The weirdness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

by Henry Farrell on September 11, 2020

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few years, and the impending publication of Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, has finally prompted me to get off my arse and do it. The short version  – Clarke’s first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is deeply beloved, as it damn well ought to be. But it’s often misclassified. Because it is so funny and charming, people tend to read it as whimsical, but beneath the whimsy lies the weird. It’s usefully read (as Clarke herself suggested in her contribution to the seminar we ran with her), as a book about the weirdness of the English landscape, and in a backhanded way about Piranesi too.

In a 2015 essay, Robert MacFarlane recognizes or helps create a genre of work about the eerieness of the English landscape. He argues that the creepy stories of M.R. James have lasted because James understands “landscape – and especially the English landscape – as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships. Landscape, in James, is never a smooth surface or simple stage-set, there to offer picturesque consolations. Rather it is a realm that snags, bites and troubles.” MacFarlane looks forward to musicians such as P.J. Harvey and writers like M. John Harrison, China Mieville and W.G. Sebald, all of whom write about how the landscape is haunted; not in any literal sense, but by “the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.” And he looks back to authors like Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, whose sense of the English countryside as riddled with the energies of history, helped form the childhood and likely the adulthood too of a more recent generation of writers and artists.

MacFarlane is obviously drawing on some of the ideas of Mark Fisher, who talks in his book, The Weird and the Eerie, about how “the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.” The landscapes that MacFarlane talks about are weird in this sense because of the collision between the bucolic pastoral mode in which the countryside usually gets represented and the actual history, which is of course far more complicated.

And this gets us back to Clarke. When she wrote for our seminar about what she intended for the book, among many other good things that she did, she politely but firmly corrected some of my own misapprehensions. I’d read the book as a kind of E.P. Thompson-esque exercise in the making of the English magical class. But Clarke was disagreeing with the enormous condescension of posterity in a quite different way. In her own words:

Throughout JS&MN are scattered little pieces of irony at the expense of the arrogant, complacent English upper classes. At the end of the book Strange opens the gates between England and Faerie and in doing so prompts a democratisation of English magic. …. Clearly there is something of a revolutionary nature going on, but how far is it a social or political one?  … Ironic remarks notwithstanding, there is a limit to how far JS&MN was meant to criticise the social and political setup of the time. … . It seems to me that if we see women, servants, the lower classes largely in terms of how liberated or oppressed they were, we miss catching a glimpse of them as they actually were. They just become another mirror reflecting our own concerns back at us.

So if the revolution of JS&MN is not social or political, what is it? It is, unsurprisingly, magical. English magic now belongs to Englishmen and women and no longer to any particular class or gender. Henry Farrell finds that JS&MN is about what it means to be English. I just want to give that statement a little nudge and say it’s about what England means — the hills and the trees, the rain and the stones. By the end of the book I wanted to give the landscape a voice, rather than the underdogs of society. This is a poetical, romantic idea — not one that lends itself to a great deal of analysis. I’ll try to explain it a little by talking about two ideas I have of what fantasy can do. (Obviously fantasy can do a million things — these are just two.)

Firstly fantasy can be about giving power, strength, importance to the small and weak. Thus the smallest, weakest person — Frodo Baggins to take an example entirely at random — goes off to fulfil the Most Important Task. And turns out to be the only person who could have done it. Ditto Stephen Black.

Secondly Fantasy (and SF) can be the opposite of this. Instead of Giving Importance to People, it can Humble People. It can be about turning our view, however briefly, away from ourselves; it can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe. …If you are Alan Garner, writing Thursbitch, you turn our view away from ourselves to an actual, historical valley in northern England which stands for all the places in northern England resonating with their own, not-human placeness. I’m with Alan Garner: the landscape of England (particularly Northern England) is the bit of magic we can actually see and touch for ourselves.

I rather like this use of fantasy, partly because is that it’s something we do so much better than the literary fiction people. Literary fiction sticks resolutely to the human. But the world seems to me so much bigger than that.

