel (left), as Strange, and Eddie Marsan (right), as Norrell in the 2015 BBC production of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

The film is expertly staged as a nineteenth century costume drama, but dark and brooding, without the misty nostalgia of a Merchant-Ivory kind of production. The taut writing brings the magical action to a frightening climax, so much so that as a Louisiana thunderstorm was raging outside as the series was ending, Fred and I were hiding under the sofa pillows.

Various biographies refer to Susanna Clarke as the daughter of a Methodist minister. And she has a knack for portraying the rise and fall of institutions, their schisms, factions, and prejudices. Interestingly, in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, magic exists right alongside the Church and all the other institutions of English life. In fact, Arabella’s bother is a clergyman, and seems to have no objection to her marrying a magician. Yet, as is typical of the religious and colonial chauvinism of the times, “Christian” and “human” are used interchangeably. No one questions why these terms of existential respect are not extended to other Beings like the fairies.

The conflict between Norrell and Strange (and their later followers, “Norrellites” and “Strangeites”) could represent so many philosophical disagreements throughout history: Platonism versus Aristotalianism, Enlightenment rationality versus Romantic feeling, scholasticism versus reformation. I see Norrell as a by-the-book Presbyterian and Strange as adding that extra dash of the Holy Spirit, perhaps the “experience” found in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, or the charismatic practice of evangelicals.

What strikes me most about the book and the series, however, is the state of magic at the beginning of the story. It is a dead tradition—“theoretical” not “practical.” I can’t help but think of it as a critique of the sclerotic institution of the Church. It has become frozen in time like the statues at York Minster. When it does speak it spouts its ancient language to an uncomprehending society and argues about controversies that have long ceased to be important.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that eventually, Strange and Norrell find they must help each other—that they correct each others’ excesses and play off each others’ strengths. Coming from a “Norrellite” Christian tradition, I long for some of the “Strangite” elan, a “what-the-hell-let’s-try it” spirit of adventure, especially in our worship practices and our theology. Meanwhile, there is a movement of evangelicals in the Emergent Church trying to introduce ritual, tradition, and scholastic rigor to their branch of Christianity.

In the end, the book and the movie suggest it is no coincidence that Strange and Norrell have come along at a time when English magic is at its lowest point—when it has become a purely theoretical, and thus, irrelevant institution. The ancient forces of English magic had long prophesied their coming for those who were willing to listen. The two magicians may have believed they were creating magic anew, but in fact they were summoned by a magic greater than themselves.

This is the great hope for those of us who wish to see our own theoretical institutions become practical again. Although we may feel we can do our part in the reinvention and reformation of the Church, we do not bear the responsibility alone. We are being summoned to this work by Someone greater than ourselves.

Some of the stone figures in York Minster that Norrell brings to life. Any resemblance to Church politics is purely coincidental.
Some of the stone figures in York Minster that Mr. Norrell brought to life. Any resemblance to Church politics is purely coincidental.