‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ explores the practical concerns of wizards at war
by MATTHEW GAULT
After Jonathan Strange makes a grand splash in British society, the minister of war sends him to the front lines. It’s 1806 and Strange is one of the most talented magicians of the age — and England is at war with Napoleon.
The French emperor has gobbled up much of the continent and it’s up to Britain and its allies to halt his advance before he crosses the Channel.
Strange is one of the first men capable of magic to appear in England in close to 300 years. The British government wants to weaponize his talents. But Lord Wellington, the Peninsular campaign’s celebrated general, is less than impressed.
“What I chiefly require sir, is more artillery and more men. Can you make them appear?” Wellington asks when the famed magician offers his services.
“I can make it rain, sir,” Strange says after some stammering.
“It has rained all winter,” Wellington retorts. “It has just stopped raining.” Wellington turns on his heel and marches away from the embarrassed magician.
“I could bring down a plague of locusts on the French, sir. Or frogs!” Strange calls after him.“You’d do just as good to drop roast chickens on them, sir,” Wellington shouts back without turning. “Good night!”
This is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the BBC’s new mini-series set during the Napoleonic Wars. It begins during the War of the Fourth Coalition when the United Kingdom, Russia, Sweden, Sicily and Saxony joined forces to oppose the Corsican dictator.
Strange and Mr. Norrell are both English magicians, the first two men able to wield spells in centuries. It’s not a great time for British spellcasters.
For the past few centuries, the study of magic has turned from a great power into an idle gentleman’s pasttime. Norrell obsesses over making British magic respectable. Strange is just happy his profession impresses the woman he loves.
The series opens with fattened, whigged layabouts gadding in a Yorkshire pub. They fancy themselves magicians but cast no spells. The men feel that doing magic is unseemly, something a gentleman would never do.
Norrell’s plan is to invade British society and avail himself of Sir Walter Pole — the British war minister. He does so, and I assumed I’d soon be watching an action adventure show full of wizards riding horses, throwing fire balls and destroying French cavalry.
But Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is better than that. It’s a show about British society, war, what people are willing to sacrifice to further their ideals and how circumstances warp those goals. Such gross displays of magical power would be both impractical and uncouth.
That’s not to say Wellington doesn’t ask Strange if magic can kill a man. He does. Strange explains that it’s theoretically possible, but a gentleman would never do so.
There’s a glint in Wellington’s eye and a twist to his small smile. I suspect he’ll spend much of the show pushing Strange towards the crude weaponization of his talents.
But to start, the war wizards have more practical concerns. Norrell uses his powers to allow the parliament to watch the war from a distance. Later, he creates an armada of ghostly warships to trick the French.
Strange earns Wellington’s trust and attention when he creates a road through Portugal. He got the idea after traveling with the rank-and-file soldiers. The men often complained about their boots, and how the harsh terrain of the peninsula wore down their footwear and made constant marching uncomfortable.
Strange busies himself during the rest of the Fourth War by performing other practical feats of modern magic. He moves bridges, asks forest to get out of the way and calls down mist to fool the enemy. It may all sound boring, but it’s not.
There’s something fascinating about watching a magician become a kind of engineer at war. So many stories about wizards treat magic as if it were a nuclear weapon — the ultimate power heroes use to annihilate the enemy. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s practicality is refreshing and very, very British.
That doesn’t mean the magicians — especially Strange — are above performing nastier magic when pushed. When Wellington loses some artillery to the French, he asks Strange to help him track it down.
Strange finds the artillery, but the methods are gruesome. He resurrects three fallen Italian soldiers and hands the zombies over to Wellington for interrogation.
The general learns what he needs, and the corpses beg Strange to send them back home to their families, rather than banishing their souls back to hell.
It’s a horrifying scene and one that speaks to something else Strange & Norrell does well — moral ambiguity. The corpses disturb Strange. His fevered attempts to banish and kill them fail.
But it’s time for the army to move. And the army needs its magic.
“Lock these corpses in and set the mill on fire,” Wellington says to one of his commanders. “They’re distracting my magician.”
Strange emerges from the Mill, tired and sad. The soldiers bring his horse around. They all remove their hats and stare at him. They’re happy. His roads and mist have made their lives easier.
The camera pulls back to show Strange surrounded by thankful British soldiers while the corpse filled mill burns in the background.
It’s a clever juxtaposition. Strange sold out some of his principles to further the cause of the British war machine, and — by extension — British magic. It’s not respectable, but it makes everyone respect him. Only four of the show’s seven episodes have aired and I hope this is a theme it continues to pursue.
“When I was in the peninsula,” Strange tells Norrell when he returns home. “I performed magic which you might not have found respectable. Magic of older times. I’m not proud of it sir, but often sir … it worked.”
“Things are done in times of war, oft for the furtherance of noble causes which might be most regrettable in times of peace,” Norrell says.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is about magic, the fay, madness and beauty. It’s also about what lines people are willing to cross to further their goals and the human costs of moral relativity.
The mini-series is beautiful, well paced, well acted and intriguing. The themes of war and the deteriorating ethical considerations on the battlefield elevate what could have been a hokey show about Napoleonic wizards into something magical.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell airs Sunday nights on the BBC. It will begins its American engagement on Saturday, June 13 at 10/9 Central on BBC America. You can watch the first episode online here.