This is worth quoting at length, in part because Clarke’s own interpretation of what she was trying to do is more useful than mine could ever be, but also because it helps us understand how Clarke’s understanding of the weirdness of England resembles and differs from what MacFarlane is up to. It’s a cosmological weirdness rather than a capitalist one.

What Clarke does throughout the book is to juxtapose the drawing room elements of Englishness to the landscape that lies beneath them. Again and again in it, what seems English, prosaic and comfortable turns out to be anything but. Within England, reachable through any mirror, lies a dark silent land of great plains traversed by roads and bridges, dominated by vast structures built by who knows who, for who knows what purpose.

Only Strange seemed at all comfortable with these descriptions of eerie, silent halls, unending pathways and vast, dark landscapes. Arabella was genuinely frightened by what she had heard and even Sir Walter and Colonel Grant felt decidedly unsettled. Magic, which had seemed so familiar just hours before, so English, had suddenly become inhuman, unearthly, otherlandish. (pp. 428-429).

Long before Clarke began writing her new book, the dark brain of Piranesi helped fashioned the land that lay behind her drawing room mirror, and the drawing room paintings of Italian buildings too. Clarke’s Venice is Piranesi’s Venice, a city whose loveliness conceals a “labyrinth” in which the people seem “so small, so insignificant! Among so many marble palaces and bridges they seem almost lost” (p.285).

Fisher’s definition of the weird is useful in explaining how the whole book is a montage of the homely and the uncanny. The one turns into the other like John Crowley’s Edgewood, where the Gothic aspect is suddenly transformed into something homely, or vice-versa.

The wood no longer struck Strange as a welcoming place. It appeared to him now as it had at first – sinister, unknowable, unEnglish. (p.390, emphasis in original).


After the birds the next thing to haunt Mr Norrell’s imagination were the wide, cold puddles that were thickly strewn across every field. As the carriage passed along the road each puddle became a silver mirror for the blank, winter sky. To a magician there is very little difference between a mirror and a door. England seemed to be wearing thin before his eyes. …The Sussex landscape began to look uncomfortably like the England described in the old ballad:

This land is all too shallow

It is painted on the sky

And trembles like the wind-shook rain

When the Raven King passed by (pp. 746-747)

Clarke told us in the seminar that the book is back to front – the story that it tells can be viewed from another angle as quite a different one.

I was aware that in JS&MN I was writing a back-to-front story, a story with holes in it through which we can catch glimpses of another, secret story being played out. I even keep a similar story in my head as a sort of touchstone of the kind of stories I like to tell. The hour has come but not the man is a Scottish folktale about a kelpie, a sort of water-spirit, who is observed rising up from a false ford in a river and shrieking, “The hour is come but not the man.” This, though very alarming, means nothing to anybody, until a distraught rider is observed haring along the road towards the river. He attempts to drown himself in the river, but is prevented by kindly bystanders who lock him in a church. Whereupon he drowns himself in the font and the water-spirit is satisfied.

There are a few moments when the other story pokes through; where we briefly see the Raven King (though he is not recognized); where Childermass understands that “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,” and where Strange and Norrell finally attract the attention of the Raven King or one of his servants.

“A raven’s eye! But it filled the whole window!” “Yes. Either the raven was immensely large or …” “Or?” quavered Mr Norrell. Strange gave a short, uncheerful laugh. “Or we were ridiculously small! Pleasant, is it not, to see oneself as others see one? I said I wanted John Uskglass to look at me and I think, for a moment he did. Or at least one of his lieutenants did. And in that moment you and I were smaller than a raven’s eye and presumably as insignificant. (p. 833).

What the magic of the English landscape does in Clarke’s novel is not so much to snag, bite and trouble as to put us and everything we do into perspective, as something much smaller than we think we are, tiny figures wandering around in a vast space that we don’t comprehend, and ignore for the most part because it just doesn’t fit into our heads.

