All the Mirrors in the World

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep4 (No. 4) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Jonathan Strange (BERTIE CARVEL), Mr Norrell (EDDIE MARSAN) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

Last week I read The Raven King, the final book in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. But, as she has pointed out on Twitter, she does not hold a monopoly on welsh mythology, and the Raven King can be found elsewhere in culture, media, and literature. It can be found most notably in the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell–possibly the longest and most intimidating fantasy novel ever written.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is, if the Wikipedia page is to be believed, possibly the most British book ever written. Described as “an alternate history […] centered on the relationship between these two men, the novel investigates the nature of “Englishness” […] and Northern and Southern English cultural tropes/stereotypes. The novel’s language is a pastiche of 19th-century writing styles.” (Wikipedia.)

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverThe novel is 1006 pages long. The cover is entirely black and white. The title sounds like somebody’s biography. It’s one of those books that, when mentioned, everyone nods sagely as if they’ve read it or would like to read it, but secretly they know they never will. If you are one of those people and you wish to come across as even more superior at the kinds of parties where people compare the length of the fantasy novels they’ve read, a solution has presented itself. Television, understanding the struggle of wading through a thousand pages of pseudo-history, has come to your rescue. You need no longer spend two weeks reading the book when, in just nine hours, you can enjoy the condensed version as presented for the less dedicated audience.

There is a dearth of good Fantasy television and movies, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does not disappoint in this regard. It can be described as Pride and Prejudice meets Labyrinth. It brings together an unlikely friendship. Mr. Norrell is a reclusive yet accomplished magician who finally comes out of seclusion to offer his assistance in winning the Napoleonic wars. Jonathan Strange is a young fellow in search of an occupation who decides to take up magic without any prior training. He becomes Mr. Norrell’s apprentice but their different views and approaches towards magic strain their relationship and eventually set them at odds.

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep2 (No. 2) - Picture Shows: The Gentleman (MARC WARREN) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

So what are some compelling reasons to love the series?

“Englishmen and their books.”

Books play a hugely important role in the study and preservation of magic, and in the dynamics of the plot. Acquiring, writing, and restricting access to books is part of the struggle between Strange and Norrell. Books are tragically destroyed. Battles are wages for books. People are killed for books. People are even born because of books.

Mirrors also turn out to be important. Everyone knows that there’s something strange and unnatural about a reflection, and everyone has always wondered what lies beyond a mirror. Strange’s first magical demonstration for Norrell is to trap a newspaper in a mirror, leaving it’s reflection in the real world. He does not, however, know how to get it back. Later he learns how to walk through mirrors, granting him access to virtually any room. It’s some of the best-written mirror lore I have ever seen.

The myth and fairytale lore is impeccable. There are evil faeries, fantastic eyebrows, enchanted balls, failed resurrections and, of course, ravens. There is also true love, and that doesn’t happen every day. Overall this was an enchanting series full of ups and downs, realistic relationships, hopelessly English characters, impeccable manners, and magic as wild and unruly as the wind over the moors.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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