Childermass (from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel)

This is going to be a rather short review.  It will be short for two reasons: One, I’m feeling kind of lazy as I prepare for the coming month (see today’s announcement), and two, I realize most of you haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel.

I would instruct you to commit horrible pain on yourself if you haven’t, but if you continue reading what I write, well, I’m only so BIG a sadist.

For those unfamiliar, JSMR (again, I’m not paid by word count) is a brilliant story about magicians.  Not only that, but it’s such an incredibly well concieved world and fantastic pacing and banter that’s in the style of Jane Austen or those other Victorian-styled British novels of the high period of the Empire.  Which is fitting, I suppose since it takes place in the Napoleonic Era.

If I wanted to I could REALLY gush about how wonderful this book is.  It’s like if P.G. Wodehouse wrote the Harry Potter series.  The setting and world of magic is incredibly believable, far more so than Potter in fact.  There are little encyclopedic notes in every chapter that really fill in the backstory of this “other England”.   Consider this of the highest recommendation to check it out if you haven’t done so already.

That having been said, the characters are rather…flat.  In fact on reading it again, I was surprised how seriously bland the title characters are.  All of their development comes from the world of magic around them, and other than a few key decision points, the characters of Norrel and Strange could easily be swapped out for any other English gentlemen in the book with little change in the flow.

Childermass is likewise, kind of cookie cutter, but his archetype is so rare that I don’t even know if we have a name for it.  Childermass is essentially the titular Gilbert Norrel’s Jeeves.  He is a servant, but he’s grossly over-competent and skilled in his work.  And Norrel, for his part, treats Childermass with far more respect than any traditional gentleman would treat an ordinary servant (even at times, accosting his guests, members of Parliament no less, for interrupting this servant).  Childermass looks out for Norrel, and is a loyal attendant through and through, even when his personal ambitions are completely at odds with Norrel’s.

I suppose I can’t go further without some exposition.  In the story, Gilbert Norrel is the last practicing Magician in England, arriving on the public scene in the darkest days of the Napoleonic War. He is a gentleman, quite wealthy, even by the London elite’s standards, and has used his fortune over many years to amass as many (if not all) of the magical books in England.  Or rather, the useful ones.  Norrel even goes to the efforts of stamping out even what are termed, “Theoretical Magicians”, those who study magic but have never casted a spell in their life.

To this end, Childermass is Norrel’s right hand.  In fact Norrel, being a gentleman, rarely leaves his estate, so Childermass is sort of feared amongst the Theoretical Magicians as a sort of spectre of death.  And considered he is the proto-goth, that makes it all the more awesome.

Childermass is a low-born commoner who knows just about everything.  He even picks up magic from Norrel, the only other person (until Jonathan Strange) who Norrel trusts to perform magic.

Childermass is a keen intellect with a hatred of authority.  Though all of his eccentricities are logically justified to anyone who questions him.

The book’s binding discusses that a rift forms between the two titular characters.  So I don’t believe  I am spoiling with this next paragraph, which encompasses the essence of Childermass perfectly.

“I tell you what I will do.  I will make you a promise.  If you fail and Mr Norrell wins, then I will indeed leave his service.  I will take up your cause, oppose him with all my might and find arguments to vex him – and then, there shall still be two magicians in England and two opinions upon magic.  But, if he should fail and you win, I will do the same for you. Is that good enough?”

Childermass is the true chaotic, and I love him for it.  Instead of letting his sad life embitter him, he has fun with it if he’s going to get the screws anyway.

I don’t know why for certain but I sympathize with the powerful servant types.  They are loyal but strong enough to hold their own to their superiors.  And really I could go into great detail about how he is such a chaotic, brilliant character, but the above quote puts it more eloquently than a thousand words of description.

I think I shall cut this short, as I do not want to spoil the book for those of you who have not read it (probably most of you), but if you don’t at least try, you will be most disappointed.


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