Despite having owned the book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for many years, it was only recently that I sat down with a mind to actually read it. Faced with a long plane ride and with the allure of a BBC adaptation of the novel to watch when I was done, I finally picked it up. I was initially alarmed at the antiquated voice (complete with footnotes and authorial asides), but it turned out to be a both readable and, in fact, enjoyable story. Throughout my reading experience, I found myself constantly intrigued by the way magic worked in the world of Messrs. Strange and Norrell. Spoilers after the jump!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell follows the relationship of its titular characters, two magicians trying to revive magic in England against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. The magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—all the different sorts we see over the course of its eight hundred or so pages—is constantly framed as dualistic. It’s not, however, dualistic in the way we usually experience: “white” versus “black” magic. Rather, we’re introduced to a number of dualities that don’t have such an engrained moral judgment attached to their difference.
The first duality we see is that of academic versus practical magic. In the JS&MN world, the actual use of magic has fallen by the wayside, and the only remaining folk who call themselves magicians are scholars of magic, who study the subject without attempting to practice it. They’re scattered when one Gilbert Norrell appears in the public eye, as Norrell is a quite capable practical magician and has dedicated himself to bringing about a renaissance in the practice of English magic. Rather than simply studying the lives and doings of the magicians of the past, Norrell actually performs their spells, often tweaking or adjusting them to provide different results. He is contemptuous of the academic branch of his field and, indeed, schemes successfully to have many of their organizations shut down.
The second we see is the difference between fairy-assisted and entirely human practical magic. Mr. Norrell hates that the past of English magic is so tied to the fairy realm, and regularly decries magical practice that depends on fey intervention. However, the first task he is called upon to do, by which he must prove his worth to the powers-that-be, is to raise a dead woman by magic—a task impossible without fairy assistance. He successfully resurrects the woman, but fails to bargain cleverly enough with the fairy who helped him. This one act of fairy intervention has hugely resounding consequences for not just the now-resuscitated Lady Pole, but many other characters who end up under the thrall of the same fairy. Ignorant of these consequences, Norrell goes on to lead a media campaign decrying the power or relevancy of any sort of fairy-touched magic.
Strange and Norrell themselves add to the conflicting magical themes. Strange begins his tenure as a magician as Norrell’s student, but his open mind and more outgoing nature quickly put him in better favor with the ruling powers of England than the deeply introverted and secretive Norrell has ever managed to be. This is one of many wedges that appear between their once-cordial relationship. Their main quarrel, however, is over the relevance of John Uskglass a.k.a. the Raven King, a legendary human king of Faerie (and therefore a duality in and of himself) to modern English magic. Strange believes that modern English magic owes its very existence to Uskglass, and to try and remove him from it is both disrespectful and impossible. Norrell, terrified by the idea that other people even less qualified than he to bargain with the fey, might take up fairy-aided magic, insists that Uskglass should be stricken from the minds of respectable magical practitioners, and even goes so far as to sabotage a book Strange tries to publish asserting the opposite.
In the end, we discover that these dualities end up being necessary and, indeed, complementary. It’s only through the ongoing support of an academic magician that Mr. Norrell’s (practical magic-practicing) servant is able to save Lady Pole from her fairy-cursed fate. When the consequences of Lady Pole’s resurrection come home to roost, it’s only by appealing to the power of the Raven King that Strange and Norrell are able to intervene and gift one of the fairy’s victims with the power to destroy him. And in doing so, Strange and Norrell must reconcile their own differences, and combine their skills and knowledge to bring about a satisfying and happy ending. It’s both a cool way to bring all these conflicts together for the story’s climax, and an interesting way to present a duality of magic without resorting to the somewhat tired and overly moralistic dichotomy of light and dark.