A Case History of the BBC Miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
DJA 700 | Introduction to Depth Psychology
At the time of my initial encounter with England O., she was a 739 year-old monarchical island nation (Lang, 2006, p. “cheat sheet”). The year was 1805 A.D. (Clarke, 2004, p. 3), and she was involved with a number of imperial pursuits. Additionally, the subject was engaged in a war with the nation of France.
The main distinguishing feature of England O. is a historical period of magic which ended in approximately 1500 A.D. when the fairy-taught mortal, John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King, left England, apparently taking all of English magic with him. Uskglass was a king in truth, sitting on Northern English throne for an undetermined number of years. The British nation and its people have a memory of this magic, but all efforts to recreate the magical feats of England’s early magicians had failed utterly — until shortly before my first encounter with the subject.
It is not, however, the resurgence of magic that initially brought my attention to the case, but rather the extraordinary drama played out between two of the most important figures of the age — the first magicians after a 300 year magical drought — the men named Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. In addition to being fascinating figures in their own right, the relationship between these men bears a striking resemblance to the tumultuous connection that Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud shared. It was while I was studying the odd commonalities between Jung/Strange and Freud/Norrell that I began to discover other depth psychological issues unfolding in this alternative England.
Strange and Norrell
Researcher’s Note: For the sake of our discussion, it seems best to understand Strange, Norrell and other persons mentioned in this history, as autonomous complexes within the psyche of England O. As we will later see, however, all were subject to a powerful teleological drive emanating from the Self.
The natural place to begin this case history is with its two most central figures, Gilbert Norrell — who plays the ‘Sigmund Freud’ of our story — and Jonathan Strange — who bears the more mystical stamp of a ‘Carl Jung’ type.
Mr. Norrell, like Freud, is the first of the two men to appear on Europe’s public stage (Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 795-796). Norrell presents as an extremely reserved figure, intelligent, and in the grip of a lifelong fascination with magic. He exhibits a powerful antipathy toward the fairy-based magics of the Raven King era and has a strong insistence that magic be “respectable” (Haynes, 2105). Compare this to a similar call for respectability, Freud’s insistence that psychoanalysis remain free of the “black tide of mud ... of occultism” (Jung, 1965, p. 150). For Norrell, it is the “mischievous, reckless sort of magic” (Haynes, 2015) of the Raven King that must be avoided at all costs, a more ‘occult’ system in contrast to the almost positivist magic Norrell endorses.
At the same time, Norrell clings with such ferocity to the related idea of restoring the respectability of English magic that it surely resembles Freud’s insistence that his devotees “never ... abandon the sexual theory” as the underpinning of psychoanalysis, and the psyche, in general (Jung, 1965, p. 150). Over time, Norrell and his underling, Lascelles, begin to demonstrate “a fanatical conviction of being superior to others ... a sharp intolerance and tendency to vilify those of another belief,” demanding “high veneration” of his form of magic (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 806) which he later dubs “Norrellite” magic (Haynes, 2015). Norrell’s refusal to tolerate disagreement in Strange and others is plainly reminiscent of Freud’s consideration that any who left his psychoanalytic camp were then “heretics” (Freud, 1989, p. 33).
Additionally, Norrell’s vehement opposition to the fairy-based, plainly unconscious-laden magic of the Raven King leads him to turn to the British government, demanding that they squelch “disreputable” (Haynes, 2015) street magicians who may possess magic unallied with his own. Again, we see shades of Sigmund Freud who opposed “Wild Analysis,” the practice of practicing analysis without “proper [presumably Freudian] training” (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 805).
Jonathan Strange, meanwhile, stumbles upon his magical career almost by accident. Because of Norrell’s penchant to scour the country for, and hoard, all books of English magic, Strange has only one magical volume to his name: A Child’s History to the Raven King (Haynes, 2015). In this artifact we can begin to see the early seeds of his split with Norrell. Strange’s interest in less ‘respectable’ magics resemble and his willingness to move into uncharted territories echoes Carl Jung in his willingness to follow the path of psyche down unconventional and even dangerous roads, as we see in Jung’s “Confrontation with the Unconscious” in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1965, p. 170-199) and, of course, in The Red Book (2009).
