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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

14 Comments

  1. Aylwin
    July 26, 2015 @ 1:35 am

    I'm quite prepared to believe that the ending was meant to point in the direction you suggest, but I'm not convinced it actually did. Getting rid of all the books would be one thing, getting rid of all the books and leaving just one is something very different. Certainly when it's the next volume of the book which laid down everything that has happened in the story, and which is itself described as "the key to all our futures". Hardly an incidental detail. Don't we know a thing or two about one-book societies?

    It's a conclusion that strikes against the most heartening theme in Strange and Norrell's struggle over English magic, the rejection of any single vision or arbitrary authority and insistence on unending dissent and disputation. That was what supplied the great air-punch moments of the debate element of the story: Sir Robert's refusal to let Norrell impose his will on other magicians, telling him to learn to live with constant opposition, "the English way"; Childermas's pledge to oppose whoever wins the struggle between Strange and Norrell, "so that there will still be two magicians in England, and two opinions"; and Strange's rather beautiful assessment of the real but limited capacity of his own view or Norrell's to shape the future of magic: "one of us will win, posterity will take something from both of us, and we will be forgotten".

    In the end, though, it seems that however many magicians and opinions there are, there is only one opinion that really counts, and that's the Raven King's. The story rejects the notion of one supreme magician where Norrell is concerned, but is quite happy to endorse it when it's the Raven King. Whatever anyone does in the field of English magic, even those who think they are opposing him, is just part of his plan and his vision. They might be able to adjust this or that detail, but the boss is the boss, as he has been all along. The future is not what you make it, it's what's written in the book of the Raven King. And I don't think it makes a lot of difference whether you think of him as an actual man or or as something more impersonal like, say, the hidden hand of dialectical materialism. Either way, it's a single vision.

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  2. Aylwin
    July 26, 2015 @ 2:02 am

    Stephen's story also ended unsatisfyingly for me, his passive compliance unbroken. When Sir Robert was denouncing him I was sure he was going to bite back with something of what he had learned of his origins – that harangue set Stephen up almost too perfectly with feeder lines to turn back on his master. But not a sausage.

    And then when he finally turns on the Gentleman, it's only because he has been lit on by someone else whose instructions he can follow, repeating the pattern set by the Poles and the Gentleman in raising him up to be the pliant instrument of their purpose. He may be a passed pawn, one who has become the most powerful piece on the board, but he's still just a piece being moved by others, Strange and Norrell playing him while they are in turn played by the Raven King.

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  3. Aylwin
    July 26, 2015 @ 2:04 am

    Not that there weren't things I liked of course…

    Why are you firing walnuts at me, sir?

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  4. David Anderson
    July 26, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    There are two key differences from my memory of the book…
    The first is Stephen and the role of Strange and Norrell in the finale. In the book, Strange and Norrell are more on the periphery of events. Stephen's decision to kill the Gentleman is much more his own decision in response to the Gentleman's plans. I feel that the television version is more conventional and weaker here.
    The second is that the parallels between Jonathan-Arabella and Lord and Lady Pole are stronger in the book. The book leaves us with the sense that Strange, perhaps because despite being individually more perceptive than Lord Pole he is still a member of the patriarchy, is in some sense culpable for Arabella's captivity. Arabella may love him, but 'she didn't offer to join him, and he didn't ask.' Here I'm not sure: the book is thematically stronger, but the television version fits the characters and relationships better I think, and gives Arabella more future agency.

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  5. David Anderson
    July 26, 2015 @ 4:44 am

    Up to a point. Even though the Raven King puts in an appearance as a concrete character, he doesn't stick about to issue orders. He's something of a negative theology, or some equivalently post-structuralist reality principle that evades symbolic definition.

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  6. Aylwin
    July 26, 2015 @ 7:50 am

    He doesn't need to give orders though, does he? Nor to do magic in any conspicuous way. Not with the power he evidently has to control things from behind the scenes.

    And as I say, I don't think it makes much odds exactly what he represents. In a story whose central contest is between philosophies, attitudes, approaches, ethoses (why does English have no plural for ethos?), conceding supremacy to any such principle shuts down the field of possibilities in a way that's not fundamentally different from conceding it to a punctilious man who wants a court to sanction people for disagreeing with him.

