Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Writing about Magic

John Crowley, Little, Big. 1981.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. 2004.

Reviewed by John Bedell

It is not easy to write about magic. Well, it is easy enough to put magic in your stories when all that means is some Dungeons and Dragons-style pyrotechnics, or an ancient trope like a ghost who warns of looming peril. But real magic, magic that actually seems magical, is less a thing than a feeling. Magical writing gives us a sense that something amazing is happening, or it opens a little crack in the mundane world through which untold wonders and possibilities can be glimpsed. This sort of magic has more in common with Romantic longings after the spirit world than with fireballs and teleportation: "a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused. . . ." An adult lover of fantasy is likely to open a book with what John Crowley once called "the last wish": that things could be different, not better but different, bigger, brighter, darker, not constrained by ordinary physics but by some other rules that more closely match the dream physics of our imaginations. 

I have been thinking much about magical writing since I read John Crowley's Little, Big. This volume has been much praised by literateurs like Harold Bloom and Ursula LeGuin, and from the jacket blurbs I learn that several reviewers have proclaimed it "the best fantasy novel yet written by an American." What struck me about the book was how hard Crowley worked to create the feeling of magic without actually showing any. Little, Big is about several generations of the Drinkwaters, an American family with a strong connection to the fairy realms. Or so it seems, although this is disbelieved by many characters and hardly certain even to the reader. The Drinkwaters live in a vast old country house that was built by one of their ancestors, a half-mad late Victorian architect, to serve as a gateway between our world and theirs. The girls of the family all enjoy intimacy with fairies, as do some of the boys. But as they age it becomes harder and harder for them to make the connection, and as time passes the family grows more estranged from their fairy roots. As they search for a way to Faerie, in their old age, one Drinkwater asks another, "Oh why couldn't we have gone then, when we knew? When it would have been so easy?" Magic in this conception is something wide-eyed children can experience with ease, or at least once could, but that adults can glimpse only by looking away. Logic drives it away, and the more the characters are involved in the ordinary world of work and town life, the harder it is for them to see it. One of the minor characters in the book is an uncle who could not meet with fairies himself and so becomes obsessed with capturing one on film. He takes numerous pictures that seem to show a hat among the flowers, or a tiny foot protruding from under the mushrooms. At last he manages to take one perfectly clear picture of a fairy talking to one of his nieces, but this resolves nothing, because it is so different from all the other pictures that everyone assumes it must be a fake. Crowley has one character tell another the ancient fable about the rainbow's end, which you can only reach by walking away.

Little, Big is delightful in many ways. The prose is lively and often sparkling, and the story is full of fascinating minor characters and intriguing asides. One of my favorites is Ariel Hawksquill, a seer who gives expensive advice to the rich and powerful. She practices the ancient art of memory with a fascinating twist. Like all practitioners she builds a palace in her mind and populates the nooks and crannies of it with the things she wants to remember. To recall them she imagines herself entering the palace and walking to the place where the memory is stored, and once there she remembers. But for Ariel there is more. In her mind the images she has placed in the palace come alive and talk to her, telling her things she never knew, or never realized she knew. She can also explore beyond the walls of the palace, making surprising discoveries in gardens or courtyards that appear without her ever having placed them there. Her memory palace is like the other worlds where shamans wandered in search of healing and prophecy. It is a brilliant conception, at once magical and possible, innovative and old.

What is this faerie realm to which the Drinkwaters' house opens the way? We are never told much. It has some relationship with the lands of the dead, and yet it is also the dwelling of nature spirits and a sort of goddess who makes the seasons follow in their right order. Its denizens can bestow powers on humans, like the gift of speaking with animals, but they can also exact punishments. Late in life Alice Drinkwater tries to journey there, and she has a vision:

There somewhere, beyond those hedges, over those green waves of earth where the new-risen grass-sea turned silver in the sunlight, Alice remembered or foresaw the knoll to be, on which there stood an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace; and, if you knew the way, there was a small house there built underside, and a round door with a brass knocker . . . Somewhere there, beyond those blue hills, how far? An open door, and a small house big enough to hold all this spinning earth; a chair to rock away the years, and an old broom in the corner to sweep away winter.

I greatly enjoyed Little, Big, but I did not find it to be the best American fantasy yet written. It was for me, in the end, too much of a tease, too obscure, with too many passages that seem supernatural only because they make no sense. I don't want magic to be something that hides behind corners, that never shows itself except in ways that make us wonder if it was really there. It occurred to me as I was reading that to Crowley magic is something like sex, and he was trying to write a story that would be erotic, not pornographic. Perhaps this shows a sort of low taste, but I want my magic to be more substantial than anything Crowley offers.

