|Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell cover;|
By Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is many things, an alternate history of England where magic runs rampant, and a character study of various pursuits of magic and the prices the character's pay in their obsessions.
Mr. Gilbert Norrell is a reclusive gentlemen in 1808 York who possesses a secret: he is the only practicing magician in all of England. He spends his days locked in his personal library studying every book of magic ever written, only receiving information from his loyal servant Childermass. With the aid of a society of English magicians (who only study the history, but don't actually practice, Clarke tells us) , he sets to bring magic back to England first by making stone statues speak then by aiding the Wellington campaign against Napoleon. Norrell's becomes famous after he resuscitates a dying woman and his attention is drawn to another magician. Jonathan Strange, is the exact opposite of Norrell, a charming and charismatic gentleman-about-town. Norrell offers to teach Strange. The two practice great magic, and fall into dissent over their different ambitions resulting in dire consequences for the magicians and everyone around them.
The alternate version of England is very well written. Clarke writes of the history of English magic as though it really occurred. Many times the action is interrupted by footnotes that refer to other "volumes" by noted magicians, such as Martin Pale, Catherine of Winchester and particularly John Uskglass AKA The Raven King. The Raven King is a prominent character throughout the novel. Much talked about but never shown, The Raven King's story is largely told through these footnotes, many of which contradict each other. The Raven King is written as a dark sinister character, a being of great power, but also of great nightmares someone that only the bravest or most obsessive magicians would try to contact.
Obsession is a strong theme in the story and many characters pay the price for their pursuits in very interesting punishments, some are cursed by their own greed and others are cursed by fairies to dance in a strange location called Lost Hope every night. Of course the strongest characters to be punished are Norrell and Strange themselves.
The two are memorable characters, particularly in their scenes together as Norrell tries to teach Strange the basics of magic always holding back by refusing certain books to his assistant and telling him to avoid the Raven King at all costs. Strange however becomes obsessed by the darker magic, particularly after he does some impressive feats against Napoleon. The further he goes in these pursuits, the more frantic he becomes in reaching the Raven King. In some very frightening scenes, he tries to achieve madness to speak to a fairy servant.
Norrell however is cautious almost too cautious. Many readers may see the older magician as aloof, but there are some chapters where he shows genuine concern for his protege, such as when he tries to locate him through scrying (locating him through a clear surface) only to be thwarted by darkness encircling him.
The two portray a troubled teacher-student relationship as Norrell keeps secrets from Strange teaching him very few things and Strange rejects everything he has been taught driving himself into madness. The two ultimately come to understand each other in their mutual ambitions for power and the deepest magics.
Links For Further Discussion or Related Activities
The History of Tarot- In the book, John Childermass uses a tarot deck to determine the futures of many of the characters. Why did people use similar tools for magic? What other tools were known to be used by magical people? Why do people still continue to believe in such things?
Easy Magic Tricks Free Card Magicians' Secrets- While hardly the caliber of fighting Napoleon's army or restoring the dead to life, these tricks could be practiced and learned by any budding Harry Houdini or Doug Henning. What is the appeal of magic and magic users. People are often told that "a true magician must never reveal their secret." Why do you think this axiom exists? How does it change the way of thinking when such tricks do get revealed?
Questions for further discussions
1. The alternate version of England is alive with magic. What is the appeal of magic in modern society? Why do you think that wizards, witches, and magic users are so popular with readers and film fans? How does a fictitious society of magic comment on modern history and society?
2. Norrell and Strange could be considered an example of a student-teacher relationship. There is an old saying that "there are no bad students, only bad teachers?" Do you think that Norrell is a bad teacher or Strange a bad student or neither? What do you think is an example of a good instructor and a good student? Do you think that the passage of knowledge of magic hurt or helped Strange and Norrell? What knowledge could be hurtful to a person?