Magic, Madness, and Faerie: A Brief Examination of Mental Health in the Fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I’ve recently finished Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece (which has also been recently adapted into a BBC series) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and I wanted to compose my thoughts in some meaningful way, other than to say I loved the book.  The story takes place in the cold, melancholic Regency era England, a place worlds away from the shimmering June of Los Angeles where I currently reside (I suppose I romanticize dreariness the most when it is uncomfortably hot here). Upon revisiting passages that struck me on some intuitive level, I began to notice the tie between “madness,” defined as any sort of mental unwellness or deviation from what is deemed “normal” behavior, and the Faerie realm.

Faerie is not a fantastical kingdom with lovely nymphs and flowing waters and marvelous parties; it’s a haunted place swathed in the blues and grays of heartache that eludes feelings of sadness rather than of merriment, or, at least, this is the faerie that dominates the larger part of the story, ruled by the dubious gentleman-with-thistle-down-hair.  The characters in JSandMR who are afflicted with mental instability are those who are tethered to the realm of Faerie, and most often, this tie has been forged without their consent.  The exception to this rule is Jonathan Strange, who directly inflicts madness upon himself so that he might finally bear witness to all that is preternatural; that which is elevated beyond his own magic.

The connection between madness and being privy to the fantastic is not something only found in Clarke’s tale, but a theme prevalent in many tales of fantasy. I immediately think of Alice In Wonderland; specifically, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, the latter whose name directly refers to his mental state as described by others. Madness permeates the rabbit hole Alice finds herself in, and when she wishes to no longer be around “mad people,” the cat assures her that “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Alice, perturbed by this answer, asks how this can be so, and the cat explains that if she wasn’t mad she “wouldn’t have come here.” Madness acts as a key to worlds unseen. The cat implies that Alice could not have traveled down the rabbit hole if she were not a little bit mad, just as Jonathan Strange cannot see the gentleman-with-thistle-down-hair until he swallows his homemade tincture, derived from a half-rotten mouse, which serves to induce his madness.

I will pause for a brief aside here to describe the tincture, for its conception was as unusual as it was disturbing. Strange pays a visit to an old woman called Mrs Delgado who spends her days and nights sitting in a rocking chair in a dark room surrounded by hundreds of cats. She does not speak human; she only speaks cat, as she seems to have cast away her human identity and now identifies as feline. Strange, sensing her madness is the most penetrative of mind, pays a visit to her in the hopes that she will “teach him” how to be mad.  Yet the cat-woman is too focused on the half-rotten mouse lying on a saucer before her, a prize that her “ancient mouth gaped to devour,” (I had shudders, reading this passage). After saying a brief spell that leaves Mrs. Delgado in her true, feline form, Strange takes the mouse into his hands as a symbol of her insanity and brings it back to his hotel, where he reduces it to a powder and then mixes it with alcohol to make it more appetizing to ingest. After he downs the medicine, he begins to see people as figures with their heads “hollowed out,” with ghostly candles burning in the backs of their skulls. He cannot remember for the life of him whether people have always looked like this, or if he is only seeing them in this way for the first time.  Only in this state is Strange able to summon the same fairy who has enchanted his dear wife, along with the servant Stephen Black, Lady Pole, and King George.

And that is the brief aside of how Strange went mad.

Enchantment is a strange word that appears frequently throughout the text, meaning both to “delight” and to “be under a spell,” the latter which can be wonderful or awful, depending on what sort of spell has been cast. Those who appear to be under enchantment seem to be shrouded in something that makes their eyes unable to see the natural world clearly, something that the un-enchanted call madness.  During the Regency era, King George III was deemed unfit to rule due to his tendency to fall into bouts of madness, madness that JSandMR depicts as being caused by the fairy gentleman-with-thistle-down-hair, whom the king deems is “a very wild fellow” but who Jonathan Strange (who has not yet drunk the tincture) is unable to see. The king carries on an entire conversation with the fairy in Strange’s presence, asking him about the Faerie kingdom of Lost-hope, where grand, macabre, nightly balls force the enchanted to dance, leaving them feeling exhausted and human-less upon being sent back to England the next morning.

This is the exact fate that has befallen Stephen Black and Lady Pole, who return each day to England more or less as zombies.  As aware of their condition as they are, both are physically unable to communicate what has happened to them. This is a symptom of all who are enchanted. Each time one of them tries to explain how they are whisked away to Faerie each night against their will and are sent back to England feeling lifeless, a random, nonsensical story erupts from their mouth instead.  This is precisely what happens when Lady Pole attempts to tell the yet un-enchanted Arabella of her condition. Instead of the truth, Lady Pole tells the tale of a man named Redeshawe who, in 1607, did not want a battle to be fought on his brand new carpet.  Near the end of her rapid, meaningless storytelling, Lady Pole exclaims, “No, wait!” Lady Pole stopt and suddenly covered her face with her hands. “That is not what I wished to say!” Contradicting herself only serves to strengthen Arabella’s pity for the poor, mad woman who was revived from the dead with a little finger missing, a prize that now belongs to the gentleman-with-thistle-down-hair, who beckons her to Faerie each night without fail.

Perhaps the maddest person of all in JSandMN is Vinculus, who is mad before anyone else becomes mad. The filthy man is covered in indigo tattoos, and he spends his time traveling around England proclaiming the prophesy of the Raven king, a prophesy that is not taken seriously because he is something of a street performer, and his madness is not so alarming as it is thought to be normal and part of his act. Yet Vinculus’ cryptic tattoos contain the holy text of the Raven King, and his prophesy bears the truth. He is the only individual in the entire book to be touched by the King directly, who appears for but a brief flicker of time, a mere paragraph or so, with Childermass as the only (but ignorant) witness.

It is the mad who see the things as they truly are.  This astute sensitivity to seeing what is beyond natural, however, is undetectable by the “normal,” who themselves are perhaps less than human with their less perceptive eyes. By the end of the book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell have failed in their mission to bring magic back to England; they have failed to make the sun and stars and sky and trees and water whisper to English ears, spelling spells in puddles and twigs, and perhaps they fail because there is not enough madness to go around. The two magicians are forced to endure the rest of their days inside a cloud of shadow-black, the last enchantment cast by the gentleman-with-thistle-down-hair, and a legacy that lasts long after his death.  It is under this perpetual night, under this cloak of eternal madness, that the two magicians practice magic, removed from the natural world.

Madness is the only lens through which the supernatural, that which “cannot be attributed to a force within the [defined] laws of nature” can be viewed. And for those who are not gifted with it, perhaps it can only be glimpsed in delicious books whose magic seeps through their text, serving to enchant us.

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