Every morning I bet you wake up and think, “Today I will contemplate the Napoleonic Wars and the many ways they could have been won or lost.” Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Even I, a History Major, admit I never gave old Bonaparte more than a passing glance when I was poring over history books. So I wouldn’t blame you if you retorted, “Heck, I’ve never given over three seconds thought to the old dude” and move on with your day.
But what if I said that proper English Magic was the reason Napoleon didn’t win some of his campaigns? Sorta changes the game, right? I am referring to the overall arch of Susanna Clarke’s massive novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is set during the Regency period of Jane Austen but with the grungy feel of Charles Dickens’ later Victorian authorship. And like Dickens, Clarke populates her story with an amazing cast of fresh characters. Unlike Dickens, magic is the key catalyst for what happens to the two primary characters, English Magician and Proper Gentleman, Mr. Norrell, and Jonathan Strange, an un-gentlemanly figure who likes to dabble in Magic and make it his own. Both men are clever with their knowledge of THAT ART, indeed, clever enough to summon the fairy gentleman with the thistle-down hair using magic yet not quite clever enough to understand what magical deals with said fairy entail.
Specifically, it is this fairy character that fascinated me from the start, even more so when the film adaptation came out. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is an Oberon, a conniving, twisted fairy who plays the game of fortune with humans to his best advantage. Like the fairy stories of old (not the Disney-fied kind that sew dresses with magic or poof together a pumpkin-coach), he finds loop-holes in agreements he casts with humans because humans often cannot specify every… single… last detail in words. To save a maiden’s life, he agrees to bring her back from the dead, so long as he can have half her life. The stupid person agreeing to the exchange does not realize that “half her life” means not “she will live to be slightly over forty and then die” but “every day she will live in the world of humans and every night in the world of fairy, dancing until exhausted at a magical ball.” It is easy to cry, “how horrible, how dastardly!” but might I suggest a different view of this magical person?
For you see, I study magical history, too, and I want to add that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair is simply a reincarnation of both Oberon, king of Shakespearian fairy-kind and a retelling of older stories and themes of fairy. Olden fairy tales were grim, startling affairs. One I am constantly recalling when I read the story of Jonathan Strange is that of The Girl Who Was Stolen by the Fairies, from Ireland, where a young maid falls asleep on an Elfin Mound on May Day. The fairies that live there replace her likeness with an image of her and whisk her inside the mound where she is forced to dance in the Fairy court. Her mother saves her only by obtaining magic ointment purchased off a witch and applying it to the image, breaking the fairy-spell so her daughter reappears. Another Irish tale with a similar title, The Girl Who Danced with the Fairies, is about a maid that was tricked on Hallowe’en and found herself in fairy court, where “a handsome young man, like a Prince” forces her to dance. She is able to save herself by refusing their food and drink and the fairies, in anger, kick her out of their mound.
The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is then merely living out the lines of verse:
“Tis the Midnight Hour! The Moon hangs white!
Mortal beware, ‘Tis Fairy Night!
From Elfin Mound And Fairy Hill,
Comes music sweet, And laughter shrill!
Mortal beware, For Fairy-Spell
Lies on meadow, Wood and dell!
And like Oberon of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who tricks his wife Titania into loving a man-turned-ass, this gentleman enjoys tricking the surrounding humans. He tricks one character into believing that his wife has sickened and died. He tricks a servant into doing certain misdeeds, without realizing this servant has a far larger role to play, even in his own life. And his trickster ways, much like the defeat of Fairy in many of the tales I’ve read, are found out and his fate… well, I shan’t say what that it is. All I will say is that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair does not always realize that while humans can be quite silly and even downright stupid, they can also approach problems from several angles. And when they lose, they try again. And again. And again. And…well, you get my meaning. And that, whether you lived three hundred years ago or were born in the 1900s/2000s, is a fact about people that is not likely to change. It is still relevant to our nature today.
So in my humble opinion, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a very peculiar tale that is worth a bit more than a passing glance. Yes, the book is QUITE LOOOOONG and there are lots of footnotes (some of which are quite humorous, though not as hysterical as those of Terry Pratchett’s fame). But even if all you do is watch the filmed version, it does an excellent job of showing Susanna Clarke’s masterful skill with fairy-tales and alternate histories. You will gain a new perspective of magic and fairies and how an author can take the old themes and create a new tale for a new age. And you might just find that you now have a burning passion for studying the Napoleonic Wars. Not likely, but hey, anything’s possible!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose in the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it!