I want to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell again after I read Piranesi; I suspect that the two will talk to each other in interesting ways. Also, Clarke’s suggestion that both fantasy and science fiction “can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe” opens up comparisons between her book and books like Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, which is also an exercise in putting human things sub specie aeternitatis, albeit more overtly, and with very different fictional tools. And it would be interesting to write more about how Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not only weird in Fisher’s sense of the term but eerie too, telling a story in which the actual agent and agency is hidden for nearly the entire length of the narrative (“They are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been”).

But most of all, I hope that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell can be read as I think it ought to be, and as I believe Clarke intended. Not just as a wry social comedy of magicians in Regency England, but as a complex book where the comedy is one essential half of a larger structure, given a different perspective by the vaster universe in which “real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky,” while also being put into perspective by it, since we are, after all, only human, and comic because of it. It’s from the juxtaposition, the montage of the two that the book gets its energy and indeed its humor.



Trader Joe 09.11.20 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for the very interesting and valuable insights from Clarke as well as the perspective.

What I found interesting in JS&MN was the mere fact of setting it Regency England. The story could have been plausibly told in most any time frame. Choosing this “most English” of time periods suggested to me that what I’ll call the “England of old” was the one that possessed magic that could be brought out by the English people, her countryside and her culture.

This in turn implicitly suggested that the England of today or post-war or some other more modern perhaps post-industrial time frame had somehow lost the magic that JS had helped deliver to the people.

Anyway, one of my very favorite books in recent years. Thanks for sharing.


Mo 09.11.20 at 2:12 pm

This is a beautiful post – thanks for sharing it.

Clarke gives herself too little credit, though. Giving the landscape a voice is not merely “a poetical, romantic idea” (though it is that) but a key skill for human survival in the era of climate change and mass extinctions.


DCA 09.11.20 at 3:30 pm

Thanks for this. Yes, “that is all they have ever been” was vastly illuminating and sent a shiver down my spine.


Phil 09.11.20 at 4:49 pm

There’s also a temporal weirdness to JS&MN. A few years ago I spent quite a lot of my online time (which was more bounded then than now, in both senses of that word) discussing alternative histories. Alternative histories can take many forms, but their core appeal is working out tendencies which were (or are) immanent within the history that actually was. As such, it’s crucial to have, and identify, a single point of departure (PoD), after which your timeline can unroll without any further authorial intervention. The winds change, William makes landfall before the fyrd has gone home, the Battle of Hastings goes the other way – then what? Or: Kennedy’s driver brakes suddenly to avoid a stray dog, the bullet(s) go wide, the plotters give up on the idea – then what? A good alternate history would keep any subsequent changes – apart from those directly following from the PoD – to the minimum; you can’t (or shouldn’t) say “oh, and in this TL Marilyn Monroe is working for the CIA, also she has a long and successful movie career”.

When I read JS&MN I thought that it was, in part, an alternative history – we say that (as from a PoD some time in the Middle Ages) there was magic in the land and it was particularly strong in the North, and then we follow that idea through. To an extent that’s what Clarke does – Mr Norrell’s learned society is exactly what you’d get if you crossed ‘magical England’ with ‘Regency England’ – but only to an extent. Having wondered for a while when exactly the PoD had been, as the book proceeded I started to have a bigger question: where were the departures?. Everything in the wider world – pretty much everything that goes on in London, come to that – proceeds exactly as it actually did, in our TL. Which means either that Clarke is a lazy writer who couldn’t be bothered thinking up divergences from OTL – a theory which doesn’t survive five minutes’ contact with the book – or that this is our timeline.

Which of course it isn’t.

A lot of fantasy takes place in this world, or at least starts there, and some authors use passages where the real world is a gateway to something magical to reflect a numinous quality back on the world we know (Alan Garner, for example, or Arthur Machen). But this is something different – it’s (a fragment of) an entire history of the world we know, which looks exactly like the world we know, and is also soaked in magic. Clarke’s eighteenth century reminds me of Jonathan Strange’s trick with the book and the reflection of the book – all the historical scaffolding of a Regency novel is right there, so real you could touch it, and yet… it’s not. Or rather, it’s real and it’s not.


Neville Morley 09.11.20 at 6:39 pm

I honestly don’t mean this as snark, but I am struck that a fascinating discussion of Englishness, landscape, belonging, weirdness as a sense of things out of place, the intrusion into the familiar of something that is normally distant or buried or denied, etc etc, has just a single mention of Stephen, in a different context.


Neville Morley 09.11.20 at 7:17 pm

But then I found JS&MN not just weird rather than whimsical, but dark and terrifying rather than merely weird. The comedy and satire is like the elaborate manners of its characters, a means of pretending that everything is light and well-ordered, which is actually an all too easily shattered veneer.


oldster 09.11.20 at 8:27 pm

I’d love to hear how Puck of Pooks Hill fits into this.

Probably the antitype: landscape as cozy reassurance. Almost a myth of autochthony, but with false starts and a happy ending. Britain was always in its way to being the home for you.


Doug K 09.11.20 at 9:44 pm

thank you Henry..
The MR James reference was illuminating, for me there were echoes of those horror stories all through JS&MN, that I didn’t realize until now..

there was a good essay/interview in the New Yorker this week, among which,
“Originally, she’d planned to set the novel later in the nineteenth century, but her affinity for Austen pulled the setting back to the Regency period.”

I have the BBC adaptation of the novel which is generally good, though it necessarily misses a lot of the subtleties.


SusanC 09.11.20 at 10:18 pm

@phil: the literary forms of science fiction include both alternate history and secret history.

Alternate history (The Man in the High Castle, Pavanne, Harry Turtledove etc) postulates a branch point after which history evolves differently.

Secret history (Dark Skies etc) keeps the publicly-known events the same as the real history, and substitutes alternative explanations for them.

It’s a matter of taste if the alternate history can contain stuff that is randomly different with no obvious connection to the branch point. I think Robert Anton Wilson throws in some random stuff. E.g. yes, one can guess why in one of the timelines all of the obscenities have been replaced by the names of the members of the US Supreme Court. But why the branch point caused that to happen in unexplained, and we can imagine it to be unknowable, with a nod to chaos theory.


SusanC 09.11.20 at 10:23 pm

P.s. Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder is an an e ample of the unpredictable change trope.


Collin Street 09.12.20 at 2:07 am

Which of course it isn’t.

At the end of the book, the narrator is speaking freely of matters that were concealed by multiple layers of shrouding mystery at the start of the book. The world — the setting, the backstory — changes as the text progresses. Or how the world is understood changes, but that’s the same thing, isn’t it?

There are things that are so forgotten that even that they could have existed to be forgotten is forgotten. And then that they happened is discovered, or perhaps “bought to the attention of important people”, and our whole understanding changes without us realising that it’s happening.

[which I never quite before put into the context of the impact that non-rich/white/guy people had on history, but in my defence I’m a straight white middle-age guy who’s never studied history.]


James 09.12.20 at 6:11 am

This is why Rowling has always seemed impoverished among the ranks of British fantasy writers. Her books seem to contain no landscape, beyond a few tropes (the dark wood, the old castle / school) flatly described. I am happy to be contradicted – I’ve only skimmed through a couple of the books – but I will steer my own kids towards Garner or Cooper first once they are old enough.


Adam Roberts 09.12.20 at 8:51 am

JS&MN feels different to a lot of genre Fantasy because it resurrects literary antiquarianism. So: Jamie Williamson’s The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (2015) argues that what we tend to think of as Fantasy nowadays is actually the creation of Lin Carter’s ‘Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series’ (1969-974), a string of books published to cash-in on the then-new vogue for Tolkien and sword & sorcery. Williamson argues that Carter did for the fantasy canon what Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler did with their “Great Books” series, effectively codifying a list of canonical “great” works that ended up “homogenizing” what we think of as Fantasy (“a sort of timeless Platonic Form, involving magic and invented preindustrial worlds” is how he puts it). One consequence of this, he argues, is a comprehensive misreading of earlier works of Fantasy that comes from ‘viewing pregenre fantasy through a postgenre lens’. Pre Ballantine, Williamson thinks, Fantasy actually drew on the traditions of Romantic antiquarianism.

He has interesting things to say about this movement, actual antiquarians but also pseudo-antiquarians like James Macpherson/Ossian, in effect inventing a new way of writing stories: an elegiac, archaic style, the discovery of the past in the present, lots of footnotes and appended essays on context. Williamson argues that, as methods to enhance verisimilitude, these are picked up by what he calls ‘literary fantasists’ like Morris and Tolkien. Why does Williamson think that modern genre Fantasy has turned its back on this older tradition? He’s not sure, though he thinks it might show a genre “in retreat from the revolutionary intentions of many of the Romantics.” I’m not sure about that explanation, to be honest. But it strikes me as the right context to read Clarke.

For what it’s worth, I read JS&MN as not just an intensely English but an intensely Protestant book. Fantasy as whole (both Williamson’s older tradition and the post-Tolkien Lin Carter stuff) is really about enchantment, I think; or more specifically about re-enchantment. What I mean is that the whole mode exists in reaction to what Weber diagnosed as the “disenchantment” of modernity—the deployment of magic not so much as a pseudo-scientific system but more as an affect, a vibe, a hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck-ness: of charm in the strong sense, of glamour, of transcendence and wonder. What disenchants the older enchantment? Protestantism does. Which is to say … science does, materialism does, capitalism does; but all do so as iterations of this earlier breach: Weber’s famous book is called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism after all. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age also sees the Protestant Reformation as ‘central to the abolition of the enchanted cosmos and the eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith’ [SA, 77].

What this means is that the project of ‘re-enchantment’ is inevitably tangled-up with the dangerous (to Protestant modernity) allure of the Catholic past—basically every Walter Scott novel is about this. Clarke feels it intensely. She seems to me a very Protestant writer (former Methodist, now CofE) who is both spooked by and drawn to Catholicism. There’s a surprisingly large number of Anglo-Protestant writers of Fantasy who do something similar, actually.


Emma 09.12.20 at 1:55 pm

Thank you for this! I’ve been waiting and waiting, ever since the idea was first mentioned here ages ago. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is my favorite novel. Ever. Bookmarked.

My issue with a lot of the culture around JS&MN is that comprehensive dismissal of the “weird” that you talk about so eloquently here. Like, I read a short review of Piranesi the other day, and the reviewer had started the article with something like: “Fourteen years ago, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell arrived on the scene in an explosion of pixie dust.” And I thought: Dear god.

I remember that the book’s original marketing, too, leaned very heavily on that “cutesy Austen with fairies” angle. It wasn’t ever made clear that not only did Clarke’s fairies not live at the bottom of the garden, many of them were homicidal maniacs. And also all that “Harry Potter for grown-ups” gibberish, too; whatever HP’s numerous flaws (perhaps more apparent now than they were back then), it’s obvious that Harry Potter was/is Harry Potter for grownups. In addition to being incredibly obnoxious, that heavy emphasis on what you call the “homely” elements of the narrative — not just the drawing-rooms and the comedy of manners content themselves, but their position in the American literary hierachy as signifiers of genteel commercial intellectualism and rich white-people restraint — was very distancing for me. I only read the book because Stephen King recommended it. If I’d paid attention to the PR, I wouldn’t have bothered to use JS&MN to prop up a table. That would’ve been an absolute tragedy for me; the book changed the way I saw myself and the world. I can’t imagine how many other people who might’ve benefited from JS&MN‘s unique & revelational narrative have passed it by because they think it’s some kind of adorable, winking, fairy-burdened version of Downton Abbey.

