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Literature: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could."

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the highly acclaimed first novel by Susanna Clarke, published in 2004. The story shews, in historical fashion, the involvements of magicians and fairies in alternate Britain of the Regency era. Being nearly 1000 pages long, the book is well-known (and well-loved) for skillfully combining political intrigue, elaborate academic footnotes and sweet charcoal illustrations.

Centuries ago, magic thrived in England. The Raven King, a human who had been raised in Faerie, waged war against England and took the northern half for his kingdom. The Raven King was the greatest magician to ever live, and his 300-year reign was the golden age of magic in both halves of England — the union of fairy power and human organization.

By 1806, England has been reunited, and magic is primarily the domain of scholars and theorists. The Learned Society of York Magicians sets out to discover why magic is no longer practiced in England, and finds that there is one practicing magician: the reclusive Mr Gilbert Norrell, who has very particular views on what is and is not proper for an English magician. Norrell's life revolves about his deep love and reverence for academic books, and he feels that it is his duty to restore English Magic and to employ its power in the war effort against France.

When Mr Norrell chooses to go public, this sets in motion a chain of events. In his efforts to ingratiate himself to the London upper class, he secretly calls upon the aid of a fairy: a gentleman with thistle-down hair. Although their encounter is but a brief one, this gentleman soon takes renewed interest in England and comes to deeply love Stephen Black, the servant of government minister Sir Walter Pole. Mr Norrell, oblivious to this particular development, convinces Sir Walter Pole that English Magic might restore the glory of the Kingdom and claim Britannia's victory against Napoleon Buonaparte. Aiding Norrell's political career are two socialite leeches, Mr Christopher Drawlight and Mr Henry Lascelles, who take it upon themselves to guide Norrell — a Socially-Awkward Hero at the best of times — through the intricacies of political etiquette.

Meanwhile, a young landowner named Jonathan Strange discovers that he has a natural talent for magic, and begins practicing as an amateur. He becomes Mr Norrell's first and only student, but as Strange begins to rival Norrell in ability, their differences in opinion intensify until something must give. And as the war effort progresses, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair becomes convinced that Jonathan Strange is his worst enemy.

Now on track to being a BBC One drama.

Contains examples of:

  • All Myths Are True: An interesting variation - only some myths are true, Merlin was explicitly stated to be true while magic mirrors are false (any mirror will do). The characters themselves aren't sure what myths are true.
    • Beings from Christian theology also show up in this universe; the Raven King is said to have been on good terms with most angels and demons, but quarreled with Zadkiel and Alrinach. Also in a footnote, Merlin is described as being half-demon.
      • Hermes (Trismegistus, specifically) also has a passing mention near the end as the "God of all magicians" implying that while Christian theology is focused on, there may be other realms which Christians are unaware of, ignore or simply lump in with Faerie.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Oh, Mr Drawlight...
    • It's also never specified to what extent the gentleman with the thistle-down hair loves Stephen Black. Certainly their interaction never goes beyond the platonic, but the gentleman's behaviour is solidly that of a Stalker with a Crush.
  • Anti-Hero: Norrell is an old-fashioned example; Strange is a Byronic one.
  • Arranged Marriage: As comes with the time period, each marriage described in the novel is treated as a contract first, and as an expression of love only second (if at all). The relationship between Sir Walter Pole and Emma Wintertowne is based on the understanding that they each live their own life in any way they desire, although Sir Walter Pole is not entirely happy to find out to what extent Lady Pole envisions this. Similarly, Strange and Arabella love each other dearly, but fully understand that their marriage is one of convenience as well as love. In the end, Lady Pole is in no way inclined to even think about her husband when released from her slavery, and Arabella and Jonathan are quite fine with the idea that they cannot be together in Jonathan's exile.
  • As You Know: Many of the footnotes reference facts "everyone" knows about the history of British magic.
  • Asexuality: Norrell's only love is for books, and he fails to understand the appeal of marriage, calling it a regrettable habit for magicians. The notions of romance and affection are completely alien to him.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Jonathan Strange.
  • Ax-Crazy: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Though being a fairy his moods shift wildly and he can sometimes be talked out of murder. Sometimes. Do not count on this.
  • Badass Bookworm: Jonathan Strange.
    • Norrell as well, although with more bookworm and less badass.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The fairies.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The Gentleman states this is the case to explain part of his regard for Stephen.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Played straight when Norrell deals with the gentleman with thistle-down hair, but when he tries to invoke this against Strange it goes horribly wrong.
  • Be Careful What You Say: The trope is invoked twice near the ending. Firstly, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair places a curse of Darkness on Strange, naming him as "the English magician". Since he failed to be more specific, the Darkness also begins to affects Norrell once Strange reaches him, and the two are bound together until the curse would be broken. The second instance is of major importance to the fate of England and its English Magic: Norrell and Strange address "the nameless slave" in their spell, hoping to reach the Raven King. The spell finds Stephen Black instead.
  • Black Comedy: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is built on this trope.
  • Black Magic: Strange practices some during the Napoleonic Wars, using it to raise slain bandits from the dead as horrible, sapient zombies in order to get information from them. They are then burned "alive" after the living soldiers are too creeped out to be around them. As a rather dark Historical In-Joke, this act is suggested to have inspired the artist Goya's production of hellish paintings of war and witchcraft.
  • Blood Knight: It can be inferred that the new champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart will be more enthusiastic about his duties than the previous one, seeing as Lascelles murdered Drawlight and the old Champion quite willingly.
    • Alternatively, it's an implied deconstruction of Blood Knight mixed in with Fridge Horror; it's implied that the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart's champion begins by murdering the previous one and continues on with nothing to do but to kill or be killed until they've forgotten their own name.
  • Blood Magic: As Mr Norrell has hoarded all of the magical texts in existence, Jonathan is forced to resort to this, in addition to many other strange tactics, in his attempt to summon the fairy king.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair seems entirely unable to comprehend regular human morality or ethics, and seems to lack any kind of empathy. He's casually sadistic, yet also cannot comprehend racism.
    • The Fair Folk also consider Christianity to be this — a footnote mentions that centuries ago, someone left a pair of boots in a fairy's castle, and they were regarded as objects of dread for fear that in some inscrutable way, Christian morality might hold the fairies responsible for their theft.
  • Boring, but Practical: Strange's first act of magic during the war is to create roads for the British soldiers to travel on.
  • Broken Pedestal: Norrell means well, but it doesn't change that he's a secretive, mousy, banal and selfish man who is pretty much lacking in sympathetic traits, is constantly sarcastic, of a condescendingly, backhanded sort and spends his time making sure he is the only magician in Britain. First by using his connections to the people in power to have other magicians (even theoretical scholars) outlawed, as well as using his magic to destroy all copies of the book about the Raven King that Strange has published after his estrangement with his former mentor.
  • Byronic Hero: After a while, Strange becomes so Byronic that his dear friend Lord Byron himself starts taking notes. He gets over it by the novel's conclusion.
  • The Caligula: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
  • Came Back Wrong: Lady Pole, and the seventeen dead soldiers that Strange drags back from Hell.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: In all his actions, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair is absolutely convinced that his beloved humans enjoy his games as much as he does. The idea that they are consistently horrified by their slavery on his account is so far removed from his own frame of reference that they just can't convey the notion to him.
