“Game of Thrones” has barely been off the air for 24 hours, but judging by readers’ reactions, it’s left a Wall-sized hole in audiences hearts. How fortunate, then, that the perfect companion piece to “Game of Thrones” arrived on BBC America on Saturday, a seven-part adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel about the fierce rivalry between the two men who bring magic back to England in the lead-up to the Napoleonic wars, and suffer the personal and political consequences of their discovery.
This is not to say that “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is an alternative to “Game of Thrones.” Where “Game of Thrones” is epic, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” the story of the fussy, middle-class Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and the talented, upper-class dilettante Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is intimate.
Where “Game of Thrones” alludes to history, specifically to the War of the Roses, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is alternate history, one in which the characters intervene in events like the Napoleonic Wars. “Game of Thrones” is grim, and while “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” shares a dark sense of magic, it’s also a very funny social satire that pokes particular fun at academics.
And this is a miniseries, rather than an ongoing television show. But taken together, they’re fascinating examples of how to play with the past, and how the supernatural helps us see our own mundane dilemmas in a clear, consequential light.
“I look at this story as a story about a moment in our cultural history when the projects of the Enlightenment basically won the debate. And we no longer believe in magic as a society,” Carvel told me when we spoke in Los Angeles in January during the Television Critics Association press tour.
“That moment really existed in our history, before history rewrote itself and decided that magic never existed. There was a time when the people who were at the cutting edge of science were also doing alchemy and were also looking at astrology and trying to understand the world in different ways. And this story, quite cleverly, imagines what would have happened if they’d just gone along a slightly different path. We’ve come back, in the 21st century, to a point where people are realizing the limits of science to explain — it might not eventually have limits — but it can’t solve the universe for us. And I think that’s why were’re seeing such curiosity about stories about magic, about fantasy and so on. Our story goes left when the real world went right, but we’ve met back on the same road, and people are curious to see how the imagination can change the world.”
When I spoke with director Toby Haynes and writer Peter Harness at the same conference, both men suggested that “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is a story of two relatively privileged men coming to terms with the consequences of their actions, and with the idea that their magic has ushered into being a world in which they’re less important.
“It’s the beginning of the age of revolutions, and magic is a revolution, in a strange way,” Harness reflected. “You end the book with the possibilities of black emancipation, women’s emancipation and poor people’s emancipation. And all these things are bubbling quietly underneath it.”
Charlotte Riley, who plays Jonathan Strange’s wife, Arabella, said she had been particularly touched by the plight of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), a noblewoman who begins to falter from the nights she spends kidnapped in a magical realm. Lady Pole’s experiences parallel the medical and psychological complaints women experienced in earlier eras, but that were dismissed as fantasy and hysteria rather than the very real symptoms of women’s social positions.
“Arabella is a woman who understands that the etiquette has to be upheld, but is trying to appeal to the men in the story, saying ‘You need to do something to help her,’ and is constantly ignored and constantly pushed aside,” Riley told me. “It’s so easy for all the men to just sweep that aside and just lock her away and hope that it just disappears, that the problem just disappears. A lot of the story is activated by the fact that women don’t do what they’re meant to be doing at that time.”
Class politics inform “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” too. The same figure who is kidnapping Lady Pole also plays on the sympathies of Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), the black butler to a Cabinet minister, promising to elevate him beyond Stephen’s wildest dreams. And Strange and Norrell’s approaches to magic are shaped by their origins.
“I think he has the easy arrogance of the British upper class,” Carvel suggests of Strange, who begins pursuing magic largely because Arabella wants him to have a vocation, “whereas Norrell has much more of the insecurity of the middle class and is much more judgmental because he is not so secure in his own position in the world. … He’s hoarding knowledge because he’s afraid that someone else will have it. Strange, he’s a chancer, really. He’s not worried about things, he’s not worried about money, he’s freer.
“But one of the things that makes him a sympathetic character is that in this era of great social change, he’s a Whig, not a Tory. He’s essentially a revolutionary. What he does with his magic is to try to make it accessible to everybody, whereas Norrell is trying to keep the riches for himself. Norrell, I’m afraid, is much more of an American.”
I won’t reveal the ending for viewers who are new to Clarke’s story, but “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” makes an argument that differs from “Game of Thrones” in an important respect. Sometimes, you don’t bring about a new world by killing off White Walkers or resurrecting dragons and imposing a new order all by yourself. Sometimes, you just have to introduce new possibilities, and free people up to fight out the new shape of the world for themselves.