Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, $27.95 (cloth)

Parlous times like these ought to be kind to literature, especially the escapist variety. We can all be forgiven for feeling a little nervous, not only about the external threats to our persons and our way of life but about the measures being taken to preserve them. When the news strays so far from the familiar moral contours of the struggle between Good and Evil, it’s tempting to lose ourselves in stories in which this battle is fought in clear terms and on an epic scale.

Good over here, Evil over there—call it the Lord of the Rings model, in which heroes may be flawed but are always recognizably heroes, and their enemies want nothing less than to stamp out (as one of the good guys puts it in Peter Jackson’s recent film adaptation) “allthat’s green and good in this world.” Many other fantasy classics work this territory, too; think of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, with its underpinning of Christian allegory.

At the movies, heroic fantasy rules. The blockbuster budgets and box-office success of the three Lord of the Ringsinstallments—The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers(2002), and The Return of the King (2003)—suggest how hungry contemporary audiences are for Good vs. Evil drama on the grand old epic scale.

Meanwhile, on the literary front, writers not known as fantasists have been raiding the arsenal of fantasy and science-fiction writers for weapons. Maybe the times are just too strange for realism. In his latest novel, The Plot Against America,Philip Roth uses the kind of what-if fantasy a science-fiction writer might deploy—Charles Lindbergh, running for president on an isolationist platform, defeats FDR in the election of 1940—tocomment on these days of homeland security and the Ashcroftization of our civil liberties.

Like most former refuges in the modern world, fantasy literature no longer offers a secure retreat. Nor does it offer a reliable moral proxy for real-world troubles. The fight between Good and Evil increasingly resembles our own tangled inner conflicts; the battle for Middle Earth has become a struggle for self-knowledge. Conviction has vanished, and only its epic trappings remain.

The same process appears to be taking place in the Harry Potter series. With each new installment, J.K. Rowling brings her young hero a step closer to Lord Voldemort, the maleficent wizard with whom Harry has an increasingly sinister connection. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), the orphaned Harry discovers not only that he is a wizard but that as an infant he survived Voldemort’s attempt to murder him. The attack killedHarry’s parents and left him with a scar shaped like a lightning bolt on his forehead—an indelible link to Voldemort. By book five,Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Harry has learned of a prophecy that seems to connect him with his nemesis: “And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not . . . and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.

Readers of Tolkien will note the phrase “the Dark Lord” and think of Sauron, the prime mover behind the evil that threatens Middle Earth. But so far in the series Rowling hasn’t made explicit the threat Voldemort presents; mostly he seems to exist to menace Harry and those close to him. Ordinary evildoers, even bumbling bureaucrats like Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, present a more immediate danger—and one to which contemporary audiences can immediately respond.

Self-knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Rowling, along with Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry in the movie versions of the story, has hinted that Harry may not survive the last installment. Like the world these books supposedly help us leave behind, the selves they explore look more and more treacherous, even world-shattering.

In another, far more sophisticated recent example of epic fantasy, self-knowledge can determine not only the fate of its possessor but of the universe itself. The British fantasy writer Philip Pullman uses Milton’s Paradise Lost as the starting point for the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). Billed as young-adult fare, His Dark Materials has a thematic agenda that reaches far beyond its advertised audience. Pullman’s theological and philosophical gambit involves nothing less than an assault on institutional religion and the traditional hierarchy of Good (God) and Evil (Lucifer). This story of interstitial universes and the rending of the fabric between them draws on many things, including the study of elementary particles (classified as a branch of theology in this world, and tangled up with a mysterious substance known as Dust), and like Lucifer it wants to storm the very gates of Heaven and toss God out on his ear.

But this sophisticated thematic structure hangs on one small person: Lyra Belacqua, an orphan growing up half-savage among the scholars of Jordan College, in an Oxford very similar to and very different from the one we know. The embodiment of free will (or its illusion), she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as is fit were her nature and not her destiny to do it. If she’s told what she must do, it will all fail; death will sweep through all the worlds; it will be the triumph of despair, forever. The universes will all become nothing more than interlocking machines, blind and empty of thought, feeling, life.

