Beyond good and evil

by Henry on December 10, 2004

Jennifer Howard of the Washington Post has a longish article-cum-book-review in the most recent Boston Review on “the uses of fantasy,” where she gets it very badly wrong, but in an interesting way. She takes a critical hatchet to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which I and others on this blog and elsewhere liked quite a lot) and to modern fantasy in general, but rather than attacking it for being too ridden with the cliches of genre, she attacks it because it isn’t genre enough. For Howard,

When the news strays so far from the familiar moral contours of the struggle between Good and Evil, it’s tempting to lose ourselves in stories in which this battle is fought in clear terms and on an epic scale.
Good over here, Evil over there—call it the Lord of the Rings model, in which heroes may be flawed but are always recognizably heroes, and their enemies want nothing less than to stamp out (as one of the good guys puts it in Peter Jackson’s recent film adaptation) “all that’s green and good in this world.” Many other fantasy classics work this territory, too; think of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, with its underpinning of Christian allegory.

Thus, Howard finds that JSAMN is a failure; it’s “a possibly fatal degree of academic remove away from epic sweep and the big moral questions.” More precisely:

aren’t the showier sorts of magic—magic that battles for the soul of the world—exactly what we need, now more than ever? … Clarke’s novel doesn’t parody the genre; it displays in a lifeless cabinet of wonders all its elements—every element, that is, but the epic sense of Good and Evil, of things larger than ourselves, that makes the best fantasy so powerful and so necessary.

I’m not disputing that escapist fantasy can’t be good stuff (when it’s well written, it’s wonderful), but I do think it’s rather unfair to pillory Clarke for not writing the kind of book that she clearly didn’t want to write in the first place. Clarke isn’t especially interested, as far as I can make out, in epic battles between good and evil; instead, she’s rather more concerned with the tensions between the magical and the mundane. She’s not copying Tolkien; if anything, she’s riffing on a very different tradition of fantasy that goes back to Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist. For which purpose, the incongruence between the world of Faerie and the social niceties of Regency England works extremely well – it not only provides Clarke with the makings of good comedy, but allows her to get at the fundamental thinness of the British social order. The key moments in the book are those where you realize that Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell’s dispute is at most a sort of shadow play, a prelude to something much stranger and wilder. From Clarke’s novel:

He had meant to say that if what he had seen was true, then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child’s-play and magic was a much stranger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them.

Magic, in Susanna Clarke’s novel, is profoundly unsettling, in a way that it isn’t in Howard’s preferred forms of fantasy; it threatens to disrupt the social order. There’s a sort of dynamic tension between it and reality, rather than a simple escape from our complex world. If the usages of Regency England are so fragile, so vulnerable to disruption from without, then what of our own settled ways of doing things? Howard clearly doesn’t like this mode of writing, which is her right, but it seems to me at the least peculiar that she should prosecute the book for not being what it doesn’t want to be in the first place, and then convict it on all counts. There’s more than one mode of fantasy out there, and if JSAMN doesn’t conform to her preferred type, then that’s really not Clarke’s fault, nor does it reflect on the book itself so much as on the lack of sympathy between the book and a particular kind of reader.

{ 27 comments }

1

Kip Manley 12.10.04 at 1:48 am

And suddenly I’m thinking Howard’s piece and A.S. Byatt’s Potter piece from last year would make interesting bookends.

Though I am not entirely certain how to fit the ghastly rewriting of the central conflict of His Dark Materials—so as to assure it won’t offend the American Christianist right—between them.

2

Chris 12.10.04 at 2:07 am

She also gets Tolkien himself badly wrong by taking him as her examplar of the manichaean “struggle between Good and Evil.” The moral matrix of Tolkien’s world is one in which — consistent with Tolkien’s Catholicism — “evil” has no existence in itself, but is a perversion or misdirection of the good. No created being is wholly good, not Frodo or Gandalf or anyone else; but neither is any existing being wholly evil, not even Sauron. There’s a strong sense of “but for the grace of God…” throughout Tolkien, though the idea of “God” is only hinted at by its refraction in the idea of Beauty (often, for Tolkien the philologist, linguistic beauty).

3

foolishmortal 12.10.04 at 2:36 am

Howard gets this wrong, and as you note, the error lies in her expectations of genre. Yes, this is a fantasy novel, but unlike the vast majority of others is not part of the Tolkien tradition.

