“It is John Uskglass’s magic that we do.”

I’ve fallen in love with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I realize that I’m at least a year or more behind the curve, but there you have it. I had it on my shelf for probably 18 months, and I was daunted that whole time by its size. Having flights and bus rides and all manner of sitting around during the AP reading, however, I decided it was time finally to pick it up.

The best feature of this book is the fact that by page 700 (of ~800) I couldn’t tell you where the story was going or what the resolution would be. I read a lot, both privately and professionally these days. Upon picking up Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian last fall for class, I was able to conclude after the first hundred pages that the (spoiler alert) shadowy monk dogging the steps of the hero and keeping him away from the orphaned-but-being-raised-by-her-aunt heroine was the heroine’s father and that was the crux of the mystery in the book. This is what I do, and, sadly, I’m generally rather good at it. It’s not that interesting to read books whose endings you can guess early on. I was right enough in my assessment of The Italian not to finish reading it and got by just fine in class discussion. (I feel guilty, but not that guilty about not actually reading it; I am getting another chance this fall for a different class, after all.)

It was such a pleasure, then, to feel that I had to cede total control to Ms. Clarke’s narrative. There was nothing boilerplate or stereotypical in her novel. Much like my experience of reading Faulkner, I found that I just had to sit back and let the story go where it would, assuming that I would understand it in the end. It makes for a frustrating, but very satisfying, reading experience, particularly to someone as jaded as I am about the freshness of plots.

The other fascinating feature of this book is my complete inability to express why it’s so worth reading. I’ve made the attempt several times and have succeeded in persuading at least three other people to read it, but as I’ve heard myself speaking, I’ve reviewed my words and found them completely insufficient in grasping what the story’s really about. There’s a bit at the beginning of the book, and I’m not giving anything away by saying this, where two characters visit Mr. Norrell’s library. After having been there, they can’t really describe it to their other companions who didn’t visit. They can’t remember any of the titles he holds, they don’t remember having actually touched or read any of the books, and they generally come across sounding like idiots. They don’t realize that Mr. Norrell has enchanted them to protect the privacy (or secrecy) of his collection.

That’s how I feel when I attempt to say what the book is about. It’s about magic. It’s about teacher-student rivalries, as the Library of Congress categorization at the front says. It’s about Englishness in the early 19th century, which is slowly becoming my life’s work. But it’s so deep and massive and astonishing that none of these descriptions do it justice. The dust jacket description makes it sound like it’s just a sort of grownups’ Harry Potter, but that trivializes Clarke’s accomplishment. She’s painstakingly created fictitious footnotes and mythology for this alternate England, so that JS&MN reads and references these materials much in the way that The Lord of the Rings might have read and been footnoted if Tolkien had written his appendices and The Silmarillion before ever beginning The Hobbit. She has created a full mythology for an alternate English history underpinned by ancient, deep magic, the way that C. S. Lewis underpins Narnia with its own mythological/theological/magical basis. It is not an exaggeration to class Clarke’s work with these giants; her achievement is as remarkable as theirs.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is easily now one of my favorite books of all time. As I said before, I can’t do it justice by description, but I hope to continue to influence people to read and discuss it, hence this post. Go read it, for G-d’s sake!

5 Responses to ““It is John Uskglass’s magic that we do.””

  1. matt
    August 26th, 2006 17:01

    I agree. Its a fantasic book.

    Do you know if Uskglass is entirely Clarke’s creation or does it come from some place else?


  2. erinmak
    August 27th, 2006 15:19

    I believe Uskglass is entirely Clarke’s creation, but I’m not an official scholar of the English magical tradition in literature. (As much as I would love to specialize in that for my PhD, I doubt they’ll let me.) I say that because I’ve never heard of him in other sources (Lewis, Tolkien, et. al.) nor in the commentary or scholarship on those other sources. On the other hand the idea that a great and charismatic king of old will return from out of the mists of time to unite the British Isles is not at all Clarke’s creation, since that’s at the heart of Arthurian legend (and of course Tolkien’s Return of the King).

    One of the things that I wondered about was when Norrell talks about magic rings being used to divide a magician’s power when he’s sick or weak (there’s the long footnote then about the Master of Nottingham’s daughter). I couldn’t help thinking that that sounded a whole lot like J.K. Rowling’s discussion of horcruxes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. However, I know that Clarke was writing JS&MN long before HP&HBP was even started, and JS&MN was published before HP&HBP was. So it got me wondering whether that idea has roots in English magical history or whether these two authors came up with the same idea simultaneously (which seems unlikely, especially as Rowling’s use of Dumbledore, boggarts and the Grim are all, conscious I’m sure, references on her part to sources ranging from LOTR to archaic Old English terms to Celtic mythology).

  3. Bob Hastings
    January 5th, 2007 02:53

    I am at the Waterloo stage of the book , i just find it an amazing read! I have found myself actually looking on the interweb for the authors referenced. Am i alone in laughing out loud at some of the narrative/scenes described?

  4. David Innes
    February 25th, 2008 17:28

    If you read some of Ms Clarke’s interviews you’ll find where she has drawn literary inspiration for Uskglass from. I would hazard to claim JS & MN is the finest book I’ve ever read. And re-read. And re-read. I find something new in it every time. My only complaint is that I find it so damn amusing I keep reading bits of it to my poor girlfriend.

  5. celestial elf
    June 7th, 2010 10:11

    Loved The Raven King also…
    Wether tis Susanna Clarkes creation or no,
    i am delighted to say that she has granted permission for me to make some machinima animated films of The Raven King and i share one with you here…
    appropriately in this film he discuses Copyright useage haha

    (to moderator, not sure if embed was allowed, so i provide a link here)

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