I have always wished not only that people emphasized the novel’s “diversity” — that the only things it really has that look like ‘heroes’ are a black man and a handful of era-appropriate women, leveraging their ordinariness to spectacular effect — but also all that beautiful weirdness. The alternative history content that Commenter #4 talks about. The brutally bizarre embedded narrative that describes John Uskglass and his strange, magical kingdom (I’ve longed to read about Ralph Stokesey and Thomas Godbless and Maria Absalom for most of my adult life). That’s what makes the book great, for me — not that way it successfully emulates the words and moods of long-dead white European writers (although it does do that, too) (I am the only feminist nerd who doesn’t like Austen novels).

Thank you very much for posting this, again; I hope you and other Crooked Timber contributers have other things to say about Clarke’s work in the future — and I also hope someone reviews Piranesi here! It’s pretty much the only place I can see analytical content about the book that’s guaranteed to be pixie dust-free.


Phil 09.12.20 at 10:17 pm

SusanC – yes, I guess there is a case that JS&MN falls under ‘secret history’ rather than alt-history. I don’t know, though – Clarke isn’t suggesting that Strange or somebody like him actually did win the Peninsular War. At the same time, she’s not not suggesting that – she certainly isn’t telling that version of history as an absurdly undisprovable shaggy-dog story, for instance. Her relationship to ‘secret history’ is as tricksy and uncertain as Dick’s relationship to alt-hist in TMITHC.

the dangerous (to Protestant modernity) allure of the Catholic past

One of the roads fantasy didn’t take, post-Tolkien, was Charles Williams’; very this-worldly, very numinous and very Catholic. Tolkien’s claim to be writing in some sense about our world as seen by a Christian – his Elves, for example, being not so much a metaphor for angelic beings as another way of thinking about what angelic beings might be – has a simpler analogue in Williams’s plots, which revolve around actual(!) objects like the Holy Grail or the Spear of Longinus, handled by suitably qualified individuals (here an Archimandrite, there a Knight of Malta…). The numinous is brought into the everyday at the price of being brought in quite rarely and selectively, IOW. (Arthur Machen does something similar in his story “A Fragment of Life”, in which a bored middle-class suburbanite starts to feel intimations of there being More to Life Than This, follows them up and ends up discovering that he’s the heir to a castle in the Welsh Marches. Which was nice.)

Clarke, it seems to me, goes behind Williams’s High Church numinosity to evoke a different way of endowing this world with a magical aura – something much more like the folk Catholicism which was the reality of religion in England for hundreds of years. (Paganism, shmaganism. There is an Old Religion, but it’s Christianity – a Christianity of hedges and ditches, holy wells and half-forgotten ceremonies, but Christianity for all that. (Read The Loney.))

Now, the great thing about folk religion is that it puts everyday life in touch with the divine – and the terrifying thing about folk religion is that it puts everyday life in touch with the divine. Knock, and the door might just open – and there are doors everywhere. M. John Harrison evokes something like this way of looking at the world, but nobody does it quite as matter-of-factly as Clarke.


Henry 09.13.20 at 9:31 am

Thanks all – this is a great discussion so far. Adam – I’d love to see those thoughts developed further in an essay (and one of the questions that I had before writing this was whether there was any substantial critical literature that had developed around the book – I haven’t seen it, but it thoroughly deserves one). I actually cut out a bit from the quote about fantasy and science fiction, because it raised an issue that was too complicated for me to get into without writing a much longer and more complicated essay – she specifically cites C.S. Lewis’s Christianity as another way of breaking out from the drawing room into something bigger. That also speaks to Neville’s point – I think that the Christian elements of the book come out most strongly in Stephen’s story. As a complete tangent on antiquarianism – I’ve been reading Ruth Scurr’s reconstruction of Aubrey’s life, and there is so much material there for any fantasy author who wanted to do a Tim Powers style Secret History of the civil war. Early science meets mysterious rings with flaws that wax and wane; ghosts and Lord Verulam rubbing shoulders.

Emma – another reason why I’d love to see a revival of people thinking seriously about the book is because it provides a very different understanding of Englishness that is potentially politically useful in post Brexit Britain. And another non-obvious comparison worth making is to Mike Harrison’s new The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. Both are books which filter the relationship between North and South through the fantastic, though TSLBTRA’s relationship with fantasy is very complicated and slippery (it’s also a book that is all about Brexit precisely because it refuses ever to focus directly on Brexit, or provide a metaphor or metaphors that can readily be mapped onto it).


Henry 09.13.20 at 9:32 am

I should note that I made the MJH comparison before seeing Phil’s invocation – so there clearly is something there.


Richard A Melvin 09.13.20 at 9:50 am

There’s a surprisingly large number of Anglo-Protestant writers of Fantasy who do something similar, actually.

Is that related to the view that ‘magic realism’ is realism written by Catholics who believe in miracles?

Or as to whether books set in the near future in some sense become alternate history when events overtake them?


andrew_m 09.13.20 at 10:45 am

The idea of English landscape as weird has some very different resonances in the Antipodes. Exhibit A: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which is set in the same period (1806-1819) as JS&MN.

The thing is, Grenville started writing a non-fiction book about her direct ancestor…


Theophylact 09.13.20 at 5:38 pm

Interesting profile of Clarke in this week’s New Yorker (which unfortunately refers to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, her editor at Tor Books, as “Hayden”).


Neville Morley 09.13.20 at 9:24 pm

Having just started it, I think TSLBTRA might merit a book event…


Kit 09.14.20 at 10:24 am

I always wondered how much JS&MN (One of my favourite novels ever) was influenced by Terry Pratchett’s ‘Lords and Ladies’. There are passages in the latter which, whilst very very funny and whimsical, have always absolutely terrified me: their clever use of tropes from folklore and folk horror just gets right under my skin.


bad Jim 09.15.20 at 8:46 am

What is the function of science fiction and fantasy in a timeline in which everything has gone sideways? Before I get out of my car I have to choose from a half dozen cotton masks, and as often as not I feel the need to anoint my hands once I get back in. Imagination has ill prepared us for a reality in which an obsession with sanitation is generally encouraged and a red sky at night is viewed with alarm.

Evacuating in 1993, my mother packed up the photos, the fine china, and the dog. Two years ago I just packed up the photos; my brother had to find a place for a dog, a tortoise and a guinea pig.

The part of JS&MN which most resonated with me was the unnoticed parallel world. This was a feature of my earliest alarming dreams, and I found it instantiated in Donostia/San Sebastian; not only did the Parte Vieja change its aspect from hour to hour, but there were actually two different train systems running through it (and we would have done better using Euskotren on our way back to Paris).

Of course there’s the alternate postal service in “The Crying of Lot 49”, and … there’s the destruction of the postal service under the current administration. I suppose I shouldn’t mention the fact that things I look for in a drawer or the garage or the attic are not entirely dependable. I’m in my 70th year, mental lapses are to be expected. What disturbs me most are things I didn’t expect to find, but do. Screens for the kitchen window neatly tucked behind a table in the garage, overlooked for twenty years. Huh?

I should mention the saucers which suddenly showed up on the lamp posts around town, about a foot in diameter, white with solar cells on top and a stubby antenna protruding from the bottom. At an eating place frequented by all the locals the police I asked had not a clue. The aliens have landed, and no one has been paying attention!

The United States is living through a sort of low-rent dystopia. Not only is the president an idiot surrounded by crooks, but much of the country is actually hostile to the idea that we need to deal with the pandemic and the climate crisis; picking up the gun is far more appealing.


notGoodenough 09.16.20 at 8:45 am

(Kaixo, bad Jim!)