JSAMN owes much more to the work of Arthur Machen. He’s less well-known than he should be, but in Clarke his influence is impossible to miss. Machen’s influence is most widely felt through H.P. Lovecraft, and there are many aspects of JSAMN that feel very Lovecraftian.

I think Machen’s work should be out of copyright now, so any fantasy fans should check him out.

4

Alan Bostick 12.10.04 at 2:59 am

It makes me wonder whether Jennifer Howard disparages the writing of Isak Dinesen because her protagonists are not cut from the same heroic mold as Allan Quatermain or Lord Greystoke, on the grounds that such heroes’ exploits exploits are what readers of African adventures hunger for.

5

Henry 12.10.04 at 3:02 am

I’m actually much more sympathetic to Byatt – smack me down if you like, but I mostly agree with her criticisms. She’s ruder to Rowling’s readers than she should be, but I think she’s right – there’s something missing from the Potter books (the first is quite good in many ways, the others degenerate rapidly imo). I do recognize that this is a minority opinion on my part.

foolishmortal, hadn’t thought about Machen as an influence. The influence of Mirrlees is very substantial – Mirrlees depicts a similar collision between a rather self-satisfied bourgeois world, and a fairy land of longing to Clarke’s. The thistle-haired gentleman could have walked from the pages of _Lud-in-the-Mist_. Not to say that JSANMN is derivative though – Clarke does her own thing with the materials, and has a specifically political acuteness that Mirrlees doesn’t have. Although Mirrlees provides some of the most delightful moments in the English language, as for example:

bq. many years ago, he had forgotten to go into mourning for his father-in-law; and when Dame Marigold had, finally, tentatively pointed out to him his omission, he had replied angrily, “I _am_ in mourning!” Then, when with upraised eyebrows she had looked at the canary-coloured stockings that he had just purchased, he had said sheepishly, “Anyhow, it’s a _blackish_ canary.”

6

Kip Manley 12.10.04 at 5:51 am

It’s not Byatt’s neat enough but at best uncharitable reading of Potterdom that annoys me; it’s her insistence that magic must be wild and of nature to be, well, magical. (As opposed to the moral arc light Howard appears to expect.) —It’s a similar case of someone not getting what they wanted from a book, and insisting that therefore the book failed to live up to its genre—which, when boiled down, appears tautologically enough to be the genre which they’d thought they were going to read.

7

Kip Manley 12.10.04 at 5:56 am

It’s not Byatt’s neat enough but at best uncharitable reading of Potterdom that annoys me; it’s her insistence that magic must be wild and of nature to be, well, magical. (As opposed to the moral arc light Howard appears to expect.) —It’s a similar case of someone not getting what they wanted from a book, and insisting that therefore the book failed to be true to its genre—which, when boiled down, appears tautologically enough to be the genre which they’d thought they were going to read.

8

Kip Manley 12.10.04 at 6:01 am

(Grr. Got a 500 internal error. Refreshed like, 5 times. Bounced out and back in. Previewed. Finally and with some trepidation pressed Post. And there we have it: twice.)

9

Jim Birch 12.10.04 at 8:12 am

She may be taking Bush and the Axis of Evil to heart. As far as I recall, novelists weren’t traditionally required to reduce the cosmos to Old Testament good v. evil moral terms.

10

Ray 12.10.04 at 9:35 am

I don’t think Byatt is complaining about the un-magical nature of Potter so much as she is pointing out that there’s not much of _anything_ in Potter. She’s saying that its okay for children to enjoy cliched, derivative, comfort reading, but there’s nothing there to enthuse an adult. No experience of the numinous, no startlingly new creation, no adult insights, no seriousness to compensate for the regression.

11

Huggy 12.10.04 at 1:46 pm

I can’t talk about the Potter books without tearing-up…and I’m a usually non-emotional 50 year old male. JK makes me care for her caracters and them puts them through hell.

12

Ray 12.10.04 at 2:42 pm

You really don’t want to read A Song of Ice and Fire then.

13

Uncle Kvetch 12.10.04 at 2:55 pm

As far as I recall, novelists weren’t traditionally required to reduce the cosmos to Old Testament good v. evil moral terms.

