The Grey King: Breaking the Rules


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There are lots of books that make you go “how is this a children’s book?” But usually the reason for that is the heavy subject matter, or the level of scariness. It’s not embedded in the fabric of the book itself.

“The Grey King” should not be able to get away with the level of language it uses. Take this passage:

“The other arm he raised  before him, with fingers stiff outstretched in a gesture of command, and he  called out three words in the Old Speech.  And before him, the rock parted like a great gate, to a faint, very faint sound of delicate music that was achingly familiar and yet strange, gone as  soon as it was heard.”
Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous–but the theory goes that children’s books should have much simpler language than adult books. Yet, the language in all of Susan Cooper’s books is often poetic and mysterious.
So why are these so successful? They broke the rule of “how to talk to children” into little tiny pieces, and yet they are some of the most influential and long-lasting books yet written for children.
Part of it is probably that the entire book is not written like that. There are passages when the language changes, to show that Will is acting not in his capacity as a child, but as an old one. Thus that narrator mirrors the story, and the reader is in a way drawn deeper into the world.

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Part of it is that children are simply capable of understanding far more than they are sometimes given credit for. I have a friend who likes to refer to kids as “lesser sentient creatures,” but it’s not really true, is it? Children are capable of a surprising level of understanding and analysis–or else the books that survive would not be the Susan Cooper novels; they would be pieces of total crap.


Books in “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or Why I Think There Will Be A Second Series

indexWhy do so many books get destroyed in the BBC version of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?” All books survive the novel intact, but there are two great feasts of book-destruction in the show. Once, when Mr Strange is in the Peninsula, his books are actually blown up. The imagery of the destroyed books is quite vivid, and the crisis as Strange must work without books very traumatizing to him.


Of course, the destruction of Strange’s “History and Practice of English Magic” takes place in both the novel and the show. But it is only in the show that all the books of magic in England are destroyed, transformed into ravens as a symbol of the magic of England. This is a symbolic break with the past, and is also in fact a sort of a triumph for Mr Strange’s way of doing magic over Mr Norrell’s, for without books Mr Norrell’s magic is impossible.


In the final scene of the series, Childermass definitively says that all the books of magic in England are gone. In the novel, this is because Strange and Norrell took them all with them. But on the show, there simply are no more books–except for the one written on Vinculus’s skin.

While the show also goes out of it’s way to express it’s love for the novel it’s based on (see the recurrence of the same image of a Raven that is on the cover of the first edition of the book, the comments about how the Lord of Lost Hope’s hair is like thistledown, and Vinculus saying smarily ‘maybe I’m a novel,’ it seems that it has moved from books to people in the last scene, like moving from a novel to actors. It seems like it’s setting up a second series/season.

There are plenty of other hints to this. In the book, the doors to a second novel are open. In the show, the characters have wedged themselves in the doors and seem quite determined to keep going. Lady Pole says she is going to the continent to be with Arabella and will no longer live with her husband; Arabella tells Jonathan that if he doesn’t find a way back and she gets tired of waiting, she is going to come get him herself…presumably by studying magic; the Raven King seems to have himself taken Strange and Norrell out of the world, after himself finally returning to England; and of course, there is the new York Society.

Will a second season/series of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell happen? I don’t know. But the bad habit of book-destruction the show got into would suggest that someone was thinking about it.

Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 3

indexTake the character of Jonathan Strange. In the book, we never directly experience emotions with Strange. The perspective shifts away from him whenever emotions become particularly strong; he is absent from the narrative for months after his wife’s death, then we see his reaction to discovering she is alive from the POV of Stephen and Mr Graystone. Even his reaction to Norrell’s destruction of his book appears only in a letter to a friends.