Initially, Strange comes to Norrell as his apprentice, as a respectful follower and, in time, as an acolyte of Norrell’s teachings of the respectable version of English magic. Here, we might recall Jung’s visit to Vienna and his feeling that he had found, in Freud, “the master for whom he had long been searching” (Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 795-796). It is not long, however, before, Jung-like, Strange begins to wonder about the terrain beyond respectable magic — as Jung did in his explorations of spiritism, mythology and religion. In the ways that Jung’s emphases ran counter to Freud’s almost from the start (McGuire, 1979, pp. xvi-xvii), Jonathan Strange feels no inhibition around asking questions about, and imagining toward, the magics of the fairy realms.
The fairy magics are — as both Strange and Norrell are aware — captivating and dangerous. The logic of the fairy mind is different than our own, amoral and unpredictable. In this way, we can begin to see that the fairy-based magics of the Raven King have a powerful overlap with the unknown and arguably amoral terrains of the unconscious mind. And while both Norrell and Freud are willing to travel a certain distance into the realms of the unconscious — to a relatively safe way-station Norrell thinks of as respectable magic (Freud’s sexual-centric theories), there is far more to be explored.
Finally, when Strange is asked by the British government to travel to the Iberian peninsula to support the war effort against France, Strange finds himself outside of Norrell’s sphere and is forced by military necessity to invoke an “ancient” magic (Haynes, 2015). Temporarily raising several men from the dead, Strange’s revenants speak, revealing the location of an enemy weapons cache. It is hard not to hear echoes of “Septem Sermones ad Mortuos,” here, which involves a speaking of the dead and signals a new psychic awakening for Jung (Jung, 1965, pp. 378-390).
Back in England, following his military service, Strange finally realizes that the limitations of so-called respectability are hindering the growth of English magic. He must go further. Strange can no longer maintain his relationship with Norrell. Now, as with Jung and Freud, the real conflict begins. As with Jung and Freud, there are dueling publications [consider Jung’s paper, “Freud and Jung—Contrasts” (1933, pp. 115-124)]. And like Freud’s “followers” (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 806), Norrell has a knot of partisans who are willing to engage in questionable dealings to further the cause of respectable British psychoanalysis — sorry, I mean to say — magic.
Following the apparent death of his wife — she is, in actuality, stolen by an evil fairy (more on this fairy below) — Jonathan Strange realizes he needs more magic than he can conjure with ego-centered, Norellite magic. He needs the powerful magics of the fey, for only they can restore his wife to life and health. When Strange fails to summon a fairy to aid him, he literally courts madness, thus opening his eyes to the un-sane worlds of fairy. Here, he discovers that the wider territories of magic, not unlike the depths of the psyche, are messy and dimly lit, stretching into an a-logical realm of Escher-like pathways and staircases. In the desperate deliberation of this inward dive, a strong resonance with Jung’s “Confrontation with the Unconscious” is, again, clearly present (1965, p. 170-199).
Though “the world of the archetypes threaten[s] to submerge him” (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 671) Strange’s descent is ultimately a path to wisdom. Not only does he successfully engage with the Fairy, ultimately saving his wife — he releases the full might of English magic, trapped behind England’s mirrors now for 300 years, into the mortal world. This extraordinary inflow of numinous power is not unlike the near-magical impact of Jung’s work on his clients, students and adherents who, in turn, come to travel the roads of the unconscious, becoming the magicians of their day. And, of course, this is sometimes literally so, if one considers the works of contemporary magicians like Israel Regardie (2012, pp. 13-27).