Hey, 9/11 changed everything, pal.

14

pierre 12.10.04 at 6:20 pm

I don’t think Byatt is complaining about the un-magical nature of Potter so much as she is pointing out that there’s not much of anything in Potter. … there’s nothing there to enthuse an adult. No experience of the numinous, no startlingly new creation, no adult insights, no seriousness to compensate for the regression.

My god, she’s right. I have to throw away my Rolling Stones albums now too.

15

Ken Houghton 12.10.04 at 10:16 pm

Machen isn’t OOP,fwiw.

Jennifer Howard is smarter than I am, and she was editor on a piece I did many years ago, so I won’t directly discuss her “misreading”–except to note that it is clearly a DELIBERATE juxtaposition of Clarke with the lineage of the Christian fantasists (Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman and Rowling), and I haven’t seen anyone trying to argue that she’s wrong about Clarke not being of the same tradition.

16

bellatrys 12.10.04 at 10:26 pm

alan bostick – ROFL!

Lewis warned that nobody should review books of a genre they don’t care for.

I think we can extend this safely to subgenres, too.

I read lots of genre fiction. I’m not terribly fond of Westerns, but I’ll read them, and I’m not terribly fond of bodice rippers, but I’ll read them, in preference to Serious Modern Novels. But really, Fantasy, History, and Mystery are my pots of tea.

Sometimes I want High Heroic. Sometimes I want Country House Cozy.

Sometimes – rarely – you can find both in one volume. (And this will annoy those who only like one or the other, or don’t like their peas getting into their gravy.)

But since there aren’t very many people who really are Like Tolkien writing out there, mostly they come separately. And just as one doesn’t always want hot chocolate, or always want red wine, but each in its own time and place is perfect – the fact that a Regency Cozy is not a Medieval Epic is not reason to throw out either of them, per se.

17

bellatrys 12.10.04 at 10:37 pm

And chris, definitely.

All these litcrit types, Brin, Wolfe, this gal, the other ex-fen reviewer in the London Review the other year, who whether pro or con see the Ardaverse as simplistic and rigidly orderly are missing most of it, like someone getting all worked up about the whacking great iceberg there, and it never occurring to them that you know, that’s only a teeny bit of it.

Saruman is an angel who falls not in some mythic prehistory, but *right now* almost in living memory, well, in living memory for some of the peoples but just long enough back that his immediate neighbors don’t see the slide to the Darkside.

He goes from being Lightside champion to the worst of traitors, and using his superpowers for evil, and still rationalizing it and unable to see how he’s fallen to the bitter end.

The Numenoreans – ah, there’s a tale! I’ve got to do another post, expounding on the last one I did which dealt with the Atlantis myth in the Gondor context in a glancing way, and do the exposition. But the short of it is, they had it all, and they blew it, and went Darkside, and smashed the world, and their descendents who escaped went on perpetuating the battle, and even the good ones blow it more often than not, in civil wars and purges, until it falls to a bunch of barbarians and non-humans to rescue the last glorious outpost of the nation whose kings were descended from a goddess and one of the greatest Lightside heroes of Middle-earth’s history.

The Corsairs of Umbar and the Witchking are the Darkside (and in the latter case, Undead) rebel kinsmen of the defenders of Gondor…

18

Joseph 12.10.04 at 10:59 pm

A question: I’m in my local Borders and come across JSAMN well before it had even been reviewed in the press. I read the flyleaf and the first 3-5 pages and decide not to purchase it and continue. I am (by the way)a devoted Tolkien reader left cold by Peter Jackson’s films and wishing to find in print, again, what LOTR seems only able to provide. I likewise abandoned an attempt at Philip Pullman after about 25-50 pages.
Should I give JSAMN another chance?

19

Henry 12.10.04 at 11:25 pm

bq. I haven’t seen anyone trying to argue that she’s wrong about Clarke not being of the same tradition.

I’ve said twice, I think, once in the main post, once in comments that she _is_ wrong about this – Clarke is harking back to a quite different tradition – Hope Mirrlees etc. I’ve been fairly explicit about this, I would have thought – and I’m fairly sure that I’m right.