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  7. Scurra
    July 26, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    But surely that's to ignore the implication that the whole thing might just have been a long game on the part of Uskglass to free magic from the malign influence of the Gentleman.
    In other words, I think you are assigning your blame in the wrong place: it wasn't the Raven King whose opinion was the only one that counted. He seemed to be about breaking that straitjacket of supremacy, not about enforcing it. Indeed, I think that Harness' solution is nicely direct – all the discoveries have to be made all over again, but this time without the added dangers of Faerie. So there's no longer a single authority – for all that Vinculus is a living book, he has no particularly special status in this new world.
    (Clearly that is different to the way the novel handled it, but that was because Faerie had more space to breathe there.)

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  8. Aylwin
    July 26, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

    Well, I didn't get the impression that the Gentleman had any grand overarching control of magic (though I'm not sure whether you were implying that he did or not). Certainly he shows no sign of being capable of (or probably even having the attention-span for) anything like the kind of pervasive, behind-the-scenes direction of events ascribed to the Raven King.

    But that aside, I have thought that the sort of scenario you describe, the Raven King intervening to clear up his unfinished business and shake up both worlds before withdrawing from the scene, leaving a blank slate, would have been a much more satisfactory one, and one that could have been achieved with only small changes. But I don't think it can be matched to what we actually got. You would need to take out the rewriting of the book, and certainly its role in the last scene, where it is accorded a special status, even if Vinculus as a person is not. The previous version of the book laid out the Raven King's arrangement of the previous phase in the development of English magic, and the role of the new version is presented as being analogous. Its presence says that he's still running the game.

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  9. Scurra
    July 27, 2015 @ 12:54 am

    Oh I think that's a perfectly valid interpretation of that final scene – but I think that mine is as well. After all, the context is that the place of magic in the world is very different at the end of the story surely?
    (As for the Gentleman – I agree that it's clear that he had no overarching control; the problem was that Faerie clearly suffered from arrested development, and the Gentleman exemplified this by virtue of the fact that the best he could think of to do with all his power was to hold a grand ball. So I guess that in a sense, my argument is that the Raven King was really doing it for Faerie, with the side effect that "English Magic" would be changed as well. Now I grant you that he may well have intended to be in charge of Faerie once his plan came to fruition, but it's unclear (to me at least) whether that was also about trying to control English magic as well.

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  10. Carey
    July 27, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    Very much so- the impression I get of the ending is that in England* we have magic freed from the tyranny of history but still squabbled over by supposedly learned men, while in Padua, Arabella, Flora and Lady Pole convene to figure out how to rescue Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Not because they are told to, but because they want to: their agency is their own.

    Despite my mancrush on Childermas, I know which group I'd prefer to join.

    *It's interesting how Scotland, Wales or Ireland are never mentioned, despite having huge magical traditions. Having not got further than the end of Book 1 in the novel, does it similarly ignore the rest of the UK? Having said that, I'm sure there's a reading of the story where the attempted appropriation of Fairy by England could be read as the English invasions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland: the timeframe for the Raven King's life certainly matches up them.

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  11. liminal fruitbat
    July 28, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    Scotland is mentioned in the context of a dispute over which country's magical tradition was superior; Wales in the context of Merlin being half-demon and half-Welsh, and thus thoroughly unsuitable as a respectable founder of English magic. (I don't think anything in the book can be characterised as England's attempted appropriation of Faerie though – the Raven King's rule is, if anything, the reverse.)

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  12. Daibhid C
    July 29, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    Yeah, although I was afraid it was going to be a lot worse (Norrell having to tell Stephen how to use the power, not just that he had it). It's interesting to see below that it wasn't that way in the books.

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  13. Daibhid C
    July 29, 2015 @ 3:05 am

    What saved the final Lascelles scene for me was just how bewildered he looked as he finally realised that maybe his subplot wasn't the most important thing that was happening, and he should possibly have made any effort to learn what was actually going on.

    (Drawlight never worked out what was actually going on because he's short-sighted and foolish. Lascelles repeatedly makes the decision that having any understanding of how magic works or Norrell thinks is totally irrelevent to using Norrell's influence for his own ends.)

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  14. Daru
    August 6, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

    " Strange and Norrell have ascended to a mythic status within the material landscape of England, having already been revealed not as magicians but as a spell woven by the Raven King."

    I thought this was a master stroke.

    Reply

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