Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 20-21

Strange_BlackThis section of the book contains perhaps my favorite encounter in the novel, one between Childermass and Vinculus. These are two of the most interesting characters in the book so far, and their meeting is everything I could ever want to read when two characters I love cross paths for the first time.

Setbacks and Disappointments

Chapters 20 and 21 see the end of Mr. Norrell’s honeymoon period as the only magician in England, and he quickly starts trying to secure his position in other ways. While the cabinet ministers are bemoaning the lack of other magicians, convinced as they are that if only they had more magic at their disposal they could win the war, Norrell is more concerned with eliminating all other magicians to preserve his own primacy.

The Street Magicians

Street magicians have already been mentioned many times in the book, and seldom in flattering terms. By and large, they are charlatans, essentially performance artists looking to make a quick penny off of whatever credulous marks they can find. Norrell, as one might expect, has a special loathing for these frauds, and he manages to mobilize the government to ban and expel them.

Vinculus’s Booth

Eventually, only one street magician is left in London, the famous Vinculus who we’ve already met. Although threatened with arrest and fines and time in the stocks, Vinculus refuses to go, and his popularity with the people of London is such as to make physically removing him a dodgy prospect. The authorities are concerned it could set off a riot.

Finally, when it seems clear that Vinculus will not be rousted by other means, Norrell sends his own man, Childermass to deal with him. Childermass goes to Vinculus in the guise of a milliner, but Vinculus quickly sees through the ruse and the two repair to an ale-house to discuss things.

Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple
Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple

At the Pineapple

At a corner table, Childermass gets right into it, pointing out that with a real magician in London, there will be no more demand for Vinculus’s tricks, so why should Vinculus insist on sticking around? Vinculus in turn mocks Norrell as being no better, really, than himself:

“The magician of Hanover Square! All the great men in London sit telling one another that they never saw a man so honest. But I know magicians and I know magic, and I say this: all magicians lie and this one more than most.”

Childermass can’t or won’t deny this charge, and Vinculus goes on to start reciting again the prophecy that he pronounced to Mr. Norrell. When Childermass asks, Vinculus says the prophecy is from a book–one which Vinculus has possession of and that Norrell can never have.  If you’re reading along, pay close attention to the words Vinculus uses when he talks about the book.

The Cards of Marseilles

After drinking in silence for some time after Vinculus’s statement about the book, Childermass offers to read Vinculus’s fortune. He lays out the cards with Vinculus’s consent, and begins flipping them over. Interestingly, it turns out that Vinculus is already planning to go wandering, and Childermass laughs when he realizes that his efforts to convince the other man to leave were unnecessary.  Vinculus then runs the cards for Childermass’s own fortune, and Childermass confirms its’ accuracy, although Vinculus doesn’t have the education to actually read them himself. As Childermass says:

“You are a strange creature–the very reverse of all the magicians of the last centuries. The were full of learning but had no talent. You have talent but no knowledge.”

The Emperors

Vinculus then states his intention to tell Norrell’s fortune as well. While Childermass doesn’t see the point, he doesn’t stop Vinculus from laying out the cards. As the begin to turn the cards over, however, every single one of them is L’Emperor, only this emperor looks much more like the Raven King–Norrell’s past, present, and future.  Even without knowing much about Tarot, this should stand out to the reader, but a quick glance through the list of meanings this card can hold will give one a much greater appreciation for the author’s sense of drama in this scene.

Five Wives

A disturbed Childermass returns home and tells Norrell about his meeting with Vinculus. After upbraiding Childermass for his use of cards, Norrell quickly fixates on the book Vinculus claimed to own–namely, on obtaining it for himself as there is very little that upsets Norrell more than knowing a book exists and not being able to read it. To that end, Childermass investigates Vinculus, hoping to find where the book is hidden. He only manages to find that Vinculus has five wives, none of whom know anything about any book. Even Mr. Norrell’s magic cannot uncover the thing, and Chapter 21 ends with Childermass reading his cards again, hoping to find the book himself, but finally concluding that it must be in some unknown language.

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