20

Randolph Fritz 12.11.04 at 9:41 am

There’s an extended essay on the nature of text and magic buried Strange & Norell, which Howard, being, I suppose, a good Norrellite, completely misses. She complains, “Every time Clarke could take us down those roads or spirit us away to realms of Faerie, like Tam Lin in the old ballad, she chooses to double back to the library.” But there is a point where the books grow wings…

And Howard misses other points. Chris and Bellatrys both make good points about Tolkien’s moral order. Let me underscore them: Tolkien’s world is one in which the moral order is only present to the extent that created beings choose to realize it; it is, morally, much like our world, with only a bit more moral certainty available to some characters, who are blessed. Tolkien, being a devout Catholic, I suppose believed that such certainty is sometimes also available in our world.

In very rough terms I’d say that Strange & Norell is about the emergence of the numinous, the magical, the sacred, into the physical world. And this is the quality which attracts some of us, offends others, and Howard misses completely.

Let me digress on Harry Potter. Patrick Nielsen Hayden once commented, “And I also think the reason they’re so successful is that they’re good. But good in a particular way. The central technical problem of fantasy and SF is exposition. Most fantasy, even very good fantasy, even very good YA fantasy, relies to some extent or another on its readers having developed some skill and patience at parsing the expository conventions of fantasy. Rowling doesn’t. She’s startlingly good at explaining things through action, without slowing the pace a bit. Every time I ask an intelligent child of my acquaintance why they like the Potter books better than any other fantasy — and they all do — they answer with some variation on the observation that more fun things are happening on each page in a Potter book than in anything else they’ve read.” There’s a parallel here, I think, with the old Robert Heinlein YA novels: simple stories told clearly. Also with another master of exposition: CS Lewis, who Rowling acknowleges as an influence. And partly the Harry Potter books, like the Lewis and Heinlein books, are also popular because they are well-told, conservative, and direct; there is not the psychologically and philosophicaly subtle paganism of Diane Duane, the frisson of Garth Nix’s evil, the inverted order of creation of Philip Pullman, the feminism of Tamora Pierce, or the subtle and complex family structures and plots of Diana Wynne Jones (who provided the basis for Miyazake’s latest movie–I am looking forward to it). The Harry Potter books are rooted in the moderate morality of late 20th century anglophone culture, and so are safe; she thinks well of courage and friendship, dislikes war and bigotry, and one doesn’t expect any of the major characters to grow up to be gay. (Watch: she may yet surprise us.)

Returning to Clarke for a moment, if one is writing about the ineffable, one cannot be direct; the magic names cannot be named. Necessarily, style is the tool of such authors. And this is lost on Howard.

21

bellatrys 12.11.04 at 10:59 pm

Joseph, I haven’t read JSAMN yet, but the fact that Kieran and Henry did makes me want to read it. I *like* Jane Austen and I’ve read some of the surrounding literature that she ObRefs and mocks, like Udolpho, and Regency-Magic reminds me pleasantly of early Joan Aiken.

And I, too, *didn’t* like LOTR-M. (Understatement.) Though I did like the first Pullman book, called Golden Compass here, Northern Lights in the UK, but not the others due to internal failures.

Randolph – one thing which delighted me about Nesbit, whom I find a wee bit too precious, is that all the sudden I realized how much I’d been missing of Magician’s Nephew, and how the whole character of Jadis and her wreaking havoc in London is an homage to Nesbit’s kids.

22

Ancarett 12.12.04 at 2:28 am

I take exception to her expectations that JSAMN would be in any way like Tolkien or the other stories of high fantasy. I found it much harder to pin down and can’t really assign it to any one category, though the parallels I saw included more in the line of Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine and some of the jousting of often unpleasant characters you might see in Trollope (such as Barchester Towers).

Unlike Howard, I found Pullman’s novels increasingly disappointing as he seemed to push his agenda of critiquing organized religion more than the points of plot and characterization.

Novels shouldn’t all have to be didactically useful, which seems to be what Howard is missing in JSAMN. Some should just be enjoyed and critiqued as compositions. I have many quibbles with the book, myself, but they don’t go so far as to compare apples with oranges or require the book to fulfill some moral requirement.

23

William S 12.12.04 at 2:33 am

PLOT SPOILED, but you can eat it anyway.

