Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Step Aside Harry Potter

Posted: September 22, 2016 in fantasy, fiction, television
Tags: , , , , , ,

I love being caught up in a “new” series on Netflix. In this case, said series is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a British alt-history/fantasy TV miniseries based on a best-selling novel by Susanna Clarke (Alert! Mild spoilers ahead). Set in 19th-century England, the series’ premise is English magic has been gone from the land for some 300 years after the departure of the Raven King. Since that time, only street magicians and charlatans have been in evidence. The series opens as the only living magician in England, Mr. Norrell (played by Eddie Marsan), decides to make himself known to the public with the ultimate goal of making English magic respectable. Just his stated goal was enough to perk my ears with memories of the Weasley brothers’ antics at Hogwarts. Might more mischief be afoot in this series? I suspected it would. Conflict arises when it turns out Norrell is not the only, living, English magician. There is another, Mr. Strange (Bertie Carvel), who seeks to become Norrell’s pupil.

Television - Strange and Norrell

Although I’ve only watched a handful of episodes so far, I’ve already noticed more than enough instances of excellent storytelling. For starters, the series juxtaposes its two protagonists perfectly: Strange is a natural magician—a prodigy of the magical arts for whom magic comes without much effort. Indeed, Strange becomes a magician almost by accident (or so it would seem). Strange is handsome, curious, and adventurous, whereas Norrell is a serious, gnome-like man who has worked in obscurity for decades  studying every book of magic he can lay his hands on. Where Strange is bold, Norrell is timid. Where Strange is loving, Norrell is asocial, preferring the company of his precious books. However, Norrell is also quietly proficient, calculating, and committed to his goal even if others are hurt in the process. He has the qualifications of a villain, but a more subtle one than I typically encounter.

Another aspect of this series I admire is how it eschews the usual coupling of magic and secrecy. There is no prohibition against use of magic in front of muggles here—these magicians cast spells publically, to the extent they are recruited by the government and Strange is enlisted in the war effort. His magical acts prove decisive in the war between England and France, although in unexpected ways. The magic itself utilizes enough special effects to seem well done IMO, but is also presented in clever ways such as a card trick gone peculiar in the first episode.

Extra villainy is provided by a malevolent fairy (Marc Warren) reminiscent of David Bowie’s goblin king (minus the cod piece and tights). The rest of the cast shine as well, including a head butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), whose impeccable manners are put to the test when he is tricked into serving the fairy king, and a convincing rogue, John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), who succeeds in adding a sinister element.

Finally, for those who miss Hogwarts, there is a sub-plot to establish a school of magic. Let’s hope it succeeds!

  1. I hope so too! It would be a shame to waste such wonderful characters after only one season. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Ms. Clarke began working on a sequel in 2004, so a second season may be forthcoming.


  2. Tiny101 says:

    Is it going to be continued, though? I certainly hope so.


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