A History of English Magic: Five Books for Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
“Mr Norrell seemed about to embark upon one of his long, dull speeches upon the history of English magic, full of references to books no one had ever heard of.”
Susanna Clarke’s acclaimed novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell delights in presenting a world of magic, so tangible that it strides between fantastical and academic. The eponymous magicians, Strange and Norrell, are encouraged to embark upon a revival of English magic in order to assist in England’s war with Napoleon and the French forces. This revival is placed firmly in the context of Clarke’s carefully constructed history of English magic.
In forming her parallel history Clarke holds nothing back, creating fables and myths alongside scholarly theories and historical contexts. Such authority on the subject of English Magic cannot help but makes us readers suspicious of Clarke’s sources. Where did all this information come from? What lost tomes of secret history has she stumbled across? Unless she divulges her secrets, we are left to uncover the history of English magic for ourselves. So let’s take a look at some great fantasy books which tell of English magic throughout the ages.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Bringing us back to the early murmurings of magic in England, Ishiguro paints a world of mists and monsters but most importantly, memory.
Ishiguro sets his story in Arthurian England, after a period of war between the Saxons and the Britons has given way to a wary peace. Yet all is not well, as a collective amnesia descends on the land, drawing the populace into a perilous forgetfulness. The story follows a married couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they embark on a journey visit their son, their memory of whom is quickly vanishing. Their path is fraught with fantastical encounters, yet they find their greatest battle in wrestling with their own memories and guilt. Murky and brooding, The Buried Giant illuminates a world of English magic enshrouded by time and forgetfulness.
Sally Gardner: I, Coriander
Set in the milieu of London in the 17th century, the story’s intrepid young protagonist Coriander finds herself to possess magical powers, inherited from her recently deceased mother. Her life upturned by grief and subsequent misfortune, Coriander begins a journey of discovery which will take her to the magical realm which had been her mother’s homeland.
Although aimed at a younger audience Gardner’s blending of magic and history is well-crafted and beautifully conveyed. Her language is richly poetic and historically astute, allowing her story to traverse and unite the world of Puritan England with a realm of fantasy and fairytale. Her skill in crafting the atmosphere of the Commonwealth London of the time is where Gardner really shines, as she makes the historical as compelling as the magical. For those budding Norrellites I, Coriander is a great place to introduce younger readers to the study of magical history.
Susanna Clarke: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories
It is without surprise that we find that Susanna Clarke did not expound all her knowledge of English magic within the (many) pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In The Ladies of Grace Adieu Clarke presents us with ten short stories to dip into, each a dark and enchanting tale, recounting the continued interventions of the Faerie in the otherwise sensible world of 19th-century England. Once again Clarke masterfully blends history with real and constructed folklore, including here all the characters befitting of fairytales as well as figures from across history and even appearances from some beloved characters from her earlier work. Clarke it seems, has much more to tell us about the history of English magic and this compilation of bucolic yet eerie fairy tales is a delightful extension of her world.
Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
A book of breath-taking beauty, The Night Circus takes its readers on a journey with The Circus of Dreams, a carnival of mesmerizing beauty and delight, filled with spectacles and acrobats, contortionists and culinary delights. Yet neither the performers nor their adoring public have any idea that their Circus of Dreams is merely a stage for a magical and deadly battle. Illusionists Celia and Marco have been bound since childhood, in a contest they do not understand. At the behest of their shadowy masters they must strive to outdo each other in competition which will challenge their magical abilities and their imaginations. Largely set in Victorian London, The Night Circus captures the atmosphere of elegance and intrigue associated with the era, but cracks it open to find a world of sparkling magic within. Blending the fantastical with the real, the novel’s setting is the real star and central character of this book, as Morgenstern creates a world so achingly captivating you will long to step through the silk tents and under its spell.
Lastly, a book which moves us from the genre of fantasy to historical nonfiction; no history of English magic would be complete without The Phantom Army of Alamein. As magical and otherworldly as Strange and Norrell’s endeavours are, to aid the British Forces by deceiving Napoleon's armies through magic, the idea behind the strategy is not all that fantastical. In his book, Stroud tells of the real history of the Camouflage Unit, a British Forces unit in World War II, comprised of artists, sculptors, film makers, theatre designers and renowned stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. Their purpose was to create a web of illusion and deception, which would fool the German forces. Their stunts were audacious to say the least, as, right in front of the German's eyes, they made 600 tanks disappear and reappear fifty miles away disguised as lorries. Stroud’s book is not only a fascinating look at the creative minds which became crucial to England’s success in World War II, but a tantalising glimpse at the impact imagination and a flare for fantasy can have on the history of a nation.