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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: “The Education Of A Magician

Illustration for article titled Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: “The Education Of A Magician”

After two exposition-heavy episodes, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is running on full steam, the strongest episode yet showing the repercussions of people messing with a power that’s lain dormant for 300 years. The “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that pervades the magicians’ approach to magic sets the narrative into full-tilt drama given free rein by episode three, and it doesn’t look like the action will be slowing down any time soon.

The conflict of this episode comes from the magicians’ belief that they alone control magic, and that assumption metes out consequences for nearly everyone. It’s not really Strange and Norrell who suffer; in this episode, those who suffer are Lady Pole and Stephen. Both are put into socio-historical context, pushing the story beyond one of magic and into one that uses magic to explore the culture the story takes place in. The consistent undercurrent that Lady Pole’s madness is linked to her femaleness is solidified in this episode, with Norrell using the stereotype of women’s mental instability to his advantage. He implies to her husband that Lady Pole and Arabella “exercise each other’s emotions” and suggests their visits be curtailed, removing Lady Pole’s single friend and one hope of explaining herself.

Stephen’s blackness, meanwhile, is also solidified in this episode; where before the Gentleman had called him a slave, here Stephen refutes the term, explaining that no one on English soil may be a slave. Intent on turning him against his employers, the Gentleman shows Stephen a vision of his mother giving birth to him on a slaver’s ship—the ship of the family who employs him. “It is not unusual, Stephen, for a slave to take his master’s side,” the Gentleman says. This isn’t done for Stephens’ benefit, but for the Gentleman’s; he wants to crown Stephen king, and he’ll make Stephen as wretched as he possibly can so he’ll more fully embrace the Gentleman’s own desires.

“You have opened the door to hell and invited the devil into England,” Lady Pole tells Norrell, and she’s right: The Gentleman isn’t restrained to dealing with only magicians, as his interest in Stephen shows. His increasing attention paid to Arabella suggests a similarly grim fate is in store for her. In Lisbon on the warfront, meanwhile, Strange deals with his own shortcomings; making it up as he went along has worked before, but things are different at war. No one is much impressed with his offer to help, or cares to hear the difficulty of moving a forest. “One would have to negotiate with the trees… these are living things, they will have humors of their own,” he tries to explain. “They may not care for soldiers.”

It’s Strange’s own scenario of bringing the dead back to life is both of the greatest benefit to Wellington and the biggest cost to Strange. What starts out as a silly, humorous situation—the reanimated Neapolitans are so decayed they’re nearly falling apart, and they speak in a zombie-sounding language before Strange spits in their mouths to return their native tongue—becomes horrifying. Like Norrell, Strange doesn’t really know what he’s doing when he practices magic. It’s just that the consequences aren’t so stark when the magic is used in other ways. Bringing people back to life means they stay that way—alive—even though their bodies are too decayed to be well suited to the business of living.

There are other similarities between what Strange and Norrell are doing; namely, a thought-provoking, uneasy scene where Lady Pole asks Arabella what good her husband’s love has ever done her; caught flat-footed, Arabella fumbles for an answer (and Charlotte Riley works some magic of her own in this scene, aptly capturing the difficulty in explaining what good love does). Upon first arriving in Lisbon, Strange’s book learning extends only to reading the soldier’s letters from their wives back in England; one soldier tells Strange he’s expecting a package and wonders if his wife writes of sending it. Scanning the letter, Strange says she sends only her love. “What’s the good of sending love if you can’t send boots?” the grumpy soldier responds. It’s a fair question. Mr. Pole’s love for his wife doesn’t help her escape Lost Hope; a letter sending love doesn’t make war any less miserable.


In other words, sentiment means nothing compared to action. Norrell feels bad about Lady Pole, clearly, but it doesn’t matter how he feels. It matters what he does. Despite the Gentleman’s impression that he’s giving Lady Pole and Stephen a great gift, the reality is a living hell that isn’t altered by intention. Strange grapples with the disconnect between his desires and his actions the most, very obviously disturbed over bringing the soldiers back to life and distraught over what to do with them. His innocence is lost during these war scenes, and there’s something very sad about seeing his previously jocular, eye-twinkling demeanor altered by war and his own guilty actions.

Lady Pole understands this better than anyone, and in the thrilling final scene, takes action of her own. This scene also contains a third parallel between Strange’s and Norrell’s narrative: Both are saved from death by a devoted underling who takes the bullet (or the cannon ball) that was headed straight for their respective magicians. Here are people affected not by magic performed on them, but for their relationship to the magicians. The effect of magic has ripples, and those ripples emanate in larger and larger circles. Magic is moving beyond the magicians who try to use it: Arabella speaks with the Gentleman, and Childermass is struck with a brief magic of his own.


The “education” referred to in the episode’s title isn’t the magic contained in books, but experiencing the havoc magic wreaks. What Strange and Norrell learn is what will come to define them as magicians and as people, and it should be becoming clear to both that magic has an agenda of its own, embodied in the green-hued gentleman who spends an awful lot of time in England for someone who belongs in Lost Hope. It doesn’t bode well for the characters, but it bodes very well for us viewers.

Stray observations:

  • There are a lot of fantastic lines this episode, but my award for best one goes to the exchange between Wellington and Strange, with Wellington inquiring if a magician could kill with magic. “I suppose a magician might,” Strange replies, “But a gentleman never could.”
  • Close second, also from the warfront: “I have no wish to disturb the French. It is lunchtime; they won’t be happy.”
  • Norrell was right to be worried about his books. Strange doesn’t exactly take pains to keep them safe, bringing them into a war zone. I’m all for a good, worn-in book, but seriously.
  • Those without magical knowledge call Lost Hope “hell,” but what is hell if not a place where hope is lost?
  • When can I buy Lady Pole’s tapestry on Etsy?
  • In my opinion, this episode does a good job of condensing a whole lot of action into a clean plot, but book readers may be left reeling with how many pages are packed in (and skipped over). Commenters who have read the books, what are your thoughts?
  • It strikes me that Drawlight and Lascelles, in name, are spiritual kin of Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the bumbling Danes who seek to ingratiate themselves with Hamlet for their own purposes.
  • Also of note regarding Drawlight: Look at that outfit, and especially those pants.