Friday, 4 July 2014

Article | The Magic of Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"

If you've been reading this blog for a while (or if you know me in real life, in which case, have my commiserations as well ;) ), you probably know of my love for magic systems. You might even know of my love for Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which made one of my very first posts on this blog, back in the darkness of the Deep Archive In Which I May Not Look For Fear Of My Old Writing). Well, that fated day has come. Today, I combine the two!

The cover of my newly acquired
replacement copy! (Black page edges
 - does it get better?The answer is
Or, in less dramatic terms: I just finished rereading it, I'm full of excitement for the BBC adaptation, and talking about magic is always fun.

It's often stated that the more mystical magic systems don't get to play much of a role in plot resolution - pithily stated in Sanderson's First Law:

"Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

But what about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? For those who haven't read it, magic permeates the book - both of the titular characters are magicians, and involved in the return of English magic from its supposed demise. And yet, the magic is profoundly mystical: we're allowed to know a little of it, and a few of the spells that Norrell and Strange use most often (moving roads about, scrying, etc) - and yet, when it comes to the magic at the heart of it, the wonderful imagery of the Raven King and his alliances with stones, woods, and the elements, we know almost nothing. So how does Clarke manage it? The first part is in creating conflict outside the magicians' expertise, even conflicts of manners rather than magic. To quote: 
"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could." 
While much of the time, magic could be used to circumvent a problem, its use is often prohibited - often by its public perception. When Norrell brings magic into the Strange/Norrell schism, magically wiping the contents of Strange's newly published book, he meets with massive public disapproval. A great deal of the conflict in the book is character-based, personal rather than public, and centres about their relationship, and so the novel is able to be soft magic-dense without removing any sense of tension.

Secondly, there's opposition. When Norrell and Strange have disputes, both are magicians - and by previous standards, kind of amateurish ones. So when there is a magical conflict, it's either equal, or either magician is largely outmatched by the Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair: it doesn't come off as a deus ex machina when your protagonist doesn't win. And when they do? It largely involves those elements of magic which we do understand, at least a little. But I won't deny that #3 comes into it a little as well...

IT'S JUST SO BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN. It's fairytale magic attempted by academics - and when we really see the Aureates-style magic of the finale, it's wonderfully otherworldly. And honestly, I get goosebumps every time I read it.

So, basically, Clarke breaks the 'rules' of having a softer magic system a lot less often than it seems - that, and when the rules do get bent a little, the imagery is so fantastic that it's impossible not to welcome it. :P


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