“Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is of this last kind...Magnificent and original.”— Washington Post
And that is what I did – lived in it for a few weeks. I am usually a fast reader, especially when it comes to fantasy, but this book was meant to be lived in for a time. It is not a typical modern fantasy novel, but is as literary as it is fantastical. It draws of the influence of the Romantics like Austen as much as it does classic fantasy writers like McDonald and Tolkien. It is a book full of side stories, minor characters, a fantastic magical literary history told through footnotes, and a plot that builds slowly but deliberately upon itself.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an epic tale of the re-birth of magic in nineteenth-century England. Amidst familiar elements of setting (such as the Napoleonic wars) one is presented with a world where magic actually worked. Or did until the habit became to study about magic rather than to actually do magic. Two magicians – very different in character- who, as teacher and pupil and then as rivals, attempt to bring practical magic back to England. A rambling exploration of their attempts and the consequences thereof comprise the extent of the book.
The magic in play is not some disneyfied nursery appropriate version, but this is a fairy-tale that remembers that fairies are dangerous and magic holds its own perils. It is the divergent responses of the two magicians to the unveiling of the danger that most intrigued me. Norrell chose to hide it – to suppress any mention of Fairy so as to protect the common people by letting any recollection of Fairy just fade away. He essentially bans books, forcefully prevents the publication of information he disagrees with, lies about the power of Fairy, and ridicules those who believe in it. By controlling knowledge he hopes to protect the people from the danger – and retain all magical power for himself. Strange wants to embrace knowledge and crosses the lines of sanity in his quest to do so. He pays dearly for his knowledge, but still chooses to discover what he can so as to be equipped for his job. He wants magic to be in the hands of the people – accessible to all – allowing all people the power to protect themselves.
I kept having this book recommended to me as something that a person involved in religion would find interesting. The parallels between the debates in the world of magic and those of the church are interesting. Besides the amusing critique of those who merely talk about and study magic/religion and don’t actually practice it, I found the whole idea of the control of knowledge relevant. People in power can often control ideas. Even with the advent of widespread communication, it is those with the most money and therefore audience who hold the power. What then becomes most important – truth or power? Will they twist the facts or lie in order to serve a greater good? In the church, will ideas and knowledge be suppressed if they get people asking the wrong sorts of questions? Is it more important to keep people ignorant within the safe confines of a particular doctrine than it is to earnestly seek truth? I’ve seen Norrell’s power plays in the church as knowledge and the right to ask questions is suppressed. I find myself as more of a Strangeite who will pursue ideas no matter where they lead, no matter what it might cost. And I support that for all people. To blindly trust in a voice just because it has authority/power seems wrong because I don’t know how I might be being manipulated. I want to be a truth seeker.
Many reviewers commented on the near absence of the church in this book. I found it refreshing to not have to read another book lamenting how the church persecuted magic, but I think the symbol or idea of the church existed in her structure of magic. The magic here seems to contain the debates, structures, and realms of religion, philosophy, and academia combined. It is an alternate world that speaks to the issues in our own. Its questions can be our questions if we care to scratch the surface of the story.
Labels: Book Reviews