Lyra mustn’t know, in other words, that she is a hero. Compare her situation to Frodo’sin The Lord of the Rings, where the drama hangs on whether he will be able to carry out the mission—destroying Sauron’s great ring ofpower—that he chooses to undertake of his own free will early in the novels.

Pullman and Rowling have, in very different ways, taken the old Tolkien model of epic heroism and turned it in on itself. Great battles may still take place (and Pullman especially does not stint on them), but the most significant, those on which the fate of everything and everyone depends, are fought within. Harry Potter may be his own worst enemy. This is fantasy for today’sworld; the moral battlefield has moved inward.

What, then, to make of this year’s fantasy blockbuster, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by the English writer Susanna Clarke? A tale of magic and politics set in the England of the Napoleonic Wars, this debut novel has been touted by its publisher, Bloomsbury, and by reviewers in the United States and Britain as Harry Potter for grown-ups. Ten years in the writing and nearly 800 pages long, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell looks like the sort of book one ought to be able to disappear into for weeks. But in Clarke’s hands the genre has taken a further step from classic fantasy, one that lands it a possibly fatal degree of academic remove away from epic sweep and the big moral questions. To read it is to wonder whether fantasy still has a life of its own.

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From the very first lines of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one understands that something has gone wrong in the world of fantasy:Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic—nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’shead.

Clarke’s wry, serio-comic tone makes plain the first, and possibly most profound, of the author’s influences: not Milton or Tolkien or Rowling or Pullman but Jane Austen, whose ventures into fantasy extended only as far as Northanger Abbey,itself a satire of what reading Gothic novels does to young ladies’powers of rational thought. This is the first indication of many thatJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will turn out to be fantasy not as alternate moral battlefield or magical transport but as . . .literary history.

Like an Austen narrator, Clarke’s never identifies him- or herself. From the 185 footnotes that begin on page one and interrupt the text throughout—some take up more space than the main text above them—it seems the authorial voice belongs to a historian rather than a storyteller. The notes, and their compiler, never let you forget that you’re reading a book. Welcome to the land of the ivory-tower fairy tale, a place you may long stray forlorn in search of adventure or a way out.

According toClarke’s recasting of English history, magic was once as common in England as breathing, way back in the medieval Golden Age of John Uskglass, also called the Raven King—part Arthur, part Merlin, part Tam Lin from the old British ballad. Like Tam Lin, Uskglass was stolen as a child and raised in the land of Faerie. Unlike Tam Lin, though, he learned during his captivity how to practice magic and came back to the human world with a fairy army, which helped him establish a 300-year reign in the north of England. A more benign cousin of Sauron or Lord Voldemort, Uskglass shadows every action in the novel.

By the autumn of 1806, when the action of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell begins, Uskglass has faded into distant memory. The only magicians left in England are “theoretical”ones, among them the hapless scholars described in the book’sopening lines. They study magic and write treatises and quarrel, as scholars will, but none of them can cast a spell to save his life.

Meanwhile the nation is in crisis: Napoleon has overrun the Continent and thrown Whitehall into a tizzy. (Clarke’s descriptions of ministerial squabbling depict the Cabinet not as statesmen at a time of national crisis but only a bunch of fussy old birds.) Just astroubling—for the magicians, anyway—is the discovery that most of the useful books of magic have been bought up by a sour little country squire named Gilbert Norrell.

Given his monkish predilection for study, it’s no surprise to learn that Norrell is a bachelor. With his manor house, independent income, and hot and cold running servants, he could have wandered out of Pride and Prejudice,except that he has figured out how to do actual magic—thespell-casting, weather-controlling, fairy-conjuring, bringing-back-people-from-the-dead kind. Having given Norrell a spectacular chance to display his skills—he brings the stones and statues of York Minster to life, and they tell ancient stories of murder and outrage—Clarke sends the magician to London with ambitions to take his place on the national stage and to effect the restoration of English magic.

