The Game of Kings is played, says Tony Fyler.
As the halfway point of the TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is reached, the action is ramping up. The terrible case of Lady Pole – helped initially by Norrell in dark collaboration with The Gentleman – seems hopeless after she shoots Childermass, Norrell’s unpleasant factotum (who bears, it must be said, something of a likeness to the Raven King), and she is packed off to an asylum.
Strange and Norrell together are summoned to help the king – Mad King George III – despite Mr Norrell’s continuing assertion that magic cannot cure madness. But when Strange, frustrated that they tried little in the way of practical magic to help His Majesty, goes back alone, he almost becomes responsible for the king’s death and replacement at the hands of the Gentleman and his well-meaning slave, Stephen.
Nevertheless, the incident with the king convinces Jonathan that there is more to English magic than the stilted, ‘proper’ pathways Norrell advocates, and he goes exploring on his own, into territory that puts him literally through the looking glass, walking ‘the king’s roads’ – the Raven King’s roads, that is, territory more than willing to snatch the unwary. And Strange is about as unwary as one can be – he’s enthused, positively bubbling with hunger and thirst for the old ways, to understand them, shape them, make them his own.
Finding his plans thwarted by ‘the stupid magician’ though, the Gentleman determines to set his hand against Jonathan Strange, to destroy him utterly, and starts looking for the ‘moss oak’ as a way of bringing about his ruination.
Meanwhile, his time in the mirror lands allows Jonathan to uncover a scam being perpetrated in his name by the Norrelite lackey, Drawlight (though apparently without the consent of the magician himself), leading Norrell to demand a magical court, separate to the civil courts, with himself as sole judge and jury – tantamount to a tyranny of magic. The idea is opposed by one and all, but most strenuously by Strange. When Norrell, via his other hanger-on Lascelles, publishes his book of English magic, Strange cannot hold his tongue, and publishes a scathing review of the work. England’s two magicians are clearly growing more and more at odds, but it’s not until the end of the episode that the extent of their divergence becomes clear. Strange, the ‘stupid magician,’ has made enemies on both sides of the mirror it seems.
There’s a moment in most great tragedies where a whole other, happier path opens up in front of the hero, and this episode also gives us that moment for Jonathan Strange. With even Belle demanding he stop using ‘the king’s roads,’ with Norrell against him, and being an essentially affable man, Strange determines he will be a magician no more – or at least in no more than theory. He will pack up his house in London and go home, to live his married life with Belle and read and write his magical books. All will be well with the Stranges, and Norrell can have his supremacy of constipated, ditchwater-dull English magic.
There’s a moment in most great tragedies immediately after that flourishing of hope, where the hero’s personality, or blind, stupid circumstance, conspire to collapse that golden window into a life of light. It’s the moment that makes the story told a tragedy, a tale of ‘if only…’
And that moment comes here too, the audience feeling their stomach turn with sadness, but also, if they’re really honest with themselves, feeling the thrill too. We like watching tragedies precisely because they show us the downfall of human beings, to learn from, but also, sadly, to revel in.
The moment of tragedy here is a doozy, and a historically viable one at that. The Stranges’ plans to be a happy couple in the country are put on hold almost immediately they are made, and Jonathan is forced to leave London – but in a less hospitable direction to the way he had planned. He is a magician going back to war, and under Wellington, back to the temptations and the demands of black magic, the magic of the Raven King. Only now he has confirmed enemies beyond Napoleon trying to destroy him and his happiness. The Gentleman has found his method of torturing the stupid magician, and Gilbert Norrell, with genuine sadness, is turning his mind to ways to frustrate and discredit his former apprentice.
And have we heard the last of Lady Pole? It seems not – the ‘asylum’ to which she’s committed is a new establishment, run by Messrs Segundus and Honeyfoot, previous victims of Mr Norrell’s high-handed attitude towards English magic.
There seems little left to say, four episodes in, about the quality of the performances in this series – everyone seems to be en pointe, and the world they create is entirely believable, despite the challenging blend of real history and the alternate universe in which magic is a real force, a historical force in English history. It’s worth sparing some words though for the design, especially in this episode where the world beyond the mirrors is rendered for us as a place we go in daylit rationality, rather than the half-truth metaphors of dreams. The creation of this world is intriguing, shades of silver and grey seeming to convey a duality of meaning – the glitter of allure and the childlike wonder at snowflakes, eventually dulling down to the appalling, hellish monotony of the aptly-named Lost Hope. In its own way, it’s a telling mirror-image of the Georgian period itself – to borrow a Beautiful South lyric, ‘Everyone is blond and everyone is beautiful. And when blond and beautiful are multiple, they become so dull and dutiful.’ The Gentleman too dresses in a kind of extravagant, colourless parody of the era of Georgian excess in which he finds himself at work. It’s a theme that can be over-emphasised, but it seems in this episode to epitomize the quarrel between Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Norrell’s magic is allegedly ‘respectable,’ but staggeringly dull. Strange’s in wild, untamed and shockingly vivid. The battle between England’s two magicians seems set to become a battle for the philosophy of the age in which they live. Can either of them win? Or is the truth that both of them must ultimately fail to capture the reality of human life, being one half of an essential duality?
Tune in next time for more heavy philosophy dressed up in well-plotted, pacey drama with perfect performances, so you only notice it if you think about it really quite hard.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk