JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL: “The Education of a Magician”

This week: French zombies, creepy tapestries, and an ever-growing darkness.

Can a magician kill a man by magic?

–Lord Wellington

I suppose a magician might… but a gentleman never could.

–Strange

The third episode of Strange & Norrell is the best yet, as our two men learn, separately now, that this whole “magic” thing is not going to be as easy as they thought. We can even begin to guess why it left England in the first place — even in the best of hands, magic is not something to be trivialized or toyed with. Parlor room tricks can be amusing; sand horses and ghost ships inspire awe; but before long, your audience (or employer) grows bored of that, and you have to attempt something much more dangerous. Norrell has already experienced firsthand the consequences of bringing someone back to life; Strange’s magic is different, but no less unsettling, especially for the magician himself.

Mr. Strange’s adventures on the front lines of the war, where he tracks the honorable Lord Wellington to Portugal, shake him to his core. Up to now magic has been a bit of a lark; not that he doesn’t take himself seriously as a practitioner, but that he has never had to put himself at risk before. And like Norrell when he first arrived in London, it takes a bit of time — Days? Weeks? The series doesn’t say — for him to get the time of day from the brusque general, who is annoyed by the magician’s mere presence (“I am Strange!” “Indeed.”) To Wellington, he represents the latest bit of magic-aided meddling from government ministers, who think they can peer into a bowl and understand how to run the war better than he can. Unless Strange can make men or artillery magically appear, Wellington’s not interested in what he has to offer. And to be fair, Strange doesn’t really know what he can offer.

The Portugal scenes were some of my favorite material from the original novel, though in print form it does a better job of communicating the passage of time. Here, it’s as breakneck-paced as everything else, and Strange is home again at the end of the hour. Months — years? — have gone by. It’s disorienting, especially with the slower developments of the London plotlines, by comparison. But there’s still a lot of fantastic imagery here, like the magical road that Strange builds to aid the speed of the English army (Wellington, ever unsatisfied with his own private Merlin: “Can you make it a little straighter tomorrow?”). The Lord comes to rely on him, perhaps too much, as his demands grow more and more difficult to bring about. An attempt to move an entire forest ends in disaster: the trees groan, but that only calls the attention of the French, and many men — including Strange’s intrepid servant, Jeremy — are killed. Worse, all of Norrell’s books are destroyed. He was right to be worried about those, it seems.

Norrell is worried about a lot of things: while Strange begins to win renown abroad, Norrell is stuck in Hanover Square, poring over his library same as before. The madness of poor Lady Pole is all anyone can seem to talk about, and with Arabella being the only person that visits her regularly, that makes her a target for Norrell’s suspicion. He can’t stomach the idea that Lady Pole might somehow manage to explain what he has done to her, and that Arabella might tell her husband, so in a fit of human awfulness he tasks an uneasy Childermass with intercepting all of their letters to each other. So the entire time Strange is in the war, he and his wife can’t communicate. Norrell treats their marriage just as cavalierly as he does Lady Pole’s soul, whose life he continues to make worse when he pays her a visit himself — not to apologize, but to defend his actions: “What I did was to further the cause of English magic and help win the war. Innocent people must suffer.” So he feels bad, but not enough to do anything about it. Yikes.

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You would expect a more traditional series to decide for us whether Norrell is evil or just misguided; instead, Eddie Marsan lets us see his fear and his pride, his genius and his patriotism, all wrapped up together. Strange is a far easier character to parse: young, absent-minded, idealistic. Norrell is disliked even by those who suppose to help him, like the hideous Drawlight. And Lady Pole hates him: she can’t talk, but she can sew, and the chilling tapestry that details what she suffers on a nightly basis — her and Stephen trapped within a Boschian horrorshow governed by the Devil, the King of Lost Hope — scares the living daylights out of Childermass when he is sent in to steal it. The woman is broken on every level, even attempting to take her own life, and Stephen isn’t far behind. The Gentleman, growing in malevolence with every scene, pledges to make Stephen a king, and expects Stephen to be grateful for the honor, and all the attention he’s been giving him.

Did Norrell’s spell summon faerie, or this particular one? It seems that the Gentleman has enormous power compared to his brethren; what does he have to gain by dragging Stephen into his orbit? “It is said you are to kill the king and take his place,” he tells Stephen, before burdening him with a vision of his birth in a mirror. Stephen may not have been a slave, but his mother was, and she died before she could name him, which technically makes him a fit for that particular bit of prophecy. How long has the Gentleman known this? Since before Norrell summoned him, or after? The faerie certainly has a lot on his plate; between his nights with Lady Pole, his days with Stephen, his plotting to destroy Norrell and Strange, and lusting after Arabella (even appearing to her in person, though she blows him off, the smart girl), what was he doing before all this started? Is he actually the Raven King himself? We should worry for Mrs. Strange, whose loneliness and isolation is a product not of the Gentleman, but of the two magicians in her life.

Everyone is suffering. Strange has come home changed, and not for the better; he never again wants to find himself in a position where his only move is to turn French corpses into French zombies, chattering away in Hell-speak, begging not to be sent back. His lightness of spirit in the first few episodes has been replaced by something colder and more single-minded. Meanwhile, Norrell is watching his dream of glory get usurped right before his eyes. Arabella, who is doing the best she can to connect the fragments of Lady Pole’s and Stephen’s ramblings, has no way of knowing what manner of dark forces are currently conspiring against her. The Lady herself, for her part, has had enough; if she can’t kill herself, she’ll kill Norrell… and she nearly does, before Childermass takes the bullet instead. But we know so little about him, we don’t know whether to be sad or relieved. The crescendo the episode builds to is a powerful one, and for one sequence at least, the accelerated pace of the adaptation works in its favor. It’s only going to get crazier from here.

Odds and Ends:

  • Mr. Segundus update: Childermass stops by to pass along Norrell’s cease and desist for the school of magic. “This is tyranny!” Segundus shouts as Childermass rides away. Mr. Honeyfoot is accidentally more accurate: “This way of doing business will come back and haunt him!” Indeed.
  • Not many laughs on the London side this week, unless you count Drawlight’s pathetic attempt at threatening Arabella (which she sees through), or his God, him too? reaction when Childermass performs magic. But the Gentleman repeatedly getting spurned, though it enrages him, is amusing in the moment; every time his monologuing reaches its peak, Arabella blows out a candle or just walks away. They’re the only times we see him look foolish.
  • The quote I used as the epigram is my favorite from the entire book, and I’m thrilled it made it into the show verbatim. Even happier by Bertie Cavel’s sincere delivery. That’s the real difference between Strange and Norrell: the former believes there are lines you just can’t cross, even for the “glory of English Magic.”
  • Until the cannon attack, when Strange’s outlook changes, the Portugal campaign is an endearing kind of English droll: “I have no wish to disturb the French. It is lunchtime; they won’t be happy.”
  • I continue to be impressed by what director Toby Haynes and his production team pull off on such a limited budget. They recognize that there’s sometimes no need for CGI when good sound effects will do the job, which you’d think more people would catch on to.

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