Monday 31 August 2015

The wrong choice of Gilbert Norrell - the crucial plot point in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The main plot crux of Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is to be found in the chapter entitled "A gentleman with thistledown hair", in which Norrell becomes the first English magician to summon a fairy and ask for his assistance for perhaps four hundred years.

Norrell is an extremely dishonest magician, and (despite doing exactly this) consistently argues (in public and even with Jonathan Strange) against the practice of magicians contacting fairies - because of the dangers; and this warning superficially seems to be amply justified by the subsequent events.

Nonetheless, it also becomes clear that all magic ultimately comes from fairies - and that even Norrell's own magic, which he believes himself to have learned entirely from books, has been tacitly permitted, and indeed encouraged, from Faerie by the Raven King.

So, I think we must assume that it was, in principle, alright for Norrell to enlist the assistance of a fairy - if, let us say, the thing was done for the right reasons and in the right way. But that in fact there was something about the way this fairy was enlisted by Norrell which led to many bad outcomes - the actual summoning was (we can infer) done for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.

Firstly, Norrell enlisted the fairy primarily for his own self-aggrandizement - in order to impress the prominent politician Sir Walter Pole by raising his recently-dead fiancee, and thereby putting Sir Walter into Norrell's debt. Norrell justifies this to himself by pretending the action was for the benefit of restoring 'English magic', but in practice Norrell always interprets 'English magic' purely in terms of himself and his own benefit; and he does his best to prevent or suppress all other aspects of English magic.

So first the motive was wrong. What, then, about the specific fairy who was summoned: the 'gentleman with thistledown hair'? At first glance he seems to be the worst possible fairy that Norrell could have summoned - however it seems that Norrell had no control over this, and I think we must assume that the Raven King was behind the choice.

The thistledown fairy has, indeed, many desirable qualities, some of which he tells us (and seem to be confirmed) and others which emerge through the story. Firstly, he is a King and is perhaps the most magically powerful fairy alive; and secondly he has been the servant and friend of some of the greatest magicians England has ever known: primarily the Raven King himself, but also the Golden Age ('aureate') magicians Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesy and Martin Pale.

Although there is considerable evidence that this fairy has become corrupted over the past few hundred years, and is now a monster of cruelty and conceit, I think that we would be justified in assuming that if Norrell's motives had been good and if Norrell's decisions had been wise and altruistic, this fairy would have been suitable.

The crucial moment comes when the 'bargain' is being settled between Norrell and the fairy - when the fairy asks: "Should I agree to restore this young woman to life, what would be my reward?"

Norrell asks what the fairy wants, and the response is: "to be allowed to aid you in all your endeavors, to advise you upon all matters and to guide you in your studies. Oh, and you must take care to let all the world know that your greatest achievements are due to larger part to me!"

This seems not unreasonable, and would seem to be the normal way in which fairies have worked with magicians in the past - they are apparently a conceited race and love nothing more than frequent praise and honours; but have been content to be led strategically and ruled by Men, who are more diligent than they.

However, Norrell rejects this request for selfish, egotistical reasons, without consideration; this, because he wishes to be given personal credit for all magic, and does not want to share status or praise with anybody - least of all with a fairy.

This refusal provokes 'a long silence' and then the fairy declares 'this is ungrateful indeed' - and eventually suggests a deceptive 'deal' where he claims 'half' of Lady Pole's new life - which Norrell simply understands to mean her lifespan being shortened by half; but which the fairy interprets to mean absolute control over half of each and every day of Lady Pole's life.

(For half of every day for an agreed ninety-four years, during the nights, Lady Pole is therefore compelled to be the fairy's companion in fairyland; engaged in repetitive and tedious dances, rituals and ceremonies - until she comes to regard her inescapable fate as literally worse than being dead.)

What has happened is that instead of Norrell himself paying the 'price' for the fairy's cooperation, he makes Lady Pole pay the price - whether she likes it or not. This is the essence of Norrell's wicked action.

So - I think we can locate Norrell's refusal of the fairy's first offer as the critical turning point in the plot of the book, since it leads to the enchantments of Lady Pole, Stephen Black and Arabella Strange - and to the fixed hostility of the fairy towards both Norrell and Strange (leading to their own bleak personal fates as co-prisoners bound in darkness).

In sum: it was necessary to the restoration of English magic that a fairy be summoned, and it was probably right that that particular fairy be the gentleman with thistledown hair; but most of the tragedies of the story stem from Norrell's selfishly bad motivations in summoning the fairy and his selfishly bad decision with respect to making a deal with the fairy.


Nathaniel said...

I especially like this passage in relation to the book (I've only read 1/3rd so far though):

"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee.
Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee: and the fishes of the sea shall tell." -- Job 12:7-8

Nathaniel said...

I finally finished the book, and your other recent posts made me reflect and disagree slightly with this post.