I find it odd that no one has commented, in any of the posts on blogs, on the the only remnant of magic left in the world at the end being a Book and a Reader. All of the magical or magically enhanced forces that contribute to the major changes in the novel are, in the end, removed from the world (faerie killed, Black removed to Faerie, Strange and Norrell lost to the world in a cloud of darkness or travellling in other worlds, Raven King revealed as essentially outside the world – but not in a different world) except for the prophet. There is one world, one book, one reader, one history.

Austen’s novels are good becasue the style and the portrayal of the thinness of manner are all circumscribed by concerns about judgement. To use this style in this case is strange because one assumes at the beginning that the thinness of the society has to do with natural forces of some sort – that is, NOT social forces. It is not an internal tension, or even an internal weakness.

This causes problems for the characters. For example: The complacency of a character like Lasclelles is not what it would be were he a character in an Austen novel. In the latter, he would be cruel, lacking virtue, and probably the cause of misfortune for someone. His presence would create and indicate a real social tension. In the former he is almost a clown. His death seems more a lesson on the stupidity of arrogance rather than indicating some sort of judgement of his character. Why does Norrell lie? Why does he destroy others? John Holbo mentions on his blog that N’s relationship wih Childermass works becasue a long history is suggested. One aspect of this relationship seems to include real ruthlessness against others lay claim to, or are interested in, magic. What does this aspect of his character mean?

It also causes problems for the role of magic as a force whose existence implies the thinness of the world. What restrains magic in the end from fundamenally disordering the world? The gentlemanly committment of Strange and Norrell. I mean, aren’t the most powerful comic book heroes usually those with power to control the weather? (Short of those with powers to control fundamental natural physical forces) So what does it mean that Strange finds weather magic the most boring? I think something that Byatt touches on when faulting it for not being like Tolkien is that if magic really is some sort of threat, and these guys are magicians, why are they not a threat even potentially? Because they have no imaginaion? And what is it that constrains their imagination? Strange does not struggle with the fact that he could kill a man with magic, and does not ever use it to kill in war, he simply does not do it or even really consider it. So then the social fabric isn’t thin, it seems.

But perhaps it is not really their gentlemanly demeanour, but the grand plan of the Raven King, as is suggested by the prophet to Childermass. And perhaps the elements of S and N’s character are simply a piece of orchestration. Norrell collects all books so that he and Strange may be made to constitute and efficient lever. Strange is a man willing to make himself mad to draw out the faerie. Black has the same name as the Raven King so that he may be given the King’s power. This sense in which the Raven King is basically orchestrating the way the author would slackens the structure, and especially so when imitating Austen.

It seems to me that the style unfurls, in the sense that whatever pleasure is got from it is separated from the other pleasures of the book. And I find anooying the scholarly marginalia. I suppose it is related to the final form of magic in the world being the book, and the new generation of magicians being scholars. But it is annoying becasue the old generation were also scholars, and there is nothing about the nature of the notes to distinguish the old generation for whom there were many books, many lost, many scattered, to the new generation for whom there is one book of ultimate authority. Perhaps this is the point?

So the final feeling is that magic has changed the world, but that it wasn’t really magic that changed it. So why then have magic at all, since whether or not magic changed the world really only matters in the book itself? I guess this is what leads to allegorical readings. Mayne this sort of hermetically sealed imagination is part of the appel of fantasy? I haven’t read a whlole lot of it…

24

William S 12.12.04 at 4:01 am

The other major change, in addition to the Book and Reader, is the liberation of the enchantd, which even the Raven King could not accomplish.

I guess we close with a wholly HUMAN magic.

25

William S 12.12.04 at 4:02 am

The other major change, in addition to the Book and Reader, is the liberation of the enchantd, which even the Raven King could not accomplish.

I guess we close with a wholly HUMAN magic.

26

William S 12.12.04 at 4:03 am

The other major change, in addition to the Book and Reader, is the liberation of the enchantd, which even the Raven King could not accomplish.

I guess we close with a wholly HUMAN magic.

27

Ray 12.13.04 at 9:34 am

There are a couple of excerpts on the web, for those of you wondering whether or not to buy it. The first chapter is here
http://www.bookbrowse.com/index.cfm?page=title&titleID=1463&view=Print
and one of the long footnotes is here
http://trashotron.com/agony/fiction/clarke-nottingham.htm

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