Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was one of those books I started to read right after it came out, got distracted from, and then it went back to the library and I forgot about it. Once the miniseries started airing, I couldn’t stand not knowing how it would end, so I read it with great gusto in two afternoons and fell head over heels in love with it. One thing I really adored was near the end, when the prophet says something quite profound – the magicians Strange and Norrell think they are spinning spells around the Raven King, but in reality, they are his spell. They are doing his magic, for his purposes.
Given my rich Christian and theological background, it’s not surprising this would catch and hold my interest, and not merely as it casts a new light on the entire story, from beginning to end, but because it reflects our perception of God. Strange and Norrell are two magicians who think they can destroy the Faerie King by summoning the Raven King, giving him all of English magic, and commanding him to do their will. The Raven King is a king of both realms who originally brought magic into England, then retreated back into Faerie after several hundred years. He has not been seen since, but everything they know, they owe to him. Our two foolish and arrogant magicians think they are in control, but the Raven King is not bound to their magic at all. He returns not to do their will (there is another for that purpose) but to “rewrite” his book of magic, to inscribe a new prophecy now that his old ones are being fulfilled through the two magicians.
An assortment of related theological musings bounced around in my head for awhile and came out in a short story, where without intending to write an allegory, I wrote one anyway. (Tolkien, my friend, I do understand what you meant when you said the parallels between your faith and Middle-earth were not intentional but subconscious; we have that in common.) Faerie, the kingdom of the Faeries, intrigues me, as does its former master; the gentleman with the thistledown hair, like all Faeries, is a creature “outside” of Christian principles of good and evil, who does not know right from wrong. In his delusional mind, it is a gift to snatch humans out of their world and force them to dance forever in his own; he is indignant over the English’s treatment of Stephen as a slave, but never stops to think that he is also enslaving Stephen by removing his free will. He wants Stephen to exchange one imprisonment for another. Malicious, amoral, and capricious, he constructs an elaborate prison for his victims and is enraged and insulted that they want no part of it. At the end of the story, evil is defeated; he is destroyed, and another takes his place, who will remake Faerie into a kinder, more beautiful place.
As a storyteller, this brought up endless possibilities, foremost among them this: what if a member of the Faerie race did not like this change, and wanted the gentleman back? What if that which humans think is good were bad in her eyes? I sat down, wrote it, and it was only reading it over later that its theological pattern came vividly into perspective. Somehow, in writing fiction I found the words I lacked to translate the greater meaning the story holds to me; I unlocked it within my own mind and set it free. I came to discover that in my story, the Raven King represents God, and the Faerie telling the story represents Mankind. Her vision of God is skewed and full of resentment, because she does not understand the Raven King and her perspective of him is warped through her own prejudices. She projects onto him that which she loathes, rather than seeing the truth of him. She also resents Stephen, a Christ figure, because he does not command humans to do his will but invites them to participate in it. She sneers that he answers the summons of magicians all over England despite their lack of skill and assists them without asking for anything in return. She longs desperately for the return of the gentleman, for the forced enslavement that felt so comfortable to her, while simultaneously feeling a “change” overcoming all of them, because Stephen’s dreadful (in her mind) goodness is starting to seep into their reality and they also. Even her “hope” that she can find some way to restore the gentleman is a vile thing to her, because hope is so unfamiliar and unpleasant a thing to her. Yet, when invited to dance at Stephen’s ball, she chooses to dance… leaving the reader with the subconscious impression that she will find happiness now that she has the power of choice. In choosing to sacrifice her free will, she becomes truly free.
That is in many ways how I view my own faith; it is not a dance I am forced to dance, but a choice I continue to make, and in doing so, I find my true freedom from a gentleman who would prefer to enslave me. In choosing to dance this particular dance, gradually I am becoming more like the king who invited me to dance. It is a gradual process, like the transformation on the Faerie and her unwilling heart; that she experiences “hope” instead of emotional emptiness implies that, however much she resents Stephen, his influence in her life is profound. Simply by being in his presence, she is becoming more than she was before. Her old desires are beginning to fade away and will one day vanish entirely; she will remember them only as a distant echo, a dim reflection in a mirror long since tarnished and forgotten, just as who I was before I met Christ is fading away from me.