While I was thinking about these questions I went back and reread another book that I remember best for its writing about magic, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is an odd blending of a fantasy novel with a Regency comedy of manners. Asked if a magician could kill a man with magic, one of the novel's magicians answers, "I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could." Clarke's England is in most ways the historical England of the 1810s, complete with a mad King George and a war with Napoleon. But it has a rather different past. In Clarke's universe the history we remember was interrupted in the twelfth century by the Raven King, a human who was raised by faeries His magical powers make his forces invincible, but for reasons of his own he conquers only the northern half of the country. He rules another kingdom in Faerie and there are rumors of a third, on the far side of Hell. After dominating all of his realms for three hundred years he mysteriously disappears, and England is reunited. But throughout the Renaissance the magic he brought with him from Faerie endures, and England is a land of magicians who pass back and forth to Faerie and wield great power in their own country. Slowly, though, the power wanes, and by the time our story begins there is no more magic in England. Magicians are a special sort of historian who study the way things used to be, gentleman pedants scorned by almost everyone.

Enter Gilbert Norrell, who has rediscovered practical magic and can do amazing things with it. He badly wants to be the one to bring magic back to England, and he also wishes to serve his country, but he can't get anyone in the power structure to pay attention. To work the sort of spectacular magical act that will get him that attention he makes a pact with a powerful fairy, embroiling himself and others in a chain of misadventures that stretch through the book. Along the way he is joined by Jonathan Strange, a younger man with less learning but a greater natural talent. They work together, then fall out. They do impressive magic for the government and help win the war, and they slowly come to understand that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, something that is controlling them much more than they control it.

The book has many problems, starting with the character of Norrell. As a portrait of a pompous, annoying jerk he is a remarkable creation, but one does tire of him. Strange is better, but at times he suffers from a frustrating indecision. The plot also lost me in a few places. But the magic, oh, the magic is wonderful. Clarke evokes the Faerie realms with just enough precision and a remarkable choice of words. It is part of our folklore that the nobility of Faerie hold dances and feasts that last for hundreds of years, and Clarke makes these endless balls seem both amazing and deeply wearying. On first entering one of these balls we meet a lovely Faerie noblewoman:

She wore a gown the color of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.

Clarke's northern England is crisscrossed with ancient Faerie roads that once connected the various parts of the Raven King's realm. Now they are choked with weeds and brush and lead nowhere, but they still run across moors and past farms, and people try to forget they are there. Here Clarke evokes Tolkien, who filled The Lord of the Rings with the crumbling ruins of a more heroic and magical past, as well as the ruin-filled countryside of our real England. Because Norrell is, like all magicians of his time, mostly a scholar, we are treated to something of magical theory and the lore of magical books. A volume called The Language of Birds, tossed magically around a room, falls open to this passage:

There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King. . . .

It is all marvelous, and it is also very sad. So, in its own way, is Little, Big, and so is The Lord of the Rings. After all, we live in a world that is not magical, and to get back to our own universe we must leave magic behind. The elves sail away, spells stop working, the blank spaces of the map are filled in and the monsters who once dwelt in them disappear. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not sad in this way, but it is nonetheless suffused with melancholy. Rain is a constant theme, fatigue another, and while magic does amazing things it never makes anyone happy. Magic, it seems, never does. In Little, Big the sadness of fantasy is equated with the loss of childhood and the passing of ancient rural ways; in a city full of machines and grown-ups, there is no magic. For Susanna Clarke, the sadness of magic is in longing for what cannot be. The Faerie realms tempt us with their wonders, but those wonders prove to be strangely empty and wearying. What is not empty is impossible; we cannot, after all, talk to animals. We can experience a bit of magic in stories, but we cannot grasp and hold it. If we tried, it would disappear, or else lead us into madness.

Near the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Strange is asked where he proposes to go now. He gives an answer that sums up for me, as well as anything else, the longing that drives me to read stories of magic:

Oh, wherever men of my sort used to go, long ago. Wandering on paths that other men have not seen. Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain.

The best fantasy stories take us there, at least for a little while.

March 1, 2008.


From the 
Commonplace Book

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world inside that makes sense, and draws tears of assent when we enter there.

--John Crowley


Commonplace Book
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