Like the scientist, the true occultist learns by his own experience, built upon the recorded previous experience of others.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely popular novel about supernatural magic and magicians in early nineteenth-century England. The descriptions of magic seem to suggest that the author has some first-hand experience of significant thaumaturgy, or perhaps good drugs; they present a sort of genuine psychedelia (“mind opening”), as contrasted with the hackneyed tropes of occultist and drug subcultures. But the sorcery is in many ways subordinate to the characterizations and interpersonal plots of the novel, which are rich and satisfying, showing a profound insight into just the sort of motivations and tensions that emerge among colleagues and competitors in magical craft.
Press reviews have attempted comparisons with many other authors of fantasy literature, as well as “literary” authors. (The book was not issued under a genre imprint.) I cannot help making two of my own. The story often reminded me of the deservedly lauded Little, Big by John Crowley. Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than a century, it is easy to imagine Clarke’s and Crowley’s stories taking place in the same universe: the human and non-human dynamics of magic are similar, and the characters are equally vivid and engaging. The chief distinction between the two books is one not of scale, but of scope. Little, Big covers more time, but its concern is essentially a single household and family. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is oriented nationally, toward the condition of England and “English magic.”
The other resemblance that struck me was to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Obviously, there is the “odd couple” of the titular characters, brought together for professional reasons, and subject to the stresses of difficult lives. But the deft use of metafictional elements in a historical framework, along with a vivid sense of humor, makes these two books into close kin. Unlike Pynchon’s protagonists, though, neither Gilbert Norrell nor Jonathan Strange is an actual historical person. While Clarke was perfectly willing to conscript Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington into her novel, the magicians are all thoroughly fictional. An odd consequence of this approach is that she offers many glimpses of a history of “English magic” from which have been deleted England’s various legended, alleged, and actual magicians: no Roger Bacon, no John Dastin, no John Dee, no Edward Kelly, no Robert Fludd, no Simon Forman—even Merlin barely rates passing mention. In their stead, she details with high verisimilitude the received histories and legends of such de novo characters as John Uskglass, Jacques Belasis, Gregory Absalom, and Martin Pale. And she single-handedly generates a bibliography of imaginary tomes that easily competes with the Lovecraft circle’s notorious catalog.
Early on in the book, I found myself nonplussed by Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations. They are charcoal renderings in a loose style, reminiscent of nothing so much as late twentieth-century children’s literature, putting them at odds with the archaic spellings, footnotes, and other period elements of the text. The drawings did not seem to manifest a creative imagination, other than at least one case (p. 632) in which there were details that uselessly contradicted the text. The fact that Clarke explicitly referenced caricaturists of the period, and at one point devoted an entire chapter to a story about the engravings prepared to illustrate Strange’s History and Practice of English Magic, just added to the sense of Rosenberg’s drawings as inappropriate and superfluous.
To conclude, I’ll offer some thoughts regarding the plot that might be considered spoilers. Somewhere past the midpoint of the book, the level of dramatic irony got so high that I was almost discouraged from reading on account of sadness for the characters. I also started to suspect that the story would ultimately be an account of how magic had been eradicated from England. Not only was I wrong in that suspicion, but I have seldom been so pleasantly surprised by a happy ending. [via]
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The Dark Lord: H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant, and the Typhonian Tradition in Magic by Peter Levenda, from Ibis Press, may be of interest.
“One of the most famous — yet least understood — manifestations of Thelemic thought has been the works of Kenneth Grant, the British occultist and one-time intimate of Aleister Crowley, who discovered a hidden world within the primary source materials of Crowley’s Aeon of Horus. Using complementary texts from such disparate authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Jack Parsons, Austin Osman Spare, and Charles Stansfeld Jones (‘Frater Achad’), Grant formulated a system of magic that expanded upon that delineated in the rituals of the OTO: a system that included elements of Tantra, of Voudon, and in particular that of the Schlangekraft recension of the Necronomicon, all woven together in a dark tapestry of power and illumination.
The Dark Lord follows the themes in the writings of Kenneth Grant, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Necronomicon, uncovering further meanings of the concepts of the famous writers of the Left Hand Path. It is for Thelemites, as well as lovers of the Lovecraft Mythos in all its forms, and for those who find the rituals of classical ceremonial magic inadequate for the New Aeon.
Traveling through the worlds of religion, literature, and the occult, Peter Levenda takes his readers on a deeply fascinating exploration on magic, evil, and The Dark Lord as he investigates of one of the most neglected theses in the history of modern occultism: the nature of the Typhonian Current and its relationship to Aleister Crowley’s Thelema and H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.” [via]
“English occultist, bohemian and author Aleister Crowley defined magick as ‘the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will’. Crowley’s will was aided by the inheritance age 11 of a tidy fortune, and took him on a hedonistic ride through a life of sex, drugs and occult practice. Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, founder of the mystery religion of Thelema, self declared spiritual master and Magus and, significantly, accomplished chess player, Crowley revelled in his notoriety as “the wickedest man alive”. The Great Beast’s polyamorous lifestyle would barely contend for such a title in today’s more liberal and permissive world, and the philosophy of ordering your world in line with your will is one that seems entirely accepted in our individualist society.”
“No writer today is more associated with Englishness and magic than Neil Gaiman. Aleister Crowley makes a caricature appearance in the very first issue of The Sandman, as the magus Roderick Burgess, whose failed attempt to summon Death herself launched Gaiman’s comic series.”
“Magic seems to live at the heart of English identity, as much today as millennia ago if the hordes reading Harry Potter are any indication. But even if we assume, as most rational Guardian-reading folk no doubt will, that magic is nothing but hokum, poppycock and superstition, it’s interesting to ask why it has such a profound hold over our popular imagination. Perhaps Crowley, magus and chess master, provides a possible answer. As any good player knows, the strategies of chess are as relevant in the real world as on the playing board, and many a politician has studied that game to understand the larger games of politics and power.
Perhaps magic is another kind of game, where the symbols and theatricality of the occult mask metaphors for power to help us understand the ‘science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will’. No wonder we English, living with the lingering ghosts of Empire, an unreformed class system, and the complexities of a post-industrial economy, find such fascination in it.”