Monday, 29 June 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: The Education of a Magician

"Can a magician kill a man by magic?"

"I suppose a magician might. But a gentleman never could."

And on we go. More creative direction from Toby Haynes, more faithful adaptation of the novel by Peter Harness and more top notch villainy from Marc Warren. This continues to be a superb piece of television fantasy for all the reasons mentioned previously. And now we're getting to the really good bits. Jonathan Strange's adventures in the Peninsular War were always my favourite part of the novel, and they're just as extraordinary here.

Norrell, back at home, is rather passive, but malevolently so. He intercepts the letters between Mr and Mrs Strange lest he lose control of information, and he callously informs Mrs Pole of her awful fate, and the fact that he will not help her, and sends Childermass to destroy her rather nice tapestry. She is collateral damage in the cause of "respectability". Yet Norrell does not come across as evil, merely obsessive and addicted to missing the point, a bit like a bad boss.

Strange, meanwhile, is slowly learning, in Portugal, to rely less on books and structure and more on gut instinct, as far from Norrell as a magician can get; order versus chaos. (And it's interesting to think of the Gentleman in those terms, is it not? Chaos seems to often equal faerie, hence Norrell's dislike). One knows instinctively that Norrell would not approve of his raising the dead. Wellington (a superb character) cares not; to him, "Merlin" may as well just be a military engineer, a problem solver at his disposal.

But the episode's most powerful scene belongs to Stephen Black, a character thus far as marginalised on the narrative as he is I the narrative, as the Gentleman shows his horrific birth among the chains and disease and death of a slave ship, reinforced by the simple question "What was the name your mother gave you?" Much as the Gentleman may dangle the prospect of kingship at Stephen, we know (as the Gentleman seemingly does not) that this could surely never happen.

The end of the episode- Childermass takes the bullet as Lady Pole attempts to assassinate Norrell- is shocking. But not as shocking as the scenes in the slave ship. It is clear that the novel, like the series, is not just a superlative Gaimanesque fantasy, but has things to say about the world. And it's bloody brilliantly, too.

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