It seems Mr. Norrell's character is deeply flawed in a very Christian context - he completely and totally rejects love and relationships. He has no family, finds fault in Mr. Strange's marriage, and seeks out to destroy his competition rather than showing any sense of charity - no sense of desire to share the good, or to help others, or to actualize his stated mission: to restore English Magic.

We might replace "magic" with "Christianity" or "God" and see the flaw there. He's rather trying to use magic/supernatural forces for his own completely selfish ends. He always corrupts his stated mission by making it impossible for others to seek out and understand magic. He attempts to hoard the magic (or love, or God) but is doing what is in that sense impossible - as magic (and love, and God) are founded on relationships - as especially reveled at the end of the book.

Magic is all about alliances and relationships between natural forces, humans, faeries, etc. Mr. Norrell tries to hide, subvert, or misunderstand this fundamental essence of magic and use it merely as a tool (i.e. to "tame" Aslan, to make it respectiable, scientific, etc.) for personal gains, and then purposely deceives or lies to others that magic is merely that - a limited tool.

...and then in the end everything only gets fixed as the various relations turn from interactions based on evil motive to good motive.

I think the comparisons, parallels, and the rest could be drawn out much more, but I certainly see why the book greatly appealed to you based on your posts over the last couple years! Thank you for sharing, otherwise I probably would have never read it either.

Nathaniel said...

Ah! I think my comment missed one of the most important/interesting aspects.

The Mormon missionaries shared with me a belief (I don't know if it's orthodox?) that God's own power functions in virtually the exact same way as magic does in this book. The conception of magic is very mormon indeed! It is specifically as you described elsewhere, that all things are living/have identities, and that they willingly obey God (i.e. a magical alliance as in the book).

I also did find the raven king and Childermass' longing for his return to be very Christ-like and reflected my own desire to know and serve the true King.

Bruce Charlton said...

Nathaniel. Im very pleased to hear that you responded to it. I am still returning and rereading/ relistening to favourite bits. It has affected me more powerfully than any novel for years. I think that the reason is that, in some sense or meaning of the phrase, and in some fashion that I do not understand, the restoraton of English magic is something that I personally regard as a very high priority.

Nathaniel said...

Sorry for saying "I disagree", I just didn't fully understand your post. You're absolutely right.

Do you agree that the book seems thoroughly Christian (or Mormon)? If God's power functions in a similar sense as English magic (though in a perfection that surpasses our knowledge), then the magician's quest is essentially theosis. That is, to be a true, good, and powerful magician one's knowledge is actually predicated on understand the relationships connecting all life.

Mr. Norrell's flaw is then in dishonestly claiming he desires the resanctification of England, while only corrupts and abuses the power he's been given for personal gain (akin to a false, or turned prophet). Throughout the novel we find a thread of God working via mysterious means (including much sacrifice and suffering), and true knowledge is eventually restored to people - notably it is not restricted to Mr. Norrell's (religious?) books, or his (corrupted?) organization in alliance with secular ends, but exists as a living reality for all people to participate in.

It seems exactly the sort of thing you've talked about before. That the restoration of Christianity would be a supernatural-inspired - perhaps grassroots or popular - movement inspired by the Holy Spirit.

(My thought is that it reflects the idea that while churches contain the truth, if the leadership is corrupting or hiding that truth, we must recognize that Christianity is reality and the false teachers are not somehow controllers or limiters of what is truly "English magic" because Christianity is predicated on our lived reality, and understanding and knowing things as they truly are).

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes, I agree with your interpretation although I am sure the author did not specifically intend it. But great works of genius are divinely inspired, to a significant extent, whatever the authors may state.

Norell is redeemed by the end, when he tacitly acknowedges his love of the Raven King and also of Strange - I was moved by the aftermath of the confusion of ravens at Hurtfew, when instead of being worried by the damage to his library and books, Norrell is euphoric at having experienced the Raven Kings magic... "That I should live to see it, Mr Strange! That I should live to see it!"

Nathaniel said...

I'm probably going out on a limb, but Mark 5:6 struck me as interesting in this context.

"And he could there do no mighty work [because of their unbelief/lack of faith], save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them."

I think the standard interpretation is that he simply chose not to, because it would at that point not be spiritually beneficial to his kinsfolk as they were already scandalized by his minor works. There are various translations, but the strong language struck me as perhaps implying that their faith itself was somehow linked to his actual ability to do miracles (or magic if you will), such as the woman who simply touched his cloak and was healed because her faith was so great. In a Mormon / magic context, it would be that their lack of faith actually prevented him from acting, because their individual and eternal intelligences were, in a very basic sense, actually rejecting to recognize his power and go-along with it (much as how the nature forces in the book had to recognize the Raven King's authority to do the greatest magic).

Now of course, I think he could have still forced them, because he was the True King, but as Mormons suggest this would somehow undo reality or not be part of God's plan.

(Perhaps it's two ways of saying the same thing?)