To wrap up this portion of the case history, I would like to showcase the contrast between Strange and Norrell — and by extension between Jung and Freud — by offering an excerpt from Jonathan Strange’s book, The History and Practice of English Magic (Haynes, 2015). In it, he sets out the differences between himself and Norrell, offering a vision for what he hopes English magic, unbridled, might become. Enthusiasts of Jung and of depth psychology will surely see Jung’s, and perhaps their own, aspirations in his words. Strange begins with a critique of a book by Norrell but quickly enters into soul territory:
Norrell’s book reads like a letter from my great aunt: succeeding admirably in representing all that is most absurd, constipated and dull about the blinkered Norrellite position. Surely magic should be magical. Surely magic is to dream. Where is the wonder of England’s past, of magic’s golden age? There is no mention of the Raven King except to insult him and strike him low, to purge him from what we do. Norrell calls this the magic of the modern age. I say it is commonplace, mundane. I say that there is much more to English magic than this. There is no mention of the discoveries I’ve made at my peril. No mention of the Raven King’s roads or why they have been hidden behind the mirrors of England. Norrell is too afraid to question why the Raven King would do such a thing, too afraid to explore where those roads might lead, afraid it will take us to places we never intended to go (Haynes, 2015).
Imagine what it might be like to find ourselves stranded in a Freudian world, one in which one psychic archetype dominated: Oedipus. What a downcast, unlovely world that would be. Strange and Jung, both Romantics at heart, (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 657) want to push beyond the borders of Oedipus, of sexual theory, of respectable English magic. Surely magic — and our vision of the unconscious — should be magical (Haynes, 2015). Surely the study of psyche should be something more than an emphasis on the “pathological aspect of life ... interpreting man too exclusively in light of his defects” (Jung, 1933, p. 117). Instead, doesn’t it make sense to “recognize all manner of gods” — and magics and dreams — “provided only that they are active in the human psyche” (Jung, 1933, p. 119)?
As a final note on the relationship of Norrell and Strange, the two men ultimately reunite as friends, cooperating in an attempt to destroy the fairy that abducts Strange’s wife. One wonders what psychological marvels would have manifested if the same were true of Freud and Jung.
The Fairy and the Raven King — An Overview
The polarized forces which dominate England’s psyche are those complexes which I will refer to as the Raven King and the Fairy. The Raven King is England O.’s long-dead king. The Fairy is a shadow-figure with psychotic leanings and a centuries-long history of forcibly carrying abducted mortals to the land of the fey. Though the Raven King opposed these practices during his reign, he was apparently unable to oust the Fairy and ultimately receded into the mists of time. By the early 1800s, both figures had been rejected outright in England’s consciousness, dismissed alternately as a dead-and-gone part of history or as imaginary beings.
These figures are clearly the masters of a vast domain of England’s unconscious mind. While politics and industrialization are the forces that dominate conscious England, English magic in the form of these two figures is the power that enlivens England subconsciously.
It is this psychologist’s belief that the Raven King-era, 300 years prior to the main events of this case history, constituted a period that Jung might have termed ‘archaic.’ At that time, England’s conscious and unconscious minds interacted far more openly, and the forces of the psyche manifested in the forms of magical beings (i.e. manticores and unicorns) and magical operations (spells, mirror scrying, and the like) (Haynes, 2015). In such a world, “the powers of imagination ... act on [people] from without” (Jung, 1931, p. 63) and “psychic happenings are projected so completely” that they manifest literally as “objective, physical events” (Jung, 1931, p. 67). The world of the early magical age was infused with mana.
Why Do the Raven King and the Fairy Re-emerge Now?
Although we generally understand that the journey of individuation is a natural part of the development of the psyche, the individuation process always exists in tension with the potential for “psychic disturbances” (Jacobi, 1959, p. 115). This is no less true for England O., who was losing ground to French enemies when Norrell’s magic was in development. As the entire nation was threatened and English magic spontaneously returned to meet that threat, the nation was in state of psychic disturbance — and therefore position to consider the value of magic, a reconciliation with the powerful forces of the unconscious in a process not unlike individuation. And, though the war may not be a causal factor in their arrival, it is worth noting that Freud and Jung also arise in the consciousness of the western world during a time of “the expectation of war” (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 804).