While there have been some interesting thoughts on this thread, I will offer my own uninformed ramblings (Henry, please feel free to delete if these are a bit too uninteresting).

I am, of course, one of the last people who should be pontificating at great length about subtext in fantasy novels – but, just to through my small handful of grit into the conversation, this reminds me a little of the sort of discussions one sees regarding hard vs soft magic systems.

In essence, and to simplify far better thoughts than mine to a horrific degree, hard magic systems are codified with rules that the reader can understand, extrapolate from, and reasonably expect not to be broken (e.g. the Vancian magic of The Dying Earth, or the elemental bending of Avatar the Last Airbender, etc.), while soft magic systems are more mystical and undefined (e.g. Lord of the Rings).

Both have advantages and disadvantages, of course, and which is “better” rather depends on what you are trying to achieve.

For example, because they are more explained, Hard Magic systems offer the ability to employ magic more frequently without it feeling like cop-out – we, the audience, have a good idea of the limitations and possibilities, so can reasonably make judgements. In this way, if we know wizards can only use one form of magic (e.g. Bob is a air-wizard, Alice is an ice-wizard, etc.) then the question “why doesn’t Alice just fly to Mount Doom?” becomes self-explanatory. The scope can be expanded – e.g. Alice realises she can control all forms of water, not just ice, and so can control people’s bodies (because we’re mostly water). But it is also limited – we “know” Alice can control water, but she shouldn’t be able to suddenly start summoning angry bees (without justification) because that would “break the rules”. This can magic a bit more “mundane” in some ways (a sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from technology?), but when our hero uses the rules in a clever if unexpected way it can be very satisfying (in a way not entirely dissimilar to the clues in a murder mystery being sufficient to theoretically solve the murder, even if one rarely does).

Soft magic, by contrast, is often better used more sparingly – because you don’t understand the rules it can feel a bit more deus ex machina if poorly implemented. On the other hand, it does lend more mystery to magic – playing into that fantastical element. In Lord of the Rings, for example, magic is relatively rarely used (we don’t see Gandalf simply resolve every problem with magic). It also retains its numinous nature – Gandalf says “fly, you fools”, not “oops, I don’t have resurrect magic prepared as part of my 5 castable spells per day”. In this way we can see magic exists as part of the setting, but it remains a mysterious, primal, unknowable force which only a few can truly comprehend (and we are excluded from that category).

Many systems fall somewhere in the middle – we get enough information that we can sort-of understand the way magic interacts, but there is still enough lee-way that we don’t necessarily understand how it works (giving the author some wiggle room).

As kim mentioned the late, great Terry Pratchett, I will note I always found it fascinating to see the way he straddled the hard/soft magic divide. IIRC, Discworld was to a small extent influenced (initially) by his experiences playing pen and paper RPGs, and while some of the tropes feed from that ultimately I would say Discworld magic is a soft system, where you can’t use it too much or Bad Things Happen (the most important rule of magic being knowing when not to use it – which is almost a meta comment on writing magic in the first place).

To try to tie this back in to some degree of relevancy, I wonder how much of the choice of setting actually ties into how the author envisions and writes worlds. To once again horribly oversimplify, I like Hard Magic systems for many reasons (partly my tendency towards analytical nature, partly because I don’t like “because Magic” as an answer) and were I to write a fantasy novel incorporating magic I would likely use such an approach (which would inevitably set the tone and setting, to an extent). That isn’t to say I dislike soft magic, but I do tend to find it harder to enjoy unless really well written (this is, of course, a purely personal taste and I fully recognise others will feel differently – and such variety is a good thing).

One wonders to what extent the world-building is driven by the author’s preferences and the story they wish to tell, and how much by subconscious desires or the influences of the society in which they live – while I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the latter (such speculations can be, of course, still interesting and insightful), we should perhaps remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…


notGoodenough 09.16.20 at 9:27 am

Also, apologies to Kit for accidentally typing their name as kim – I only realised after I clicked the submit button (oh for an editor!).

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