“Fairy Roads Lead Nowhere At All”: Reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Welcome back to our re-read of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For the month of May, we’re looking at chapters 33-40, wherein the magicians part ways.

Recap

Jonathan Strange, while aiding the king of England, finds himself locked in magical conflict with the gentleman of the thistledown hair (who he does not yet know) for the well-being of the king. The gentleman wishes to clear the way for Stephen Black to rule England, and though Strange successfully resists him, he finds himself more attuned than ever to otherworldly influences. We find out that Arabella Strange has also come to know the gentleman, though she assumes he is a displaced king who lives at the Poles’ house.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lascelles is abusing the name of the magicians for his own profit, promising long-distance lessons and personal commission without their knowledge. When Strange encounters two of these supposed students, he is pushed to demonstrate his own magic in unprecedented ways. He travels through a mirror—and thus through a strange land—to interrupt one of Mr. Lascelles’s meetings, throwing all of the man’s shady plans into disarray. But the fervor for the fairy world and the Raven King’s magic that this inspires in Strange creates a rift between himself and Mr. Norrell. The two of them break their arrangement and Strange finds himself shortly thereafter called to help fight Napoleon upon his escape from Elba.

Response

Jonathan Strange’s increasing conviction that the key to truly understanding and performing English magic lies in embracing the lore surrounding the Raven King means that these chapters focus a lot on fairy roads and paths, as well as fairies themselves. As such, we find these chapters engaging with medieval folklore. And this recalls one of the incidents I find most fascinating in medieval chronicles.

Norrell describes fairy roads as “wide green roads between high green hedges or stone walls” and he explains that these roads have fallen into disuse. He also dismisses superstition and fear concerning them, insisting that “[f]airy roads lead nowhere at all.” When Strange becomes obsessed with otherworldly roads and the possibility that mirrors might provide an entry point onto them, Norrell is forced to admit that there is “a path which joins all the mirrors of the world,” one which was “well-known to the Great Mediaevals.” This novel, after all, repeatedly asserts that there was a “thriving community of magicians and fairies” in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Strange’s jokes about how to acquire a fairy patron (to wander in “out-of-the-way copses and mossy glades”) reflects medieval romances, where fairies were most often met alone in liminal spaces—by running water and under trees (particularly grafted ones). Modern fantasy classics, like C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair also play with these conventions.

But medieval fiction was not the only genre fascinated with the otherworld. Here and there, we see references pop up in contemporary historical records as well. One such example is the account of the green children who wandered into the English village of Woolpit in the 12th century. You can find one version of it in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, translated into English here. The chronicle recounts a heavily-witnessed account of two children with green skin wandering into the village, unable to speak English and unable to eat anything but beans. Their skin color seems directly related to their diet, as the text indicates they “changed their original color, through the natural effect of our food” after a while. The children have very little knowledge of their past, but know they lived in a land without sun and can assure the anxious villagers that it was Christian, an indication to readers that there is concern about the otherworldly origins of these children. The chronicle presents the incident as odd and follows it up with a list of other strange incidents—including one wherein a drunken man finds a group of men and women feasting in a house set into a hill and steals away a cup of “unknown material, unusual color, and strange form.”

And the concept of roads that might run between fairy and human worlds, is not without its medieval origins as well—perhaps, most famously, in the legends of Thomas Erceldoune (or Thomas the Rhymer), a thirteenth-century Scottish seer who was later reputed to have visited fairyland. In the late medieval romance about him, Thomas takes up with a fairy mistress and she shows him roads to heaven, hell, and her own country. This is retold in one of Child’s later ballads, where Thomas is shown three paths:

O see ye not yon narrow road,

So thick beset with thorns and briers?

That is the path of righteousness,

Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye that braid braid road,

That lies across that lily leven?

That is the path of wickedness,

Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,

That winds about the fernie brae?

That is the road to fair Elfland,

Where thou and I this night maun gae.

It is his journey to fairy land that grants Thomas his prophetic ability. How will Strange’s journeys on otherworldly roads change him? We’ll have to read and find out!

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