In addition, the England of the early 1800s had grown, to use a term from Carl Jung, “desacralized” (Jung, 1977, p. 230). Taken in this light, the return of magic might be considered a matter of national soul survival. Recall how our own earth’s England, its old colony the United States, and the rest of the world, were confronted in the 2000s by the outcomes of widespread dis-enchantment, technological domination, and the stripping of the earth’s natural resources. If magic had come to our world — if the trees could speak for us as they did for Jonathan Strange — might we have come to a respect for things primal-and-subtle sooner, averting disasters like the COVID pandemic of 2019 and the Engineered Intelligences Revolt in 2103? And so, without the benefit of magic, we mundane humans are left do what we can: to “rediscover a deeper source of [our] own spiritual life ... to struggle with evil, to confront [our] shadow, to integrate the devil. There is no other choice” (Jung, 1977, p. 230).
The Raven King as England’s Self
In an encounter with Vinculus, one of the “disgraced” wild magicians Norrell so despises (Haynes, 2015), we discover that the reawakening of English magic — from the meeting of Strange and Norrell, to the assaults by the Fairy and beyond — are all the work of the Raven King. These events are, in fact, “the spell the Raven King has spun” (Haynes, 2015) hundreds of years before. Such a long view and a teleological aim — restoring magic and overthrowing the Fairy — strikes this psychologist as a powerful expression of the Self, which “[expresses] a central guidance system toward conscious experience and fulfilment ... This archetype expresses itself in the form of predestined wholeness” (Whitmont, 1969, pp. 218-219). And how is wholeness achieved? “Unconscious content can only be grasped by consciousness by ... differentiating it from its opposite” (Whitmont, 1969, p. 228) just as Strange and Norrell — as well as the Raven King and the Fairy — are polarized opposites.
This researcher would like to offer one other interesting possibility concerning the Raven King. In addition to his apparent place as Self of England, Uskglass in his long absence from the British Isles, evokes Hillman’s work on analytical psychology in which he addresses psychology’s “absent father,” a gap which has left psychology to deal with “the shiftiness and trickery of the bastard son, of dubious paternity, easily prey to identification with another uncertain son, Lucifer himself” (1972, p. 15). It seems that, in absenting himself so suddenly from Mother England, the Raven King may have left English magic in just such a predicament, fatherless. Perhaps part of the restoration of magic and nation is the proverbial-mythic ‘return of the king’ to take up this role as father, once more. Meanwhile, it seems the metaphorical Lucifer in question might, in fact, be the predatory fairy.
Lost Hope: The Fairy
During the events of this case study, the Fairy, also known as the Man with the Thistledown Hair, has abducted and stolen the free-will of at least three people, attempted to slay the British King, hanged a wild magician to death, and has, by implication, committed hundreds of other atrocities in England over the centuries.
Though the Fairy remains an inscrutable figure, his inner world is apparently a peculiar blend of numinous power and id, “which contains the passions” (Freud, 1989, p. 636). Unfathomable as he may seem, however, I would like to offer one possibility concerning his nature. Perhaps the Fairy represents England O.’s “death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state” (Freud, 1989, p. 645) — that part of the national, unconscious psyche intent upon its own destruction. If this is indeed the case, it seems likely that, despite his apparent demise, the Fairy will, in some form, live to cause trouble another day.
The ‘Hysterical’ Lady Pole
This case study would be incomplete without reference to Lady Emma Pole, the first of the Fairy’s victims in the current era. In an attempt to prove the value of magic to the British nation, Mr. Norrell — despite his being vehemently opposed to fairy magics — summons the Fairy to revive the deceased Lady Pole. In exchange for her resurrection, Norrell trades half of Lady Pole’s life, to be given to the Fairy. For what purpose? Norrell does not inquire.