Clarke’s book’s Strange does not show deep emotions because there is a fundamentally selfish part of him, which keeps him from emotional depths. He is unable to release his arrogance. He and his wife are very social but do not share a very intense emotional bond. He has many society “friends,” but no real deep relationships with anyone but Norrell–a relationship based on shared interest rather than love.

images.jpgWith a book so long, meandering, and beautiful, an author like Clarke is willing to take a risk and give us a character who grows more shallow, not less–who deepens his flaws rather than overcoming them. And it works, because Clarke and the reader are on an emotional journey together. Not only that, but Clarke provides a constant outlet of humor, guided by an omniscient narrator (which, in itself, is a way to incorporate the audience into the book itself, the author becoming a part of the audience and thus drawing the reader deeper).

But while Clarke skirts Strange’s emotional depths, the show creates and plunders them to the fullest possible extent. Strange has multiple full-on breakdowns, including a half-episode of trying to resurrect his wife which is not even implied in the novel, much less actually portrayed. Rather than his break with Norrell being a difference in opinion, it becomes an emotionally fraught betrayal. And in the last few episodes, his love for his wife overtakes all his other motives for doing anything.

strange2.pngThis is most clear in the sixth episode, when we discover that he is trying to summon a fairy to make another attempt at raising his wife from the dead. His actions during this episode are very questionable. He makes a rather inappropriate friendship with a young woman (to her father’s regularly expressed dismay), he turns an old woman into a cat, and he gets positively creepy and pathetic the night he summons the fairy to bring back Arabella, carefully arranging a new dress and flowers to greet her. Yet, he is able to retain the audience’s sympathy because at the center of his character is an intense, desperate love for his wife.

But in the novel, his desire to summon a fairy has absolutely nothing to do with his wife. He arrogantly wants to assert himself over Norrell. It is, in the end, about his ego. As Arabella herself says, all he really cares about is magic (which is, after all, at the heart of his relationship with Norrell).

index.jpgClarke, as the author of a book, can take the reader on a long journey, can draw the reader’s emotions in a thousand different directions.For a writer, who is both the creator of the journey and a traveling partner, character sympathy is only one part of a vast tapestry. The Jonathan Strange of the novel begins as a fop, an entertaining fellow but one who produces (from the narrator, and by extension the reader) both delight in his comical antics and sober understanding that he is not a particularly good person. For example, in his second appearance just after his father’s funeral he sets out to convince Arabella Woodhope to marry him. He does this because he really does love and want to marry Arabella, and he judges that this is the best possible time to emotionally blackmail her into agreeing. Contrast this with the show, where he sets out so quickly after his father’s funeral out of pure eagerness, convinced that now he has fulfilled her condition of marriage.

Norrell is even more changed for the purposes of becoming sympathetic: in the book he does not even allow Segundus and Honeyfoot to remember visiting his library. If that had happened on the show, given how sympathetic Segundus and Honeyfoot are, we would instantly have hated Norrell.

At the end of the book, the reader (like Arabella Strange) is left feeling very ambivalent full_547.jpgabout Norrell and Strange as characters. You know them too well: you’ve seen their faults and their failings. But according to the writer of the TV show, “at the end of it, I bet you will love Strange and Norrell. To know all is to forgive all with both of them.”

The inescapable truth revealed by all this is that, on the show, subtleties have been sacrificed. This is partly due to factors like time, but largely it is because of the difference in medium. In a TV show which lacks a narrator to poke fun at the characters when they behave badly, the directions a watcher’s emotions travel are more limited, and the actors must work harder to bring the reader along. Whereas for a writer character sympathy is one of many parts, for the actor it is everything. The actors must not alienate the watchers: they must draw their sympathy. The more emotional space they have to work in, the better a job they can do.

Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 2

14201Hemingway once said that to write, all one need do was “sit down and bleed.” When you open a book, you are opening a product of hundreds of hours of labor, of work and love and, if it is a good book, a tiny piece of the author’s world.

That is what a reader is expecting when she opens a novel. She expects to see hints of what another human being considers “truer than truth,” or of the magical world that was painted in another human mind to be transported across time and distance to her own imagination.