But don’t expect to be carried off into the wild fantastic yonder by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,even though Clarke works in a nod to almost every conceivable element of British fantasy. These include the requisite dark lord—thatwould be the aforementioned John Uskglass, the black-haired RavenKing—who is kin not only to Sauron and Voldemort but also to much older characters from British folklore, such as Arawn, the ruler of the underworld in the ancient Welsh epic The Mabinogion. There’s a cursed and Tolkien-esque Black Tower, too, although Clarke’shappens to be made of Eternal Night.

The novel also features fairy revels, enchanted human captives who must be rescued from Faerie,“a dark, tangled wood under starlight,” trees and stones that come alive, mirrors used as doorways, references to rings of power, mad old women in attics, the madness of King George, logs turned into the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of golems, a book written on a man’sskin, a vagabond street magician who carries a powerful prophecy . .. and on and on.

So many riches, so many opportunities to astonish us, and yet Clarke insists on breaking off again and again to indulge in literary pastiche. So we get lackeys with Dickensian names like Drawlight and Childermass, literary squabbles and dust-ups that play out in the pages of the famous 19th-century literary journal The Edinburgh Review, that wicked Lord Byron and his shenanigans, genteel English travelers sojourning Wings of the Dove–like in Venice, and so forth. (And don’t forget the footnotes.) When Norrell attends his first fashionable soiree, he enters a scene that can’t decide whether it wants to be Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair:On his arrival at Mrs. Godesdone’s house Mr. Norrell found himself instantly plunged into the midst of a hundred or so of Mrs. Godesdone’s most intimate friends. . . . And how to describe a London party? Candles in lustres of cut-glass are placed everywhere about the house in dazzling profusion; elegant mirrors triple and quadruple the light until night outshines day; many-coloured hothouse fruits are piled up in stately pyramids upon white-clothed tables; divine creatures, resplendent with jewels, go about the room in pairs, arm in arm, admired by all who see them. Yet the heat is over-powering, the pressure and noise almost as bad; there is nowhere to sit and scarce anywhere to stand. . . . Your only wish is to preserve your favourite gown from the worst ravages of the crowd.

When a real fairy enters the story, summoned by Norrell to help with a tricky bit of black magic that is essential to the magician’s ambitions, he could be another London swell: “atall, handsome person with pale, perfect skin and an immense amount of hair, as pale and shining as thistle-down. . . . He was dressed exactly like any other gentleman, except that his coat was of the brightest green imaginable—the colour of leaves in early summer.”Green, of course, has forest and pagan associations, and has long been linked to fairies and their realm; think of the old English folkloric tradition of the wild woodland spirit known as the Green Man or the14th-century tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Arthurian hero meets up with a knight with otherworldly powers. In Clarke, however, it speaks more to fairy fashion than to adventure.

The magic Norrell and the gentlemanundertake—bringing back the dead—should be a moment of high seriousness, if Clarke were following the conventions of epic fantasy. Instead she turns it into a moment of comic absurdity reminiscent of another recent fantasy series, Terry Pratchett’sDiscworld novels, which can be read as an extended joke at the expense of fantasy traditions.

So the fairy interrupts the tedious Latin invocation Norrell uses to call him up: “ ‘Yes, yes!’cried the gentleman suddenly breaking into English. ‘You elected to summon me because my genius for magic exceeds that of all the rest of my race. Because I have been the servant and confidential friend of[the Golden Age magicians] Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, Martin Pale and of the Raven King. Because I am valorous, chivalrous, generous and as handsome as the day is long! That is all quite understood! It would have been madness to summon anyoneelse!”

Which means that it was madness to summon him. Though comically presented, Norrell’s arrangement with the fairy turns out to be a sort of pact with the Devil, one of many indications in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that magic is as capricious and unpredictable as the humans and sprites wieldingit—again, no refuge. The gentleman with thistle-down hair spirits away humans he takes a fancy to and forces them to join the nightlyrevels—“long, empty celebrations of dust and nothingness”—atLost-hope, his palace in Faerie where the walls crumble and skeletons in rusting armor fill the courtyards. Like English magicians, fairies appear to have fallen on hard times, though Clarke never tells us how or why.

