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Strange and Norrell

Strange & Norrell : V – The Raven King

Susanna Clarke’s 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, recently finished on BBC One and currently airing on BBC America. 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:

V – The Raven King

Strange & Norrell (the novel) is divided into three volumes: the first is Mr. Norrell, the second Jonathan Strange, and the third is entitled John Uskglass. In the novel, The History and Practice of English Magic is a book written by Jonathan Strange and published in 1816 by John Murray. The third volume of Strange & Norrell opens with Strange’s prologue to his book which is a summation of what is known of John Uskglass – the magician they called the Raven King.

In the last months of 1110 a strange army appeared in Northern England. It was first heard of near a place called Penlaw some twenty or thirty miles north-west of Newcastle. No one could say where it had come from –it was generally supposed to be an invasion of Scots or Danes or perhaps even of French.

By early December the army had taken Newcastle and Durham and was riding west. It came to Allendale, a small stone settlement that stands high among the hills of Northumbria, and camped one night on the edge of a moor outside the town.

The farming people of Allendale (a real and extant village in Northumberland, settled since prehistoric times – known today for its flaming tar barrel hurling New Year’s celebrations), anxious to befriend the army, sent a party of young beautiful women (“a company of brave Judiths“) to make contact, and peace, with the force. There on the moor the women found a host of curious looking soldiers, wrapped in black cloaks, lying on the ground looking like corpses, with ravens roosting on and around them. One soldier stood up and one brave Allendale woman stepped forward to kiss him. They kissed, and kissed, and then they danced, and danced.

This went on for some time until she became heated with the dance and paused for a moment to take off her cloak. Then her companions saw that drops of blood, like beads of sweat, were forming on her arms, face and legs, and falling on to the snow. This sight terrified them and so they ran away. The strange army never entered Allendale. It rode on in the night towards Carlisle. The next day the townspeople went cautiously up to the fields where the army had camped. There they found the girl, her body entirely white and drained of blood while the snow around her was stained bright red.

By these signs they recognized the Daoine Sidhe –the Fairy Host.

The fairy army fought many battles and won them all. By late December hey held Newcastle, Durham, Carlisle, Lancaster (which was burnt to the ground), and were at York. In January the fae army met that of King Henry I at Newark on the banks of the River Trent. The King lost.

The King and his counsellors waited for some chieftain or king to step forward.

The ranks of the Daoine Sidhe parted and someone appeared. He was rather less than fifteen years old. Like the Daoine Sidhe he was dressed in ragged clothes of coarse black wool. Like them his dark hair was long and straight.

He was pale and handsome and solemn-faced, yet it was clear to everyone present that he was human, not fairy.

King Henry asked the boy his name.

The boy replied that he had none.*

King Henry asked him why he made war on England.

The boy said that he was the only surviving member of an aristocratic Norman family who had been granted lands in the north of England by King Henry’s father, William the Conqueror. The men of the family had been deprived of their lands and their lives by a wicked enemy named Hubert de Cotentin. The boy said that some years before his father had appealed to William II (King Henry’s brother and predecessor) for justice, but had received none. Shortly afterwards his father had been murdered. The boy said that he himself had been taken by Hubert’s men while still a baby and abandoned in the forest. But the Daoine Sidhe had found him and taken him to live with them in Faerie. Now he had returned.

He had settled it in his own mind that the stretch of England which lay between the Tweed and the Trent was a just recompense for the failure of the Norman kings to avenge the murders of his family. For this reason and no other King Henry was suffered to retain the southern half of his kingdom.

That day he began his unbroken reign of more than three hundred years.

In a 2004 interview with BBC Nottingham Susanna Clarke was asked whether her master magician, the Raven King, was based upon any historical figure.