Many resent the idea of God, because they see Him as a being that forces us to dance to His tune unwillingly; but in truth, it is the gentleman who desires that for us, and is perhaps even deluded into thinking that freeing us from God’s influence is of benefit to us. Did the serpent invite our ancestors to eat the forbidden fruit out of maliciousness, or so that we might share in his delicious rebellion against what he saw as a tyrannical force withholding wisdom from lower beings? Does he, like the gentleman, think he is doing us a kindness? But Stephen sees him for what he is, and removes him, in order to take his rightful place as king. When Christ came to show us the way, when he came to take the place in our lives of the gentleman and fundamentally alter our reality forever, it was not to force us to dance, but to invite us to the ball. Yet, something in us wants to resist because we prefer enslavement. Our rebellious nature revolts at the idea of allowing another to influence our decisions. If we choose Christ, we think, we must give up something that is precious to us; we would rather be enslaved to sex, or power, or greed, or jealousy, or pride, or whatever that object is that prevents us from accepting his outstretched hand. But there is no enslavement, and giving up these things is not a great burden in the end, for it is in being willing to lose ourselves that we are found.
Here is the story, should you choose to read it.
To mortals, it is an old tree, gnarled, hideous, its branches knobby and sprawling in all directions.
But mortals are simple, and foolish, and have no sense of time, for they exist merely for the flickering of a candle. One can snuff them out and they are forever gone from this world, into the endless beyond, into that meager darkness where their feeble magic cannot pluck them out again, not without our help.
To me, it is a very young tree, though long decaying. It was young when it breathed its last after centuries of life. And it is not hideous to me, though weak human eyes would see it as such; it is Life, and Death, and all that lies in-between.
It contains whatever last spark exists of the Gentleman, when the new King pounded him to dust within its roots. His beautiful spells shattered, those wonderful, entwining spells that held Lost-hope together, that brought the mortals in from the grayness of the world, plucked them from their obscurity and pathetic lives and gave them a higher calling in his court. The ungrateful wretches could not see that what he did for them was merciful, for he took them from their bleak world and brought them into ours, a place of endless wonders, of countless balls, of frivolity and violence.
Lady Pole was the beginning of the end, that icy, empirical beauty, resurrected from death and granted life in exchange for a trifling thing, a mere half of her wretched human life. She spent her days in their world, her nights in ours. And then came Arabella Strange, and after her, those damned magicians… and now Lost-hope is gone, altered; and my King is dead, devoured by the earth. And the Raven King was behind it all, spinning his story around us, catching us up in a net of thinly woven magic… the interfering self-professed monarch over us all, whose dance we must dance, whose tune we must sing, whose presence is vapid and fleeting, who comes and goes in whispers of wind and raven’s eyes, who destroys that which we most love and passes again into nothingness.
Everything about Lost-hope is detestable to me now, for it is not even called Lost-hope anymore; the boorish Stephen has altered it with his … goodness. The mere word causes an awful taste in my mouth, like sun-drenched strawberries in a field of lavender. The castle is restored, its corridors gleaming, its ballroom floor repaired, a mood of deplorable mortal happiness threading through the air. He forces us to do nothing. He forces mortals to do nothing. He invites them to attend the ball if they wish, with no thought of reaping any reward. He opens gateways from our world into theirs and stops no one from walking the many paths. The awakening magicians of England summon him pathetically through candles, and he appears to them quite kindly and assists, without asking for anything in return. I shudder to think of it.
Gone are the days when we entered England and had nimble peasant maidens dance to death for our amusement. Gone are the days of rituals and throwing children out of watch towers. Gone are the days of conquests and disintegrating spells and fear for our kind, respect for our abilities, awe of our darkness. His deplorable goodness—that vile thing that so enamored our former king to the nameless slave—even begins to alter us now. Our moods are not so capricious, our arguments not as violent, and there is a dreadful desire in me to simply … give in to it, and become that which King Stephen would wish me to be… content. The past threatens to fade into a haze, to fall away from me, memories of the Faerie King seem like distant echoes from a dream slowly being forgotten.
But I will not forget, nor will I ever forgive. That the two magicians are still caught up in the eternal darkness means that his last spell holds. He is not utterly destroyed, and where there is one speck of him remaining, one sliver of dust, one fingernail, one whitish wisp of his thistledown hair to be found, there is … hope.
Ugh, such a vile word, full of so much promise, a concept that mortals cling to in their hour of desperation. That I reach for it proves Stephen’s influence over me; his own spells are beginning to take root in Faerie. I feel them stretching out around me, calling to me, pulling me into an endless lyrical dance, but he does not compel my feet. He invites me.
The music is beginning. The faces that surround me are no longer glazed and weary, but exuberant. King Stephen is laughing, his dark skin gleaming in soft starlight as the stars themselves float around and above us, casting us in an ethereal glow. Where once we were pale and terrifying we are now … more than before, and less, for our essence is altered. His loathsome warm eyes, so full of life, fall upon me and linger, evoking a terrible inclination in me to smile.
I will play along, and bide my time, and search for that bit of Lost-hope that still remains, until such time that I can bring the Gentleman back, in all his terrifying glory. But tonight, I shall dance.