I have recently finished, for something like the fourth or fifth time, Susanna Clarke’s historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. One of my favourite books, it imagines an entire history of magic and fairies in England, a history which by the time of the Napoleonic Wars (when the story is set) has been largely forgotten or moved into the shadowy realm of folk memory. The only practicing magician left in England, Gilbert Norrell, sets out to bring magic back into prominence and respectability. He eventually takes an apprentice, Jonathan Strange, and the novel follows their association, their falling-out, and the slow but shocking return of English magic.
Having also recently graduated from a theological college, I couldn’t help but notice something new during this reading: the way that Clarke talks about magic, and the personalities of her quarrelling magicians, is remarkably similar to how one can talk about theological study. You can start, of course, with the books; Mr Norrell has hoarded all the books of magic in the kingdom and his library is famous for being read by nobody but himself. He sees himself as the guardian of magical tradition and cites the magicians of centuries past the way a theologian will cite the Church Fathers. In this fictional universe, magic is kept in books; and any seminary student will tell you the same about theology. The novel tells us of the distinct difference between books about magic and books of magic; anyone who reads theology knows that distinction well. There is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and there is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Both can be read profitably, but the modern book is explaining the older. Christian theology was largely defined centuries ago; most modern developments of it are either applying it to new contexts or leaving the fold of orthodoxy altogether.
This brings in the other parallel between Clarke’s fantasy and Christian theology. Mr Norrell is a conservative traditionalist, wary of what he considers dangerous and (though he does not use this word) heretical. He sees most people as children, at least in matters of magic, who need to be protected, and himself as the only person wise enough to keep them on the straight and narrow. Jonathan Strange, however, ultimately bristles at Norrell’s haughty attitude and strikes out on his own, for a real exploration of all that magic has to offer, however dangerous it might be. He also seeks a more intense engagement with the source of English magic: the half-mythical figure of John Uskglass. In the story, John Uskglass was a child raised in the land of Faerie who returns to rule as the king of Northern England. He vanished centuries ago, and much of the magic he knew and did disappeared with him. When Strange desires the return of English magic, he desires the return of John Uskglass. It is not unlike praying for the Second Coming.
Thus the conflict between Strange and Norrell resembles somewhat the Protestant Reformation. Norrell is like the medieval Catholic Church; to him the dogma and doctrine is everything, protecting us from error. He alone is its protector and authoritative interpreter. Strange, like the Reformers, fights for a return to ‘the source’—ad fontes, as Luther and Calvin and Erasmus proclaimed. He also has a much more democratic view of magic, recognizing that its return depends on everyone being able to do it. The Reformation came to centre on the question of Scripture and who had the authority to interpret it. Luther’s own great achievement was the translation of the Bible into German so that it could be understood by even the ordinary peasants (who of course needed to have it read to them, but that was another battle). The traditionalist Norrell and the radical Strange come to loggerheads for much the same sort of reasons.
The return of English magic, so expected and so hoped for by both magicians, happens in the same way that divine revelation happens to theologians: it spoils everything. It shocks and surprises both conservative and liberal, and results in events that neither could have expected or hoped for. Strange expresses the fond wish of wanting John Uskglass to look at him, to see him, to say ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ He wants something like the beatific vision; when he gets his wish, and thereby sees his own smallness and unimportance, it leaves him “quite cured of wanting to be looked at.” Theology, however perfect or correct it might be, can rarely prepare you for the wildness that is God.
I do not for a moment believe that Susanna Clarke, though apparently a Christian and churchgoer, deliberately wrote an epic fantasy that can be decoded so as to be about religion. This reflection is really on what I’ve been learning and noticing over the last four years in school, and on how the most well-known and cherished books can seem to grow along with us, acquiring new facets that correspond with our understanding, surprising us no matter how familiar we might think they are.