Friday, 28 August 2015

The Restoration of English Magic (re: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell)

Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), as 'about' the restoration of English magic after a hiatus of some 200-400 years; and the underlying assumption of the story is that this restoration is 'a good thing'.

Yet on the surface magic seems to cause a great deal of trouble and doesn't really make all that much of a difference to national affairs. So why is restoring it a good idea?

This matter is not tackled explicitly in the text, so I need to make inferences.


First of all, what is English magic and where does it comes from?

Magic is the ability to use the 'elements' (stones, water, rain, earth, wind etc) in order to accomplish aims; and magic comes from fairies. Fairies can do magic naturally, because they spontaneously communicate with the elements and can make alliances with them - the elements will usually do what fairies ask of them.

Men can become magicians and do magic either by forming alliances with fairies or (more, or less, superficially) copying fairy magic. Men usually cannot communicate with the elements; so if they do not enlist the aid of fairies, men can only do magic indirectly by learning what fairies do, and (more, or less, effectively) copying them to compel the elements to cooperate in a rather limited fashion.


English magic - as a tradition - came from The Raven King (John Uskglass) who ruled the North of England circa 1100-1400 from his capital in Newcastle. After he departed from England there was an immediate loss of magical scope and power, then Men's ability to do magic gradually faded-away over the next few generations. During the same time, contact between Men and fairies ceased.

Uskglass was the greatest-ever magician because he was a Man who was stolen by fairies as a child, and (for reasons unknown) came to embody the strengths of both races.

His kingdom in Northern England included both Men and fairies. The Men had the advantages of enhanced power; the fairies were better ruled by Men than by themselves (fairies being excessively indolent, of modest intelligence and too fickle to be strategic) - and they would also kidnap and enchant some men, women and children to be their beautiful playthings or drudging servants.

Despite this endemic, albeit low frequency, problem of fairy kidnappings; the people of Northern England regarded the era of The Raven King as a golden age - and had King Arthur-like legends about him returning and resuming his rule - this being a fairly likely prospect given that John Uskglass, despite being a Man in origin, seemed to have become as longaevus as fairies (who can live many thousands of years, and are difficult to kill).

Indeed, the story of the novel is about how the early steps towards this return are 'managed' (from 'behind the scenes') by John Uskglass.


But, in terms of the book; why was the era of magic a better one than the era which succeeded it? My feeling is that it was not because of the extra power deriving from magic and alliance with fairies; but because of the spiritual prerequisites of magic; that to be able to accomplish magic properly required the fairy-like ability to communicate and form alliances with the elements, with England.

So the era of magic was an era of depth and meaning, in which Men belonged to their Land in a way far beyond anything normally achievable.

To do magic, the English need to become 'at home in England' - to enter a real and personal relationship with the elements of their country.

And this requires that very hazardous undertaking: a renewed relationship between Men and fairies.


The Restoration of English magic was therefore, and necessarily, also the restoration of Englishmen's contact with the fairy race - an event which rapidly has some horrible consequences for several English men and women throughout the course of the story.

So, the Restoration of English magic is A Good Thing, but also a thing fraught with danger and with horrible consequences for some people; and although we see mostly the bad effects of renewed contact with fairies, I think we must also assume that this is A Good Thing too - and worth the risks and costs.


As with everything else; the result of interactions between Men and fairies broadly depend on motivations - especially the motivations of Men (who are more moral than fairies). Therefore, the benefits tend to flow from good motivations, and dangers and suffering tends to be a consequence of bad choices - greed, power-seeking, the desire for status, hatred and so on.

Indeed, the bad consequences of fairy contact can be seen to flow from a single bad (wrong, wicked) choice by Gilbert Norrell during his first contact with the fairy known as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair - this being the first contact between an English magician and a fairy for some hundreds of years.

More on this soon.

6 comments:

deconstructingleftism said...

I have been reading this, and it occurred to me it is a giant metaphor for many of the things you talk about here, which is why you like it so much. Does magic stand in for science, and the time of the story for the current time? The loss of magic for the loss of science and intelligence?

jjbees said...

Off your recommendation I purchased the book, so I will come back to this post in about 3 months (It's 1000 pages!).
Don't want to spoil it!

Bruce Charlton said...

@jj - Good luck, hope you like it.

@dl - In my opinion, I don't think any particular allegory or grand metaphor was intended; at least I wasn't especially aware of any such during my first reading - but, as with Tolkien, the story has considerable and multiple applicability, in the way that really good work always does.

John Fitzgerald said...

I must read this book. Your do,meets about fairies are very interesting. They remind me of the stories of the 'Sidhe' in Ireland - those who dwell in the 'Hollow Hills' - stories that I'm very familiar with due to my background.

I think there's something deeper at play here though. I'm intrigued by this notion of an England (or Britain) that's somehow deeper, richer and more profound than the England of our day to day, surface level experience. C.S. Lewis, in 'That Hideous Strength' refers to it as Logres, and Alan Garner (in my opinion) taps into something similar in his early books, particularly Moon of Gomrath - the idea of a deeper stream of reality running parallel to the quotidian levels of business and consumerism and secularism and what have you.

Tapping into that deeper stream and working wth it for good is the key thing. I have often wondered, a propos of this, what a specifically English Apocalypse might look like. The word 'apocalypse' means 'unveiling', of course, and I have the sense that when this event occurs it will take the shape of this deeper England bursting through the simulacra of what we call England now. The great Cathedrals, I feel, will have a part to play in this. They have a brooding watchfulness and huge symbolic power, and whatever else one might say about the C of E it is an undeniable fact that visits UK Cathedrals and Cathedral services have increased quite dramatically these last 10 years or so.

On that day of unveiling, we will think, 'Ah yes, it was always this way, it was always like this. How could we ever have believed in that other England?'

But by the we will have already forgotten about that 'other England' we take so seriously now. It will have disappeared. Reality will have broken through.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I think along similar lines - that there will be some such happening - a time of destiny; although the outcome will not be predetermined - and the people could reject their destiny.

Nathaniel said...

This parallels your genius problem - "What happened to the geniuses?" We are shown that with evil motivation the power of genius is not a good thing; and of course an evil, selfish, jealous genius would seek out to destroy all potential competition.