Chapters 21 & 22, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Chapter 21 – “The cards of Marseilles”

Childermass and Vinculus go to the Pineapple, a most unsavoury drinking den built above the Fleet, and they discuss magicians, books, and fortunes over hot spiced ale. Vinculus has such a book – his inheritance, “the greatest glory and the greatest burden that has been given to any man in this Age”. Of course, he won’t tell Childermass any more about it, let alone sell to Mr Norrell.

Childermass produces his set of cards—which we all, as intelligent readers, will recognise as a Tarot deck—and proceeds to tell Vinculus’s fortune. His actions are governed by the Hermit; the Fool appears, and Childermass does not know how to interpret that; Justice says that Vinculus has weighed his choices, and come to a decision; and the Two of Wands says that Vinculus is going wandering. So he’s going to leave London after all, on his own account. The Page of Cups shows that Vinculus has a message to deliver to someone; that someone is the Knight of Wands, a finely dressed man bearing a leafy branch as a club. The Two of Swords, the Hanged Man, and the World show a meeting, leading to an ordeal (perhaps even death) but his purpose will be achieved.

It’s interesting that Childermass’s cards are drawn on the back of used scrap paper, and that the text shows through in reverse – the Page of Cups “had been drawn upon the back of a letter and the writing shewed through the paper. The man’s clothes were a mass of scribble and even his face and hands bore parts of letters.” Text is always important, and since the writing is reversed, that brings in mirrors: in this novel, a sure sign that something important and magical is coming up.

So, let’s look at the spread Vinculus deals for Childermass, that he can’t interpret. First is the Moon (doubt, deception, romanticism) and then the House of God reversed, which may mean that everything’s going dramatically pear-shaped but he’s going to come out of it well himself. A problem, the Nine of Swords (between life and death, dreams & reality), and its solution, the Page of Wands (drive; walking through fire), are next; the Ten of Wands, reversed, shows he’s bearing up under a massive load, and the High Priestess shows that the load is text & mystery. (It also represents the querent, interestingly enough—in this case, Vinculus.) The Wheel of Fortune, the Two of Coins, and the King of Cups show a sudden change, a devious approach to life, and a powerful water-associated man. Well, that’s certainly Childermass, all right.

Vinculus insists that there is a third fortune to be told: Mr Norrell’s. The Emperor begins the spread, and continues it—every card dealt is the Emperor, growing successively younger and darker, with no eagle but a raven by his side.

His fortune, it seems, is the Raven King.

Chapter 22 – “The Knight of Wands”

So this is whom Vinculus has a message for: Jonathan Strange. He is recently bereaved, and (as is natural in a gentleman of his age and situation) is now considering marriage. His intended, Miss Arabella Woodhope, is in all respects a perfectly normal young Regency lady, in point of fact a clergyman’s sister, and the only real information as to her character that we’re given here is her “curious dissatisfaction” with Strange’s chosen path in life—or rather, with his constant, consistent, and committed lack of a path. She has, it seems, persuaded him to gamble less, drink less, and even think seriously about considering choosing a career.

On the road to visit Miss Woodhope in Gloucestershire, Jonathan Strange and the new manservant (described in Chapter 15; following the text, we shall now refer to him as Jeremy Johns) pass through a typical English village by the name of Monk Gretton. Ice and frost lie on the ground, and a strange silence and desuetude affect the village. The reason for this is that the villagers are clustered around a sleeping magician, curled like an old grey tree root under the hedge. “Did you never hear that if you wake a magician before his time, you risk bringing his dreams out of his head into the world?”

Strange does not stop at first, but as he tells the story to an image of Miss Woodhope in his head, and realises that she will ask what he did to help, he turns back; as a precaution, Jeremy Johns finds them each a stout stick, with the leaves still on. Conveniently, the magician wakes as Strange enquires about him, and we see that it is Vinculus.

Now well aware whom his message is for, he hams it up, and (of course) recites the whole prophecy all over again. Strange had had no notion of being a magician, and protests that he knows no magic; Vinculus counters that objection quite handily, by selling him the three spells with which Mr Norrell provided Childermass for seven shillings and sixpence. It’s all rather neat, isn’t it? Messenger of prophecy and agent of its fulfilment, all in one, like a text writing itself.

Strange paused. He did not want to tell his real reason—which was to impress Arabella with his determination to do something sober and scholarly—and so he fell back on the only other explanation he could think of. “I met a man under a hedge at Monk Gretton who told me that I was a magician.”

Anyone can simply decide to be a magician, but the test of things is in doing magic, and—partly in the spirit of scientific enquiry, and partly in the spirit of a frivolous parlour game—Strange tries out the spell to discover what his enemy is doing presently. He has no enemies that he knows, but the mirror shows someone in any case: an unremarkable sort of man in an old-fashioned wig, perhaps fifty and dressed very plainly in a grey coat, surrounded entirely by books. I think we, as readers, are justified in concluding that this is Mr Norrell?

That’s where we close today, because these two chapters finish Volume I. Volume II is entitled “Jonathan Strange”, and shows a portrait of a long-faced, finely dressed gentleman, with a simultaneously sad and merry aspect to him. The quotation below it is a delightful one: “Could a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

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