Susanna Clarke’s 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series currently airing on the BBC (beginning on BBC America June 14th). John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.
All posts in this series:
- Strange and Norrell I – The Language of Birds
- Strange and Norrell II – On Fairies and Witchcraft
- Strange and Norrell III – Away with the Fairies
- Strange and Norrell IV – Magic and Madness
- Strange and Norrell V – The Raven King
II – On Fairies and Witchcraft
The word fairy derives from Middle English faierie (also fayerye, feirie, fairie), a direct borrowing from Old French faerie (Modern French féerie) meaning the land, realm, or characteristic activity (i.e. enchantment) of the legendary people of folklore and romance called (in Old French) faie or fee (Modern French fée). In Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Faerie (or the Other Lands as some magicians call them), the home of the fairies, is an Otherworld realm connected to England by magical means. Clarke’s Faerie is a large land with many kingdoms and territories. There is Lost-Hope the home (or brugh) of the fairy known only as The Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair, which at times borders or intersects with real world locations such as Sir Walter Pole’s Harley-street home. The Gentleman’s other kingdoms include The City of Iron Angels, and a place called Blue Castles. There is Pity-Me (“a miserable little place” according to The Gentleman) which, oddly enough, has the name of a real village in Durham, England; “a whimsical name bestowed in the 19th century on a place considered desolate, exposed or difficult to cultivate” according to the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. There is also Untold Blessings (“a fine place, with dark, impenetrable forests, lonely mountains and uncrossable seas“). John Usglass – the almighty 12th century magician known as the Raven King – is held to have possessed three kingdoms: one in England, one in Faerie (the name of which is not given) and “a strange country on the far side of Hell” sometimes called the Bitter Lands. Indeed, relations between Faerie and Hell are well established, not least in Scottish folk tradition where “the teind” (tithe) must be paid by the former to the latter every seven years. Mortals who have strayed into the Other Lands are sometimes taken as payment as hinted at in the 16th century ballad of Tam Lin and the 15th century romance of Thomas the Rhymer (itself later condensed into a ballad). Though the teind itself is not mentioned in Susanna Clarke’s book, it is briefly referred to in the third episode of the television series.
It may surprise you to learn that, in Britain, consorting with fairies was once a capital offence. Midwife Bessie Dunlop, a resident of Dalry, Scotland was burned at the stake in 1576 after admitting receiving magical tuition from a fae Queen of the “Court of Elphyne” (elfland or fairyland).  Allison Peirson (or Pearson) of Fife, Scotland was likewise punished for the same offence seven years later. In a 1583 ballad written about the then Bishop of St. Andrews, Patrick Adamson, the Scottish balladeer Robert Semphill makes reference to the scandal surrounding the trial of Allison Pearson when it was discovered that Adamson had sought advice from the magician (or witch as the court called her). In Semphill’s ballad he has Pearson taking part in the Fairy Rade (Ride?) described in Thomas Keighley’s 1870 work The Fairy Mythology thusly:
“The Fairy Rade, or procession, was a matter of great importance. It took place on the coming in of summer, awl the peasantry, by using the precaution of placing a branch of rowan over their door, might safely gaze on the cavalcade, as with music sounding, bridles ringing, and voices mingling, it pursued its way from place to place.” 
Semphill’s version the trooping of the fae seems to have been mixed up with the witches Sabbath, the event even taking place on Halloween rather than the eve of the Summer. The 16th and 17th centuries – while at the tail end of the Golden Age of Magic in Strange & Norrell – were not a good period to be a practitioner of magic in Britain. In England, Scotland and Ireland, a series of Witchcraft Acts enshrined into law the punishment (usually death, sometimes incarceration) of individuals practising, or claiming to practice magic. Many books were written upon the subject of magic and the detection of those who practised it at the time and among them was King James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England)’s Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogie (written as a conversation between two characters named Philomathes and Epistemon). Published in 1599 the work was divided into three parts, the last of which is entitled The Description Of All These Kindes Of Spirites That Troubles Men Or Women. In the fifth chapter of this book, The Description Of The Fourth Kinde Of Spirites Called The Phairie: What Is Possible Therein, And What Is But Illusiones, Epistemon makes it clear that he (and therefore King James) believes that fairies and the Other Lands are mere illusions created by the Devil to trick humans. The old beliefs, stories, and practices are dismissed in one fell swoop: anything non-Christian is automatically anti-Christian and therefore the work of the Arch Fiend itself. Faerie and Hell no longer near neighbours but, in the eyes of the King and his loyal subjects, the self same place. So it was that for centuries there was no magic in Britain, only Witchcraft. No magicians, only witches.
Witches (as opposed to magicians) are mentioned as such only two or three times in Strange & Norrell, the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell describing them as “those half-fairy, half-human women to whom malicious people were used to apply when they wished to harm their neighbours“. Clearly they are, or were, not respectable in Norrell’s estimation but then he is a man who disapproves of almost all magic that is not done by himself. Are, or were, there then any female magicians? The story of The Master of Nottingham’s daughter, an adventure concerning a magical ring and a wicked sorceress named Margaret Ford, appears in a one of Susanna Clarke’s ample footnotes for Chapter Twenty-five. It is quite a long story very much in the Fairy Tale tradition but, at its conclusion, we are given the following information:
“There is another version of this story which contains no magic ring, no eternally-burning wood, no phoenix –no miracles at all, in fact. According to this version Margaret Ford and the Master of Nottingham’s daughter (whose name was Donata Torel) were not enemies at all, but the leaders of a fellowship of female magicians that flourished in Nottinghamshire in the twelfth century. Hugh Torel, the Master of Nottingham, opposed the fellowship and took great pains to destroy it (though his own daughter was a member). He very nearly succeeded, until the women left their homes and fathers and husbands and went to live in the woods under the protection of Thomas Godbless, a much greater magician than Hugh Torel. This less colourful version of the story has never been as popular as the other but it is this version which Jonathan Strange said was the true and which he included in The History and Practice of English Magic.”
The world of gentlemen magicians is an undeniably patriarchal one then, yet so too was the historical era in which Strange & Norrell is set. Even so, it is perhaps interesting to note that the enchanting Fairy Queen, ruler of Faerie of our own traditions, seems to have been replaced by Clarke with a host of male fairy Kings, Dukes, and so on. In Strange & Norrell‘s alternative history the witch-trails never happened; magic instead being, if not celebrated, then feared and respected during the Raven King’s reign over Northern England (the area between the rivers Tweed and Trent) which lasted from 1111 up until his disappearance in 1434. Even so with magic in decline, both in employment generally and in potency when employed, in the centuries after the Raven King’s departure, it seems people did find cause to speak and write against it. Published in 1698 skeptical magio-historian Valentine Munday’s The Blue Book: being an attempt to expose the most prevalent lies and common deceptions practised by English magicians upon the King’s subjects and upon each other denied the existence of the Other Lands entirely and stated that anyone who claimed to have visited them was, not in league with Satan as King James would have had them, but merely a liar. In the mannerly world of Strange & Norrell the ruining of his or her reputation seems to be very worst punishment that could be levelled against any magician then.