Whether it was guys wearing animal skins hunkered around a campfire or Boy Scouts out on their Jamboree, the ghost story has been a staple of human entertainment. Now, there is a lot of caution bandied about, as I have bandied myself, about the occult and how careful we should all be when approaching it for entertainment purposes.
I know there are those who oppose all manner of mention of magic in their art, and there have even been campaigns against the literary likes of Harry Potter. I don’t have a dog in this particular fight, but the elements of magic and the supernatural that permeate such works as “Lord of the Rings” and the Narnia books certainly haven’t contributed to the spiritual delinquency of a minor or a major.
Classics like the “Wizard of Oz” could not even exist without a suspension of disbelief in good and bad witches and I don’t think that film has done any irreparable harm, although I must confess that my quota for seeing flying monkeys was met two seconds after first seeing them on television when I was a child.
“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is a weird title which doesn’t tell us a thing other than the names of the two protagonists (or is it antagonists?) of a multi-part series on BBC America that takes place in England at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. Taken from a novel of the same name, the series follows the actions of the “last magician left in England,” Mr. Norrell, a bookish hobbit of a man who wants nothing more than to be seen as the last magician left in England and to help his country during a time of war.
When it comes to this kind of long-form television, the British are just better than us. Thanks to the presence of BBC America, there are now a host of programs that have expanded the terrain for the average Anglophile, where before those options were limited to public broadcasting.
For years, PBS was the bastion of this kind of very good television. You can go far back to shows like “I Claudius” and the precursor of “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs/Downstairs,” to the modern version of Sherlock Holmes (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and find for the most part, excellent television. Personally, I have always had a penchant for the period piece detective shows like “Poirot,” “Miss Marple,” et al, and despite having to suspend my own disbelief and accept the incredibly high volume of violent crimes that take place inside and around the grounds of 1930s era English country estates as a given, they are wonderful escapes of fancy.
British accents and period pieces just go together so nicely and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” combines those accents and production values to give us a peek into a world that may have never really existed at all with a rollicking good ghost story thrown in for good measure.
Jonathan Strange, a younger man who has just inherited a modest estate from a rather disdainful father, is quickly becoming the second magician left in England as he becomes a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, honing his magical prowess under Mr. Norrell’s tutelage.
But just like Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia,” Mr. Norrell puts some rather nasty and scary plot points into action by intoning one magic spell too many when he reanimates the dead wife of a grief-stricken government minister in the hopes of proving his magical chops and thus be invited by the same government to use his skills to help defeat a menacing Bonaparte from across the English Channel.
The dark and sinister being Mr. Norrell’s spell conjures makes it immediately clear to Mr. Norrell that he has made a very bad mistake. He had such good intentions — relieving the grief of a man in love with his wife, helping his country win a war against a formidable enemy — but because of his reckless use of his gift, Mr. Norrell has set in motion a malevolent entity that has only just begun to wreak havoc. Having set his eyes on Jonathan Strange’s wife, we can be assured this evil creature has more supernatural mayhem in store before the series is finished.
Though opposite in almost every imaginable way, you get the feeling that despite the tension between the two, magicians Strange and Norrell will join forces to combat their foe. Then again, maybe they won’t. I hope it isn’t the latter, since so far, the series has captured a difficult task of portraying evil, especially supernatural evil, in a convincing and powerful way.
Mr. Norrell is immediately guilt-ridden for his part in bringing this being out from behind his supernatural rock, and it is clear only Mr. Norrell, probably with the help of Mr. Strange, can put him back where he belongs.
They are an unlikely pair of superheroes but follow a strong literary tradition — and a good one, I might editorialize — of the common man combating the complex and the outwardly weak being most suited to confront a terrible evil. This model suited Bilbo Baggins quite nicely as he battled a panoply of supernatural creatures.
Through the “magic” of the Internet, you can catch up on the previously aired episodes “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” in no time. Then I suggest you get some popcorn, keep the lights on, and enjoy the ride. Hopefully it will have a magical ending.