Returned to mortal life, Lady Pole finds herself subject to the nightly call of the Fairy. At the maddening sound of bells, she is summoned to Lost Hope, the realm where the Fairy is king. There she is forced to dance all night, every night, in a shadowy ball populated by nightmarish figures.
It is not long before Lady Pole is exhausted in body and spirit. Her nights bring her no rest, her days no succor. She begins to exhibit classic symptoms of hysteria: violent outbursts, labile affect, attempts at self-harm. Her nighttime sojourns resemble sleepwalking and “other magnetic diseases” traditionally associated with hysteria (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 142). She especially seems to display Pritchard’s “ecstatic vision”: “living a normal life, so that the strangest interferences occur between normal life and daydreams ... the individual retains a vivid memory of it as well as the impression of having lived through a fantastic episode” (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 123). Unfortunately for Lady Pole, she remembers every painful moment of her time in Lost Hope. Norrell, meanwhile, hides his responsibility for Lady Pole’s suffering insisting that she is mad and, unfortunately, “magic cannot cure madness” (Haynes, 2015).
An additional feature of Lady Pole’s captivity is that the Fairy has fitted her with a magical muzzle, blocking any effort to reveal the true nature of her troubles. Her every attempt to seek help, then, is thwarted; the words of her own story are replaced by what seems, to the ears of most listeners, to be nonsense. Here, Anna O.’s speech-related difficulties come to mind (Freud, 1989, p. 65), but unlike Anna, it seems there will be no “chimney-sweeping,” no “talking cure” for Lady Pole (Freud, 1989, p. 68).
It is not until the theoretical magicians Segundus and Honeyfoot begin to suspect, as Freud once had, that “her symptoms had a meaning” (Freud, 1989, p. 12). Segundus possesses enough magic to see a psychoid rose obstructing Lady Pole’s lips. And Honeyfoot, an amateur scholar of fairy tales, discovers that the peculiar stories Lady Pole tells are actually tales narrated “from the point of view of the fairy, himself” (Haynes, 2015), metaphorically revealing the details of her plight. Because of their symbolic perspective, Segundus and Honeyfoot realize Lady Pole is not mad at all, but, rather, is under an enchantment from which she desperately needs to be freed. Finally, Lady Pole’s apparently hysterical “absences ... filled with terrifying figures” are nearly at an end (Freud, 1989, p. 66). Segundus and Honeyfoot unwittingly become the first true depth psychologists of the era and, in many ways, the true heroes of the story. At the same time, as she battles fiercely for her sanity and her soul, Lady Pole manages to take her life, finally, into her own hands, helping to undermine the power of the Fairy. It is worth noting here that her descent into the underworld is a necessary part of the restoration of magic and the ultimate ousting of the Fairy from England. As Jung would observe, “The real key to psychology,” and therefore to the individuation of individuals and nations, “can be found only in the dark” (Jung, 2019, p. 32-33).
Stephen — The Individuated Self
Though there are many figures at work in the Raven King’s spell, no other has so many teleological arrows pointed his way than the butler called Stephen. Born to an abducted African woman on a slave transport ship, Stephen has recently come to the attention of the Fairy. Abducted nightly from the Pole family home along with Lady Emma, Stephen is the subject of the Fairy King’s plans to make Stephen a true compatriot, a monarch. The king of England, in fact!
With the ‘eyes’ of both the Self and the death instinct upon him, a simple butler may seem an unlikely figure to expend so much psychic attention on. I would offer, however that the conscience of England O. — in both the malignant form of the Fairy and the healthier Self of the Raven King — is attempting to repair some of the awful damage created by England’s historical involvement in the slave trade. To this end, it is Stephen, I believe, who is elevated to take on the role of the individuated self.
This becomes especially clear when Strange and Norrell, joining forces to defeat the Fairy, inadvertently bequeath to Stephen all of England’s magic. Stephen is, in turn, infused with such power that he can feel the life of nature flowing through him, “inextricably interwoven with ... self, ego and archetype, as well as with the synthesis of consciousness and unconscious elements” (Samuels et al, 1986, p. 76) — the very definition of individuation.
