The Raven King

SEPT / OCT 2015: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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One could write an endless series of essays on the depths, nuances and meanings found in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a literary sensation and miniseries centered around the return of magic into an alternate England during the Napoleonic conflict. The story is a hodge-podge of Dickens-esque characters (all quirks, memorable names, and at times preposterous behaviors), fantastical historical switch-ups (one of the reasons Napoleon failed to invade England was the use of magical sea barriers), satire on the level of Jane Austen, and the richness of old faerie lore, tossed about with a decidedly sarcastic air. One could write about the title characters and their duality, being one another but inverted; the faults of one are the strengths of the other, for example (one a cautious man, the other arrogant and rash). Or one could discuss the many influences and sources of inspiration Susanna Clarke drew upon when creating this magnificent world full of many figures.

But no, what struck me upon a reading (and many viewings) was not merely the hilarity of it, or the quirks of it, or even the charm of talking statues and horses made of “horse sand,” but a single remark that settled upon me as the story drew near its end. Since the start, the magicians of Strange and Norrell have assumed themselves in control of their own fates, and dare to “summon the Raven King” in the hopes that he might defeat the Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair, a mischievous and malicious faerie king, who is making their lives miserable. Throughout the story, the Raven King has been spoken of with fear and reverence, an unseen force that once brought magic into England for a time and then simply… departed from it. He is gone but not dead; presumed vanished into the worlds beyond the mirrors of England. Now, they dare to summon him forth… and when he appears, he does not do their will or even speak to them, merely resurrects his prophet from the dead and rewrites the prophecy written into his skin.

Before the two magicians vanish, the prophet remarks to Norrell’s faithful friend and servant that they have never been in charge of their fates at all; all along, the magicians have been part of the Raven King’s story… they are his servants; he is not theirs. They do his will, for his purpose. And suddenly in my mind, the threads of an entertaining story became more interesting, for I saw an analogy probably not intended but that is profound.

In Strange and Norrell, I see reflections of the arrogance of mankind, in assuming because it can, it should, and that mankind controls its own destiny, when in reality, we can neither “summon” nor “direct” the ways of divine Providence. Their story, its ending, its repercussions, and the spread of magic into society, was intended by the Raven King all along. Magic existed once, the Raven King intended it to exist again, and used two magicians to reinstate it. Having fulfilled the prophecy, it is written anew by its creator, leaving us to wonder … what happens next? ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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