After spending so much time with an amoral fairy and a sour magician-scholar, one begins to despair of meeting with anyone who resembles an old-fashioned hero. The promise of one arrives after a hundred pages or so in the person of Jonathan Strange, who like Norrell is an offshoot of the British landed gentry.

Although he turns out to be as naturally gifted a magician as Norrell is a book-learned one, Strange cuts a somewhat feeble figure: “Though he had no striking vices, his virtues were perhaps almost as hard to define. At the pleasure parties of Weymouth and in the drawing-rooms of Bath he was regularly declared to be‘the most charming man in the world’ by the fashionable people he met there, but all that they meant by this was that he talked well, danced well, and hunted and gambled as much as a gentlemanshould.”

Will Jonathan Strange turn out to be Frodo of the Shire, called out of his quiet country life to enact a greatdestiny—to become “the conduit through which all English magicflows,” as he puts it in a moment of grave crisis late in the book? First he has to be Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Pip of Great Expectations. He marries a woman of good humor and good sense, then becomes Norrell’s pupil in order to have access to the books of magic he needs. Tiring of the scholar’s life after a while, he joins Wellington on his Continental campaigns as magician-de-camp(moving roads, rearranging the landscape, controlling theweather—that kind of thing).

Here Strange takes a step toward more-recent British fictional creations: Bernard Cornwell’sRichard Sharpe, a British infantry officer who’s starred in a number of Napoleonic War adventures (Sharpe’s Trafalgar, Sharpe’sWaterloo, Sharpe’s Rifles, and many others), and PatrickO’Brian’s British naval officer Jack Aubrey and his good friend, the doctor and British spy Stephen Maturin, who also feature in a popular series of historical novels (including Master and Commander).

Stuffed with such historical and magical baggage,Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell ought to be a vehicle to take one on a journey through realms of wonder. Of the King’s Roads, Faerie highways built long ago by John Uskglass the Raven King, Norrell says that they “lead everywhere. Heaven. Hell. The Houses of Parliament.. . . They were built by magic. Every mirror, every puddle, every shadow in England is a gate to those roads.”

Every time Clarke could take us down those roads or spirit us away to realms of Faerie, like Tam Lin in the old ballad, she chooses to double back to the library. Even at the book’s final crisis, when Strange has brought about a feat of magic the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Raven King’s reign, he and Norrell can only address the situation as rival scholars:“I like your labyrinth,” [Strange]said conversationally. ‘Did you use Hickman?’“What?No. De Chepe.”“De Chepe! Really.” For the first time Strange looked directly at his master. “I had always supposed him to be a very minor scholar without an original thought in hishead.”“He was never much to the taste of people who like the showier sorts of magic,” said Mr. Norrell, nervously, unsure how long this civil mood of Strange’s might last.

But aren’t the showier sorts of magic—magic that battles for the soul of the world—exactly what we need, now more than ever? “There are people in this world,” says one of the fairy gentleman’s human favorites, “whose lives are nothing but a burden to them. A black veil stands between them and the world. They are entirely alone. They are like shadows in the night, shut off from joy and love and all gentle human emotions, unable even to give comfort to each other. Their days are full of nothing but darkness, misery and solitude.”

This sounds very much like a description not of enchantment but of clinical depression. Throughout Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, wondrous if familiar conceits fight to break through the tangles of literary reference Clarke has planted, yet she cannot, or will not, free her story from its many progenitors. Clarke’s novel doesn’t parody the genre; it displays in a lifeless cabinet of wonders all its elements—every element, that is, but the epic sense of Good and Evil, of things larger than ourselves, that makes the best fantasy so powerful and so necessary.

If a writer of epic fantasy isn’t willing to trust her imagination and her story—is afraid to let it matter—can a salve for the troubles that afflict us still be found in books? There was a time when one could turn to fantasy, if not for escape, then for a working-out, a cathartic reimagining, of the world’s crises. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes epic fantasy down a road that leads away from large moral conflict and instead doubles back on itself and the reader. There is no help and no escape for any of us in a story that can’t escape its own bookishness.