Books aren’t purely intellectual creations.  They are a product of emotion, of fraught labor and love (except for James Patterson, but that’s a whole other blog post). And when they are great–as “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is–they produce a sort of emotional bargain, where the reader invests in the characters, the world, and the words perhaps even deeper than the author herself did.

So, when I open the novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” I am by nature engaging in an emotional exchange. I am agreeing to follow where the author leads me, knowing that I may get hurt, that I may fall in love. My relationship with the author-especially when talking about a book as long and demanding as this one–is invested with a whole pile of emotions. We tacitly agree that promises will be fulfilled, that questions will be answered.

But the relationship of an audience to a TV show is different. Firstly, it’s far more casual. A watcher is by nature less deeply engaged by a TV show than by a novel, simply because she is further removed. Things are happening on a screen, far away.

imagesThis means that it takes more for a TV show than for a book to tap into emotional responses. In a TV show, you will be dropped out of the story at the end of every hour. You will not create people in your mind; you will watch other people create yet third, nonexistent people. The actors must deliver the characters to your emotion.

So, the actors now have the role of the author in a novel. They must make the characters bleed, just as the author bleeds for the book. If they fail, the audience likely will not emotionally engage with any other aspects of the work. And the only way for an actor to engage an audience is to get the watcher to sympathize with the character. So what the audience needs in a TV show is immediate and deep emotional space for the actors to work in. If the actors do not show deep emotions, do not draw on the empathy of the audience, then the whole things falls apart.

This got really long. On Friday I examine Jonathan Strange in light of this theory about audiences and authors.



Authors, Actors, and Audiences of”Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” Part 1


I’ve been puzzling over something for a while: Why, though most of the dialogue and plotimages is directly from the book, do the emotions of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” seem so different in the BBC show? Specifically, why do the two men at center take such different internal journeys?

In the books, neither Jonathan Strange nor Norrell reach anything near the level of emotional breaking point that both men do in the show. And most of the intensely emotional moments on the show were invented–indeed, they are often the only moments that are not drawn from the book. When Jonathan Strange goes to war in the book there is indeed hardship, but he comes nowhere near the breaking points the show proffers. strange1.pngFirst his friend and servant is destroyed along with his book, leaving him utterly alone. Then his resurrection of the soldiers is portrayed as deeply traumatizing, although it is macabrely funny in the novel.

This leads him to develop a level of emotional depth which he simply doesn’t have in the book. The Jonathan Strange of the book can bounce back from anything. He never watches a friend die in front of him, as happens twice in the show. He is not utterly destroyed by his wife’s death; in fact, he is contemplating remarriage less than a year later. Very little ever really emotionally challenges Strange in the novel until he discovers his wife has been kidnapped–and then, the emotions that are produced are a fascinating mixture of pride, guilt, regret, and some love.

index.jpgJust as Strange is rarely truly challenged in the novel, so too is Norrell left quite alone–in fact, while Strange is young and charming and ready to be changed, Norrell is so intently set in his ways that he actually grows very little as a character over the course of the novel because the character himself is resisting all possibility of growth. Norrell’s withered heart is Strange’s destination in the novel.

But on the show, Norrell is pushed to the breaking point several times. He nearly leaves London in the first episode; as in the book he is devastated by Strange’s defection, but rather than it being largely ignored at their second meeting, he and Strange have a true magical confrontation followed by the complete destruction of his library in the finale.norrell1.png

Why? Why are these men so much more emotional? Why are the raw feelings displayed by them in the show so completely absent in the novel?

The key to this question is, I think, a difference in how an audience relates to a book and how they relate to a television show. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.


On Arabella Strange and Book to TV Transitions


14201After reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” for the first time, I remember coming away very irritated about Arabella Strange.