The Raven King had an odd genesis. Ursula Le Guin has a magician in the Earthsea trilogy who has no name: the Grey Mage of Plan, whose magic was so dubious, his name was forgotten. And there’s a magician in The Lord of the Rings, right at the very end, who comes out of Mordor to do battle against our heroes, and no one knows his name because he himself has forgotten it. I thought this was rather cool, and when I was developing my magicians, I wanted one without a name. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite understood what would happen if I had a major character without a name. The consequence has been that he has acquired more names than most people: the Raven King, John Uskglass, the Black King, the King of the North and a fairy name that no one can pronounce. [1]

While the initial seeds of Clarke’s John Uskglass may have been literary, the Raven King’s roots stretch deep into the fertile soil of English history and folklore.

Puck is a name we are most familiar with today from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – thatshrewd and knavish sprite“, “that merry wanderer of the night“, and entertainer of Oberon, the fairy king. Puck pre-dates the Bard by a long way however.

Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – puca in Old English, puki in Old Norse, puke in Swedish, puge in Danish, puks in Low German, pukis in Latvia and Lithuania — mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. [2]

When not being applied generally to household sprites (the kind that helped with chores in exchange for an offering of food and/or drink which was left by the hearth for them), Puck is then the name of one particular fae who also uses the alias Robin/Robyn Goodfellow. This fairy was portrayed in a 1785 painting by William Blake in which he resembles the Greek God Pan, and an 1841 painting by Richard Dadd as a human-looking child. [3] Post his role in Shakespeare’s play, Puck/Robyn found himself the subject of many 17th century ballads in which he was often portrayed as the son of Oberon and an English woman. [4] A creature of several names then, and neither wholly human nor fairy.

Writing as Strange upon Uskglass, Clarke gives us:

The boy said that he was already a king in Faerie. He named the fairy king who was his overlord. No one understood.

The accompanying footnote reads:

The name of this Daoine Sidhe King was particularly long and difficult. Traditionally he has always been known as Oberon.

A connection to Oberon, as (foster) father hinted at, at least.

In chapter one of her 1933 work The God of Witches, entitled “The Horned God“, Dr. Margaret Murray wrote the following:

The most interesting of all the names for the god is Robin, which when given to Puck is Robin Goodfellow. It is so common a term for the “Devil” as to be almost a generic name for him “Some Robin the Divell, or I wot not what spirit of the Ayre”. Dame Alice Kyteler called her god, Robin Artisson, and the Somerset witches cried out “Robin” when summoning their Grandmaster to a meeting, or even when about to make a private incantation. [5]

While Murray’s writings are viewed by many as rather fanciful these days there is, nonetheless, value in her cataloguing of these matters and, I would also argue, in her interpretation of things (even if she did get a little carried away at times). She goes on:

A fact, noted by many writers and still unexplained, is the connection between Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood. Grimm remarks on it but gives no reason for his opinion, though the evidence shows that the connection is there. The cult of Robin Hood was widespread both geographically and in time, which suggests that he was more than a local hero in the places where his legend occurs, In Scotland as well as England Robin Hood was well known, and he belonged essentially to the people, not to the nobles. [6]

In his 1895 essay The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition, Charles P. G. Scot wrote briefly upon the connections and confusions between Hood and Goodfellow:

Robin Hood seems to have been sometimes confused in kitchen tales with Robin Good-fellow, and so to have been regarded in the light of a fairy -or in the dark of a goblin. Reginald Scot, speaking of Hudgin, a German goblin, says:

There goe as manie tales upon this Hudgin, in some parts of Germanie, as there did in England of Robin Good-fellow. But this Hudgin was so called, bicaufe he alwaies ware a cap or a hood; and therefore I thinke it was Robin Hood.

1584 R. SCOT, Discourse upon divels and spirits, ch. 2I (app. to Discoverie of witchcraft, repr. I886, p. 438; ed. i65I, p. 374).

Keightly, no conclusive authority, mentions Robin Hood as an other name for Puck or Robin Goodfellow:
Puck . . . his various appellations: these are Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood, Hobgoblin.

