Random Thoughts About ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’

I just finished rereading Susana Clarke’s excellent fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, last night. I’ve read it a couple of times before, but it’s been a while and I figured a sufficient amount of time had passed since I last read it so that I could justify reading it again. I’m happy to report it was as good this time as it was previous times. Unfortunately, there have been times when I reread a book and did not enjoy it as much during the rereading as I did the first time I read it. But that’s beside the point. If you like fantasy and haven’t read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I’d highly recommend you do it. It’s a regular adult (as opposed to young adult) book and it’s very good. Mild spoilers may follow.

  • Who is the protagonist in this book? When I first read it, I assumed Mr Norrell because he appears first in the book out of the two title characters. Then I thought Jonathan Strange because his actions drive so much of the plot, especially towards the end. Then I thought maybe both of them are protagonists. After reading the book this time, I’ve been thinking: what if neither of those characters is the protagonist? What if John Uskglass, the Raven King, a character who isn’t technically alive during the years this book takes place, is actually the protagonist? This may be a strange idea, but it’s not one I’ve considered before.
  • Within the context of the story, the Raven King ruled Northern England for three hundred years, many centuries before book takes place in the early nineteenth century. He is a divisive figure all throughout the book, even though he is long gone and the north of England is under the rule of King George III’s regent, as it was in reality.
  • Getting back to the two title characters, in a way this book is as much about their relationship as it is about them. They are great friends due to their shared interest in doing magic. In fact, their friendship reminded me a lot of another famous literary friendship: that of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. The Aubrey-Maturin series is not fantastical in the slightest—if anything, it errs on the side of extreme realism, as the author did extensive research and put in so many arcane details that the books are boring to read at times—but I still can see some similarities between these books.
  • (As an aside, I read all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin series years ago. It took about two or three years and it was rough going sometimes. The books are long and dense and did I mention there are twenty of them? There’s actually an incomplete twenty-first one as well, but the library didn’t have a copy, so I haven’t read that one. Honestly, I don’t know if I have a desire to read it at this point.)
  • The ending of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a bit… strange. (Forgive the pun. I couldn’t resist.) On one hand, it ends on a positive note because many good changes have occurred in England. On another, the fate of the title characters is a bit ambiguous and could be interpreted in a very sad way. My interpretation of the ending has changed over the years. I used to think one thing happened, but now I think something else happened.