Monday, November 07, 2005

The gentleman with the thistledown hair has been occupying my thoughts lately. If you have not read Susanna Clarke's tome "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell", you will have no idea who this disturbing, compelling character is.

The reason I mention him is because I came across a discussion of Faery in Alan Jacobs' book "The Narnian". In it, the author relates the various ideas concerning Faery that Lewis & Tolkien and their predecessors had. Tolkien says that faeries are not supernatural, but natural, in the sense that they are part of Nature, much like animals and trees.

In this sense, they are neutral, in the way that storms and sunshine are neutral. Neither care whether they land upon the just or unjust; they just are. (I am reminded here of a favorite LeGuin quote "The dragons! The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse, But are they evil? Who am I to judge the acts of dragons? . . . They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams, Arren. We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.")

The gentleman with the thistledown hair is quite disturbing; he strikes me as an overgrown child with absolutely no moral compass whatsoever. In the book, he talks dismissively of waging expansive bloody battles and skinning fellow faeries and such just because it hasn't been done in a while. He wants to make his favorite human Stephen king just because, so he makes King George go mad (see the parallel with history?) He thinks a girl is pretty, so he brings her back to life, only to whisk her off to Faery every night for dances (one thinks of the tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses") for as long as he feels like, which could be just a year or eternally. And because he is all-powerful, he can't be destroyed.

The way he is defeated is breath-taking. I can't relate the ending because its effect can only be felt after having read the whole book and working up to that perfect moment. Off the top of my head, only two other books have similar breath-taking perfect endings, which is Gregory Maguire's "Mirror, Mirror" and C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces"

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" is phenomenal. It's one of those books where you feel your life has been changed, even if only your imaginative life has been affected. I speak as an unabashed book-lover here. As Thoreau says, "How many a man has dated an era in his life by the reading of a book!"


dwain said...

I managed to trudge through about 10 pages of Jonathan Strange before I finally gave up trying to fool myself into thinking I would enjoy the book in the least. It's altogether too Victorian in matter and style for my taste; Dickens meets I don't know who (I don't read about magic much). As I told the librarian, there are far too many books on my to-read list that I know I would enjoy for me to spend 2 weeks dejectedly paging through a monstruously large book which holds no interest for me.

Have you read much Le Guin beyond Earthsea? If not, you owe it to yourself to read _The Dispossessed_. I don't know if science fiction is your cup of tea, but this, as with much of her work, is social commentary in the guise of science fiction, so you may find it more interesting.

About dragon quotes: my favorite is from Samuel Delany: "Attacked by flowers, a dragon lay dying." Another book you might enjoy (and this one is much less certain), "The Einstein Intersection." If you can explain the ending to me, you're a much wiser person than me! Please explain it to me?

Laura said...

You either love or hate Jonathan Strange. I think it appeals to some people who don't have much of a life.. and "who would rather read than eat"..(this is how Dr. Gobin introduced me to chapel when I was being presented with the Oxford Cleric award, an award for no other reason than for the love of learning and reading)...
I think if I hadn't met Jon, I would have been in great danger of becoming horribly passive and would have grown into a batty old lady with a thousand cats. :-)