I was instantly excited on finding out that Strange would be married. There were all sorts of expectations triggered by it: perhaps she would become a magician as well, or there would be some sort of epic romance. But it didn’t happen. No promises were made beyond “there is a wife,” and no promises are fulfilled. Arabella Strange had virtually no role in the story until the very end, and then she is a catalyst rather than a real player. To be perfectly frank, Mrs. Strange

indexOn reread, it seems that her role is almost conspicuously slight. She can’t have more than 15 speaking scenes in a thousand-page book. She appears often, but does very little. Her personality is repeatedly described as “charming,” and her apparently sparkling conversation draws many admirers, but we never get to read almost any of this apparently wonderful dialogue. She makes a few perceptive observations, but she is like a lost minor Austen character, a version of Elizabeth Bennett without the crackling dialogue, character arc, or opinions.

This wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous if she weren’t  one of only three major female characters. Of the others, Lady Pole vanishes for perhaps hundreds of pages at a time, and Flora doesn’t appear until almost the end of the novel. Not only is there an Arabella Strange-shaped hole in the book, there’s almost a woman-shaped hole in it too. It just feels odd.

They changed this in the TV show. A lot. Arabella Strange has a forceful personality, has her own opinions both positive and negative of other characters (she dislikes absolutely no one but Drawlight in the novel), and is possessed of fierceness and loyalty. She also, not coincidentally, has a far stronger and more lasting bond with Jonathan Strange. (Lady Pole also has a much larger role on the show, but that is due largely to plot reasons, not character ones).

Why this difference? I honestly am not sure. I can’t lie: I like Arabella Strange better on the show than in the novel. But I can’t discount the absolute fact that Susanna Clarke is way smarter than I am, and there’s no way she didn’t know exactly what she was doing with Arabella Strange. So why did she put such a boring character in such an interesting position, just to the right of the spotlight?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on the BBC


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In her preface to the reprint of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” Susanna Clarke talks about how mad it was to met her characters walking around. But, she says, she did not meet Strange or Norrell. Instead she met the actors who played them, and she was quite pleased to be spared Strange’s arrogance and Norrell’s self-regard.

I was puzzled by this for a while. Was it some criticism of the actors? But the acting in the BBC drama is off the charts amazing. Was it, perhaps, that she had spent so very much of her time with Strange and Norrell that it was impossible for them to exist anywhere but her head?

The truth, I think, lies in the fact that the Strange and Norrell of the show are not the Strange and Norrell of the book. There are several important differences to make the characters more relatable (Strange of the book loves magic more than his wife, Norrell of the book is far nastier a personality). These are, as far as I am concerned understandable and even welcome. Without the omniscient narrator to explain their actions, Strange and Norrell could have become so isolated from the audience that no one came back for the last episode. Clarke had the luxury of a thousand pages to evolve her characters, and the knowledge that no one was going to put down the book at page 900 because the characters had decreased in relatability. The show, on the other hand, wanted everyone to be invested enough in the characters’ journeys to come back week after week. Without 1000 pages to work with, and with a great deal of plot to work in, some of the more subtle aspects of the characterization had to go.

However, I think that the most important difference between the show and the book–and the difference that separates the titular characters in book and show–is the conclusion of Strange and Norrell’s journeys. In the book, they are cut off by choice from humanity, overwhelmed by their deep character flaws. But the journey they take in the show arcs upwards, not downwards. When Strange tells his wife in the fifth episode that everything he has is because of her, he is laying aside his arrogance. As Strange offers up everything he has to get Arabella back–his magic, his sanity, his life itself–he sheds the parts of himself which made up that arrogance.

When Norrell agrees to the loss of his books (which does not occur in the novel) he is giving up the centerpiece of his life for Strange’s sake. He is no longer a mere taker, keeper, and hoarder. He is more. And when he embraces the dying Strange and tells him “I am not afraid,” he has finally conquered his crippling fearfulness (fear of the world, of other people, and of love).

In the novel, the arcs of Strange and Norrell make them into creatures of magic, cut off from the world. In the TV show, the characters travel through magic to become more than they once were, not less.

One is certainly not better than the other (though the novel is arguably more subtle than the books, and it takes the riskier path while the show went for a more conventional conclusion). I think that they are companion pieces of art: a life can go one way, or another. Magic manifests in many ways.