Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Gnostic Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Gnostic Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Article excerpt

SUSANNA CLARKE'S JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL DEPICTS A FANTASTIC early nineteenth-century world that is in danger of losing its identity through denial of its own magic. In what John Milbank characterizes as "the [George] MacDonald tradition," Clarke "re-envisages Christianity altogether in continuity with certain strands of the Romantic tradition" (2). Like MacDonald's Lilith, Clarke's Christian Romance appears both unorthodox and Gnostic. Clarke's depiction of the restoration of magic in England is embedded within a recurring motif of crucifixion, reinforcing the notion of social redemption through sacrifice and altruism. This sacrifice is one of identity. Both Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange, the protagonist magicians, must sacrifice their inauthentic, egocentric selves so that each can embrace a shared "original self, a spark," which in Harold Bloom's description of the Gnostic quest, "goes back to before the Creation" (22). The common self that is discovered through this mystical insight is recognized through their mutual interdependence and cooperation within a civitas dei of kindred magicians. Such a self, embodying a union of individual and communal traditions, is revealed in the mythical character of John Uskglass, who as the personification of ideal magic materializes as a kind of holy spirit at the conclusion of the novel from the spells that are desperately cast to rescue Strange's wife, Arabella.

The vision of the novel is part of a Romantic version of Gnosticism that locates the divine within the human, a faith, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, that "through me, God acts; through me, speaks" (Bloom, American 22). This intuition of the divine source within the self is one of the salient features of Gnosticism. Others include a Manichean worldview, pitting a corrupt, dark, materialist world created by a vengeful, imperfect demiurge against a pure, un-fallen Eden suffused with authentic spirituality and identity; a complex reimagining of the world as myth, continually re-enacting the fall from grace as well as redemption through sacrifice; and a trinity at odds with itself rather than the unified trinity of the Orthodox Church. The conflict between Norrell, the father, and Strange, the son, is mediated and ultimately resolved by the third figure of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, symbolized by John Uskglass or the Raven King. In a more conventional fantasy, such a figure would arrive triumphantly, sword in hand, to save the empire at the conclusion of the novel, but in this revisionist fantasy, his appearance, wherein he breathes life into the dead Vinculus, is misrecognized by the only character to come into direct contact with him. The novel thus appears to suggest that individual heroism, defined by Northrop Frye as one of the hallmarks of Romance, is suspect due to its tendency to degenerate into mere egotistical, envious rivalry. The identity of the hero, presented here as truly wise and profoundly powerful, is indistinct: he is the "nameless slave." Knowledge of the Holy Spirit, which is the essence of Gnosticism or its mystical core, is therefore represented here as an indirect intuition achieved through myth rather than direct apprehension.

Reviews of the novel, although very positive in general, have emphasized the appeal of its style, comedy, and imagination rather than its philosophical insight or religious mysticism. Lev Grossman, for example, writing in Time, praised in particular its "delicious social comedy of Jane Austen" (1). The novel in Neil Gaiman's words was "a delight to read.... elegant and precise," as well as imaginatively convincing. As the New York Post put it, the novel is an "incredible work of the imagination" ("Reviews").

Nevertheless, beneath the delightful comedy and the sparkling display of magic lie contemplative depths. The novel presents to a careful reader an extended meditation on the authentic spirituality achieved through mysticism. Jonathan Strange re-enacts a kind of "Christian Allegory . …

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