1828 T. K[EIGHTLEY], Fairy mythology, 2: i 8. [7]

The oldest surviving document mentioning Robin/Robyn/Robe Hood (also Hod, Hode, Whood, Wood, and so on) is a 14th century poem entitled The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman which alludes fleetingly to the “rhymes of Robin Hood” – therefore suggesting that the tales were already well told and known. The real Robin Hood (if there ever was one) is long obscured by the hundreds, if not thousands, of tellings, re-tellings, and re-imaginings of his life and deeds which continue to entertain into the present day. There are at least three sites in England which claim to be the outlaw’s final resting place and though Sherwood, Nottingham is the location most of us automatically associate with Robin, many historians now believe that Yorkshire was his (or his tale’s) place of origin.

Robin [Hood] has been presented as a personification of the Green Man (he was always dressed in Lincoln Green), a folk character with fairy origins, a political rebel, and even a Witch-Cult figure. [8]

Though a yeoman in the earliest ballads, the idea of Robin Hood being the rightful Earl of Huntingdon, robbed of his title by scheming family members who abandoned him as an infant, goes back to the late 16th century at least. Robin is supposed then to have been raised by Gilbert Whitehand (a now largely overlooked member of the Merry Men), and schooled by him in the ways of the bow and the staff. In later versions Robin it is said to have quarrelled with the king (almost always King John by this point, though an unspecific Edward in the original tales) and was forced to flee north, taking refuge in Sherwood Forest. [9]

Compare this with Strange’s account of John d’Uskglass’ origins: the entitled noble, abandoned as a child, raised and schooled so well he bettered his master, living in the north while the true king remains in the south. (I could go on, bringing in other sources but for the constraints of time and word-count).

I am not suggesting that Susanna Clarke meant in any way to deliberately base The Raven King upon Robin Hood or Robyn Goodfellow, merely that such figures – complex, elusive, many-named, trickster-ish , champions of “otherness” who live and operate outside the normal rules and constraints of society – are now and always have been part of the English psyche.

Robin Hood is a greatly sanitised version of the archetype, the Raven King a darker, more alien, and dangerous one. Lincoln Green and Raven Black.

There is, of course, also the shared avian nomenculture: the Robin and the Raven. The former having recently been voted the National Bird of Britain, the latter not even making the top ten. The Robin is a cheery, plucky bird that reminds us of Christmas and all the Victorian trappings and customs we carry with the season (consciously or not). The raven is a midnight-hued carrion eater with an IQ comparable to that of a primate, long associated with omens, magic and witch-craft. The raven represents the ancient, the untamed, the occult while the robin represents whimsy, nature at it’s back-garden level, and the familiar. England may try to maintain its Victorian composure, try to keep up appearances, but in the fields, and on the concrete roofs of blocks of flats, along the motorways, and even in the Tower of London, the ravens watch and wait.

All of Man’s works, all his cities, all his empires, all his monuments will one day crumble to dust. Even the houses of my own dear readers must –though it be for just one day, one hour be ruined and become houses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said that in that day, in that hour, our houses become the possessions of the Raven King. Though we bewail the end of English magic and say it is long gone from us and inquire of each other how it was possible that we came to lose something so precious, let us not forget that it also waits for us at England’s end and one day we will no more be able to escape the Raven King than, in this present Age, we can bring him back. — The History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.

*When he was a child in Faerie the Sidhe had called him a word in their own language which, we are told, meant “Starling”, but he had already abandoned that name by the time he entered England. Later he took to calling himself by his father’s name John d’Uskglass but in the early part of his reign he was known simply by one of the many titles his friends or enemies gave him: the King; the Raven King; the Black King; the King in the North.


[2] Gillian Edwards (1974) Hobgoblin and sweet Puck : fairy names and natures
[3] [4]
[5] [6] Margaret Murray (1933) The God of Witches
[7] Charles P. G. Scott (1895) The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition
[8] Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain

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