  • Cassandra Truth: Vinculus, who alternates between giving true prophesies and being a charlatan. He also happens to be a walking prophecy nobody can read.
  • Changeling Tale: The Raven King is a straight example, but somewhat subverted in the bittersweet story of Stephen Black.
  • The Chessmaster: John Uskglass aka the Raven King.
  • The Chosen One: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as prophesied by Vinculus.
  • Clever Crows: The Raven King's motif.
  • Clipped Wing Angel: While in his death throes the gentleman with the thistle-down hair starts taking on what we are to assume is a terrifying true form. Given that all the rocks, trees, earth, water, and shadows in England are working together to kill him it doesn't make a difference.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: Briefly discussed, when Childermass attempts to carve the prophecy into his own skin in order to preserve it. He decides against it.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Mrs Delgado.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Childermass manages to avoid most of the idiot balls being juggled by being the only one to act as if he's ever read a classic fairy story / Changeling Tale.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lascelles and Childermass. Most of Norrell's dialogue is this, as well.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Lost-hope, and most of Faerie by extension.
  • Deal with the Devil: Norrell makes a deal with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, to bring Lady Pole back from the dead in exchange for half the remaining years of her restored life. What he doesn't realise is that the Gentleman will take that time at present by imprisoning her in his Kingdom every night, rather than off the end of her life as Norrell assumes.
  • Dirty Coward: Drawlight. Lascelles also considers Childermass to be this, which fuels much of their bitter rivalry.
  • Disability Superpower: The mad can see and talk to fairies even without the use of magic. When Strange realises the full implications of this, he willingly destroys his own sanity.
  • Disc One Final Boss: The French army and eventually Norrell for Jonathan Strange.
  • Door Stopper: Don't drop the hardcover version of this book on your foot.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Done a lot, with characters often debating the relative merits of the various books.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Norrell's "Man of Business" Childermass is loyal but shows a surprising degree of autonomy and his motives aren't quite clear.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Christopher Drawlight may be an insufferable yes-man, but he cannot bear the idea of not appearing like a gentleman; Henry Lascelles is a thoroughly unlikable Blood Knight, but he vehemently despises cowardice.
  • The Fair Folk: They're so self-centered that if it wasn't for their powerful magic they'd quickly end up extinct. It's debatable whether the gentleman even understood the concept that other people might have different opinions. It's stated that Julius Caesar once served as judge of the Fairies, because at the time every Faerie alive stood accused of some crime or had close ties to an accused, so none were fit to stand in judgment.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
  • Fictional Colour: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair puts Lady Pole's little finger in a box that is the "color of heartache". Many other such colours are seen in Faerie.
  • Fisher King: Used many times over.
    • After Strange loses Arabella, he goes through a severe depression and begins writing on the walls and living in squalor. Once he properly destroys his own sanity on purpose, his house becomes a nightmarish lair.
    • After Stephen Black kills the gentleman and takes his place, he restores beauty and order to the gentleman's kingdom of Lost-hope.
  • Foil: Strange and Norrell are one example of this; Stephen and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair are another.
  • Footnote Fever: And how! Some pages are actually more footnote than novel. The grand champion footnote takes up 4/5 each of four successive pages.
  • Fundamentally Funny Fruit: The Jaywalking part of the Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking of Strange's visions in Venice. Some of them are truly horrifying, of people with hollow faces and candles inside them. And then Strange starts to see pineapples everywhere to the point of this becoming a Running Gag.
  • Gambit Roulette: The Raven King, and how! According to Vinculus, the events of the entire book were orchestrated by him, he's able to run three countries at the same time, one of which lies beyond Hell, and he has enough magical power to rival Satan himself explicitly including spells to foretell the future.
  • Genius Loci: Absolutely everything! Every single tree, river, stone and even odder things like the dawn or various winds. All magic comes from making deals and alliances with various Genius Loci either directly or, in the case of most English magicians, indirectly thanks to deals made by the Raven King. The fact most humans don't realise these things are intelligent and thus don't learn how to talk with them is a serious impediment to their magical ability.
  • Gentleman Wizard: See the page quote. The titular characters, as well as the magic societies, if you consider them wizards despite not actually doing any magic. Magic is considered the realm of the idle gentry, and Mr Norrell is not pleased to learn that Strange intends to teach a Jew.
  • The Ghost: The Raven King is only seen in flashbacks until he finally has a short but impressive cameo in the third to last chapter, where he talks to Childermass (who is made to forget right away) and brings Vinculus back to life. Strange and Norrell, who try to summon him, only get to see a giant raven eye instead.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: Strange and Norrell; neither is "good" in any conventional sense of the word.
  • Here There Were Dragons: At the novel's opening, magic has faded from Britain (it's still studied, but not practiced) and great magicians and fairy servants are only a memory.
  • I Have Many Names: The Raven King, aka John Uskglass, aka the Black King of the North, aka the nameless slave (from his changeling childhood, though rarely used), etc. This actually figures into the plot when Strange and Norrell try to magically locate the Raven King but can't figure out which name to use in the spell. Norrell speculates that The Raven King did this on purpose, because names are such an important part of magic. Without his true name, it gets difficult to do anything related to the person you're trying to target.
