Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 7: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
A satisfying and well-constructed end, although as predicted not my favorite of the series. In terms of what the episode does, it is largely in keeping with what has gone before; its only significant thematic addition is the actual Raven King, who, continuing in the weird fiction theme introduced last episode, is a non-speaking character who simply strolls across the landscape of the story, makes a few alterations for reasons that are entirely his own, and exits. It’s striking and bold, a jarringly small and uncanny role for something that’s been built since the series’s start, but in a way that feels deliberate and earned.
Similarly bracing in scope is the opening scene, in which, in a very real sense, England falls to the magicians. The Parliamentary proceedings do a good job of expressing the scale of transformation sweeping across England in the wake of Strange’s unleashing of English magic, although I wonder if the series as a whole wouldn’t have been improved by finding time (and more importantly money) to show some of the Northern uprisings directly instead of reading about them off of telegrams, just to give the story a sense of scale. There’s something odd about seeing the Battle of Waterloo but not the uprisings that destabilize the entire socio-political structure of England.
There’s also some decisions I quibble about in terms of pacing and structuring the ending, most obviously the sudden reappearance of Lascelles during the denouement proper, which feels like a somewhat awkward solution to the problem of figuring out how to give the character a climactic comeuppance whereby he appears much later in the climax than is actually warranted. As loathsome a toad as Lascelles is – and his murder of Drawlight and confrontation with Childermass are both wonderful scenes – having him drop back into the plot at the moment the attempt to summon the Raven King under the name “nameless slave” goes awry and summons Stephen Black instead feels clumsy. (Harness tries to lampshade this by having him then be casually and cruelly dispatched by the Gentleman, and it helps by making the story at least mindful of Lascelle’s profound irrelevance at this point, but it doesn’t solve the problem.)
But despite occasional missteps, there’s a wealth of masterpiece sequences here. The Strange/Norrell confrontation, with Norrell finally, pathetically begging Strange not to laugh at him is a particular highlight, at once surprising and firmly rooted in the characters. Similarly adept is the final scene, with Childermass delivering a near direct address to camera as he explains that 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.
It’s worth noting that much of this ending is original to Harness; the broad strokes of Norrell and Strange rescuing Arabella but remaining trapped in the Black Tower are all from the book, but there are major changes. Perhaps the biggest change is the destruction of all magical books in England, including the last remaining copy of Strange’s, so that the rewritten (and unreadable) Vinculus is the only book of magic left. This is a massive contrast to the book, where the entire footnote-heavy format is based on the existence of a number of magical works that can be cited and quoted to accomplish worldbuilding. Instead Harness engineers a situation of individual freedom – everybody who wants to be is now a magician, and there’s no rulebook beyond a cryptic and unknowable book that is itself a human actor.
There’s a nice stylistic similarity to Kill the Moon – the use of television and narrative to explore and shift around some vast thematic terrain in a way that, at a crucial moment, implicates the viewer in the thematic landscape. Here the rhetoric of magic that I used in discussing Kill the Moon is explicit, but it’s the same underlying trick and structure, only here the history is vast and sprawling, given room to build up and implicate a huge portion of English history. The size of the thematic edifice is impressive, as is its coherence. (All of which said, I really do adore the explicitness of the main characters being described as “the spell,” which, of course, they in practice are, especially when the overall show is considered as an act of magic to bring about a new era of English magic by aggressively reconceptualizing its history in terms of the subaltern.)
All told, then, a stone cold classic of British fantasy and British television. If this isn’t up for a Hugo (I’ll be nominating it in its entirety in Long Form, personally), it’ll be an absolute crime.
- The Black Tower
- All the Mirrors of the World
- The Education of a Magician
- Jonathan Strage & Mr. Norrell
- How is Lady Pole?
- The Friends of English Magic
Also, if you want more top quality Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell analysis, I highly recommend John Reppion (aka Alan Moore’s son-in-law) five-part overview of the historical antecedents to the magic within the series. The fifth part, with links to parts 1-4, is here.
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.
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.
July 26, 2015 @ 2:04 am
Not that there weren't things I liked of course…
Why are you firing walnuts at me, sir?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.