Tony Fyler escapes The Black Tower...
As the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell approaches, the stakes are ramping ever higher – secrets are revealed, darkness uncovered, and powers and players prepare to make their move.
We asked last time, if you were a powerful magician, what would you not do to keep those you love safe, to bring them back to you from harm, to save them from the grip of death?
A tinge of madness seems to be the pathway to magical greatness, and Jonathan Strange – wild, passionate Jonathan Strange – is all for magical greatness, if not simply for the sake of it or the sake of the Raven King, then certainly for the sake of his wife, Arabella. In Episode 6, Strange is trying to force himself to madness through poisons and potions, but finds instead the power of a crazy cat lady as a way of tiptoeing towards a proposed alliance with the Gentleman.
But the Gentleman will not be allied with on the whim of a magician, and the two of them face a showdown when Jonathan finds his way to Lost Hope to interrupt the endless dance of Belle.
Norrell meanwhile does what he can to discredit Jonathan, stealing his books into thin air almost as soon as they are bought, to ‘protect’ the world from the wild magic within.
Strange learns mysteries through his encounter and his battle with the Gentleman, and swears to come for Norrell and to bring magic back to England – real magic, wild magic, the magic of the Raven King.
Meanwhile, Vinculus the street magician is revealed here in his true nature, as though he’ll play a larger part in the fates of Strange and Norrell. Whether he does or not, we’ll see in the final episode.
Lines are drawn for a cataclysmic conclusion to this barnstorming series, and the tones are fascinating – Jonathan Strange, even down to the name, has all the qualities of a Gothic tragedy: a man of bright and beautiful mind, with instinct and power and a dashing spirit, driven mad by circumstance, by persecution, and by grief, to dabble in the darkest of the arts and deal with fairies. Gilbert Norrell has all the qualities of a man who would not dare to read such a book – false dignity, authority, bookishness, a sense of propriety that would drive him to grab pitchforks and torches against what he does not understand or dare not look at. They are avatars, these two English magicians, of the duality of the Napoleonic age – wildness and restraint, a yearning to find power in nature and the scientific mysteries versus a yearning to find wisdom in clean and quiet libraries of books. And standing between the two, the Raven King, the Gentleman, and the nameless slave – between these powerful avatars of the spirit of their age, the structures that keep their society together – a king, absent, a gentleman, with the power to make his will an absolute, and the nameless slave to do his endless bidding. It’s Georgian society personified. That comes as a clever shock, so late in the story – a stroke of admirable control on the part of the writer and adapter, Susanna Clarke and Peter Harness respectively. Of course, there’s also the adjunct that those who speak against the Gentleman or dare to cross his will ‘go mad,’ and in Lady Pole’s case are literally locked in asylums. Any which way you slice it, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, certainly in this TV adaptation, is a powerful allegory of the manners and mores of the society in which it’s based – a kind of Frankenstein with fireballs.
The feel of this episode is notably darker than anything that’s come before it, but there’s a definite sense that it’s an outgrowth of all the episodes leading up to this point – Norrell’s high-handed superiority, Strange’s impatience, his experience in the war, and each man’s dealings or would-be dealings with fairies and the Gentleman in particular, crystalising as ever into dissent around the question of the Raven King. To the credit of both the author and the adapter, six episodes in, we know the vaguest shape of what the ending will be, but remain pretty much in the dark about the precise form the cataclysm and conclusion will take. This will be one of those series that in years to come, should you have the luxury of a Sunday entirely free, you’ll stick into your DVD player and lose yourself in utterly, finding new things on repeated viewings and relishing every moment. It’s been up to now a breath of fresh, magical air on Sunday nights otherwise stuffed with Edwardian aristocrats and shopkeepers. I for one will be sorry to see it end, but end it must, and soon – what will be the future of English magic, and particularly of the two greatest English magicians of the age? What lies in store for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?
It’s almost time to see.
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