  • I Know Your True Name: Played with. The end of the book is the result of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell thinking that they have figured out the Raven King's true name but being wrong.
  • Ill Girl: Emma Wintertowne starts out at this, and things go From Bad to Worse from there.
  • In Spite of a Nail: In spite of the fact that Northern England was formerly a separate country, ruled by a magician-king for 300 years, England and Europe at the time of the novel are almost exactly as they were in history. Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll, Francisco Goya, and Lord Byron all show up, and are shown or implied to be just as they were in Real Life.
  • The Ingenue: Both Emma and Arabella already have shades of this, but Flora Greysteel breathes the trope.
  • Insubstantial Ingredients
  • It's All About Me: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
    Stephen thought rapidly. "But his return may have nothing to do with you at all, sir," he offered. "Consider how many enemies he has in England human enemies, I mean. Perhaps he has come back to continue his quarrel with one of them." The gentleman looked doubtful. Any reasoning that did not contain a reference to himself was always difficult for him to follow.
  • Karma Houdini: Norrell might be trapped in eternal darkness for the foreseeable future, but he really doesn't see this as a punishment, and he is never brought to justice for the horrible things he does to Lady Pole.
  • Karmic Death: Lascelles, though his was more of a Karmic Fate Worse than Death, The gentleman with thistle-down hair whose death ultimately ends up making Stephen into a King as he promised, and Lawrence Strange.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Drawlight once threw a cat out a third-floor window.
    • Mr Norrell's treatment of Arabella at the book auction. Even in-story people thought that was pretty harsh.
  • Klingon Promotion: The reason the gentleman with the thistle-down hair wants Stephen to kill the King of England. Stephen tries to explain it doesn't work this way. But in the fairy world it does, so when Stephen kills the gentleman, he gets his kingdom.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Mr. Segundus can't clearly remember his visit to Mr. Norrell's.
    • Childermass can't remember his encounter with the Raven King
  • Lemony Narrator: The Narration often speaks in first person, and is very snarky.
  • The Magic Comes Back: The main point of the book.
  • Meaningful Name: Stephen Black. Stephen means crown, a motif associated with the character.
  • Mysterious Past:
    • The Raven King, who was abducted by fairies as a child and somehow managed to become both their king and a magician bordering on Physical God.
    • Also Childermass. We don't even know why he puts up with being Norrell's servant. See Enigmatic Minion.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: All throughout the book.
    • Norrell's summoning of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
    • Strange deciding to use Black Magic during the war, simply to get some information on some rather unimportant cannons.
  • Nobility Marries Money: Sir Walter Pole's marriage to Emma Wintertowne.
  • No Name Given:
    • The gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
    • The author has stated that her intention was for the Raven King to have No Name Given, but in the end this was inverted as he has many names, though arguably, none are his "true name" but rather universally nicknames or titles.
  • Not Quite Dead: Vinculus after the hanging. He even makes a point of telling the gentleman with the thistle-down hair that he's pretty hard to kill, but of course the fairy doesn't listen.
  • Obliviously Evil: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair has no idea that what he's doing to his human "friends" is anything but kind and generous.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted with Jonathan Strange, John Segundus, John Childermass, and John Uskglass. There are a couple lesser Johns in the book as well.
  • Oop North: The Raven King formerly ruled Northern England as a separate kingdom from his capital at Newcastle. It's also stated that as a result of this the North of England is intrinsically more magical than the South. Both Norrell and Childermass are very proud Northerners.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The conservative Norrell represents order, with the more likable Strange being more allied with chaos, given his interest in fairies and willingness to move parts of Spain and Belgium while helping the British in the Napoleonic wars. However despite his personality Norrell's viewpoint is shown to have merit: magic is dangerous and should be handled with care. There is also a theme of reason versus madness. Strange deliberately goes mad for a long while to gain deeper insight.
  • Pet the Dog: It's hard to dislike Jonathan Strange after he is kind to a mother cat during one of the battles with the French.
  • Poisonous Friend: The gentleman's relationship toward Stephen Black. Drawlight and Lascelles to Norrell at times as well.
  • Possession Implies Mastery: Subverted. Strange only has access to books about magic while Norrell owns all the books of magic, yet Strange proves himself to be Norrell's equal (if not his superior) in magical power. Also, both men are portrayed as having an inflated perception of their magical prowess which is minimal compared to earlier English magicians.
  • Power Born of Madness: Insanity has several advantages to a magician, however there are other methods that don't require actual madness.
  • Prophecy Twist: Doubly subverted. At first, it's quite clear that "the nameless slave" is Stephen Black, until Vinculus flat-out tells Black that the line refers to the Raven King. But when Norrell and Strange attempt to use this moniker to contact the Raven King, the spell accidentally (or possibly not at all accidentally) finds Stephen instead.
  • Psycho Serum: Strange deliberately drinks essentially "distilled madness" out of the logic that since lunatics can see fairies, he needs to become insane to be able to see the gentleman with thistle-down hair. (Strange's summoning spells worked, as the gentleman himself admits to Stephen, but since the gentleman did not wish to speak to Strange he remained invisible to him. The madness allows Strange to see past the glamour, to the gentleman's great shock.)
  • Pulling Himself Together: Attempted by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair after being defeated, but prevented by the magic of the land.
  • The Quest: The way magicians went off for a year and a day to find what they were looking for inspires the original effort to find a practical magician.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
  • Sanity Slippage: Strange, once he shatters his own sanity.
  • Shadow Archetype: John Childermass towards Jeremy Johns; the trope is eventually acknowledged by Strange.
  • Shewn Their Work+Painting the Medium: The book is written in a faux 19th century style and uses historical persons and events. In universe, the text is annotated in order to give context to artifacts or persons mentioned in passing. The style is a first-rate emulation of Jane Austen's at many points, down to the variant spellings ("shew", "surprize", "chuse", and so on).
  • Smug Snake: Lascelles, very much so.
  • Socially-Awkward Hero: Norrell dresses well, wears a wig (albeit an old-fashioned one) and is able to conduct himself in polite society, but is entirely incapable of conveying his plans to people. He has a habit of going into long, exceedingly boring historical anecdotes and does not even care whether or not his audience is interested. It takes many months for him to even realise that most people do not believe in practical magic and that he needs to actually show them a spell in order to convince them. Drawlight and Lascelles first discover him behind a bookcase, engrossed in literature, at a party thrown in his own honour and take it upon themselves to become his social proxies.
    • To a much lesser extent, Jonathan Strange. He's pretty socially viable, but is easily distracted by magic and theology, and doesn't even realize that he causes his wife suffering.
  • Spell Book: Many, both books about magic and books of magic. Norrell is hoarding the latter.
  • Stalker with a Crush: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair, to Stephen Black. It's unknown if his love is romantic in a conventional sense or simply beyond human understanding.
  • Submissive Badass: Childermass can out-think pretty much all of the characters in the novel, and out-magic the majority of them.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Magic is treated both as a mysterious force and an unusual field of study. The actual nuts and bolts of the magic are largely glossed over, since the story is character-driven, but we learn enough to know that it is really complicated.
    • There are however significant hints as to how magic really works; and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair even says so outright in a blink and you'll miss it moment. Magic all comes down to making requests of genius loci (everything is a genius loci). The gentleman with the thistle-down hair and some Aureate magicians cultivate friendships with genius loci; most English magicians make use of the Raven King's treaties and alliances instead.
  • Tall, Dark and Handsome: The Raven King, and many of his fairy warriors. Childermass is also tall and dark but snarky rather than good-looking. (His face is described as bent, like a branch that grew the wrong way.) All of them get bonus points for having long hair and wearing long black coats.
  • Teleportation Sickness: Childermass experiences this when Lady Pole is around, causing him (or his perceptions) to travel between this world and Faerie.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: When the theoretical magicians had to give up their society, many of them were a nuisance while their female relatives were doing needlework.
  • There Can Be Only One: Norrell makes it his special project to make sure no one practices magic except him. Even the theoretical magicians who meet in York are apparently too much of a threat.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: The fops Drawlight and Lascelles.
  • Those Two Guys: Honeyfoot and Segundus.
  • Throw-Away Country: A footnote implies that the country of Wales has been magically erased from existence, its language remaining only in the minds of the insane.
  • Took a Level in Badass: The heartbreak of his wife's death coupled with the gentleman's attempts to drive him crazy allow Strange to turn from a nice Peter Wimseyish guy into a powerful and frightening Byronic Bad Ass. This is kind of lampshaded, as after rescuing his wife from Fairyland, he becomes a bit more like himself and attributes his earlier behavior to spending too much time around Lord Byron.
  • Unable To Support A Wife: When first introduced, Drawlight is describing how he broke up such a love match for a richer one.
  • The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: The Library at Hurtfew.
  • Wham Episode: The short final chapter of book two: "Arabella".
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: At the end of the novel, Strange destroys his house before journeying into Faerie with Norrell. Technically, both Strange's and Norrell's houses become "lost", not destroyed. Sometimes people claim they can see Norrell's house from afar, while Strange's cat still finds Strange's house, slipping between the neighboring houses into another realm where humans can not follow.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: The gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: It's noted how fairies who have the most powerful magic often have the same level of sanity as humans in madhouses. On the other hand, Norrell and Strange weren't insane when they performed their greatest feats of magic, and neither were the Aureate magicians of the time of the Raven King.
  • X Meets Y: The book has been described as "J.R.R. Tolkien meets Jane Austen", "Harry Potter for Adults", or "Harry Potter for History Buffs".
  • A Year and a Day: In Aureate times, magicians would go on quests for this long. The Raven King vanished for that long, once. It caused a lot of consternation because he only told one person he was going. That person didn't hear him right, and reported that he would be gone for a day.
  • You Are Worth Hell: A rather sweet non-romantic example between Strange and Norrell. They consent to spending many years in the Darkness together, and both realise that they're rather excited about the prospect of being locked up in eternal Night while continuously doing magic together.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: Lascelles eventually follows a fairy bridge and ends up in Faerie, where he kills the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart to prove he is braver than Childermass but instead is forced to take up the knight's place until someone kills him.

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alternative title(s): Jonathan Strange And Mister Norrell; Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell; Jonathan Strange And Mister Norrell
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