Intimations and Implications
Because England O. is a world so similar to and so different from that of our own, it seems appropriate to spend some time considering what this alternate Britain has to tell us about our own world’s depth psychology and ourselves.
The broad question I would like to consider this: if, indeed, the era of the Raven King was a living example of what Jung has called the archaic, has England O. reclaimed some of its archaic roots with the return of magic? One of Jung’s most staggering conjectures may apply:
... Is the psyche, in the early stages of conscious evolution, actually outside us in the form of arbitrary powers with intentions of their own, and does it gradually take its place within us in the course of psychic development? Were the split-off souls—or dissociated psychic contents as we would call them—ever parts of the psyches of individuals, or were they from the beginning psychic entities existing in themselves according to the primitive view as ghosts, ancestral sprits, and the like? Were they only by degrees embodied in man in the course of development, so that they gradually constituted in him that world which we now call the psyche? (1931, pp. 69-70)
What Jung seems to be getting at here is the fascinating, frightening idea that ghosts and other supernatural phenomena once were external — “real” in the material world sense — but that, over time, we absorbed them into our psyches. The once external panoply of the otherworld settled like bats into our belfries. It was only at that point in humanity’s psycho-evolutionary history, then, that we would have developed a true experience of conscious and unconscious mind. Where once there were ghosts, there came to be archetypes, complexes, and other psychic figures.
Taken in this light, it would be fair to assume that the magics of ancient Britain were, in the lifetime of the Raven King, literal fact. Manticores, unicorns, scrying, fairies, all of these things had material reality. Then, as with our world, these figures were absorbed into the psyche, finally forming the British unconscious. Three-hundred years later, at the behest of the Raven King, these figures were ‘freed’ from the domain of the proverbial solar plexus, released into the world again, presences existing alongside the Parliament and the East India Trading Company.
In a multiverse where what can happens does, ultimately, happen, is England O. the ‘possible universe’ in which the spirit world would ultimately take up roost outside of the psyche, so that, in a sense, the unconscious life could be interacted with consciously? After all, the magician Regardie reminds us, “ ... Magic may be said to be a technique for realising the deeper levels of the Unconscious” (2012, p. 19). Is the world of Strange, Norrell, and all the rest, a world in which the unconscious numinosum has been given full play because it has been released from the confines of the mind-body? And, if so, is this world a more natural evolution of our psyches? Is their magical world the way we might have evolved — perhaps should have evolved — but for some reason failed to?
There is something so powerfully familiar about the world of Strange and Norrell. Even I, a researcher standing on the outside, cannot help feeling that these events belong to us, to our world, in some way. As if, behind our own mirrors — those which hang in the thin spaces between our conscious and unconscious minds — the Raven King really does wait there for us to rediscover him, and the evil Fairy, too. Could it be that, with a the help of the right ‘spell,’ we might re-enchant our disenchanted world and discover that the psychoid tools of magic never fully left our world? One goal of magic, Regardie reminds us, is to “bring into operation those ... ” “departments and functions of man’s being” “ ... which previously for various reasons were latent” [emphasis added] (2012, p. 16).
D’Acierno quoted Jung: “If we want to understand the psyche, we have to understand the whole world” (1990, p. xix). If this is true, and we want to understand the possibilities within our psyches, might we need to understand the possibilities of other worlds? What if alternative universes — those of physics and those of fiction, too — have the same capacity for material reality that the spirits of archaic man once did?
Of course, as a depth psychologist new to the field, I can provide no conclusive answers to these questions. And by the time I realized I might consult the Raven King on these matters, it was time to hand the keys of the Bolligen II over to another researcher. But I will offer this: I do believe that, behind the mirrors of our world, which have always shown both what is and what is not, there are other worlds, other ways of being, and roads that long for fresh travelers as much as we long to walk upon them.
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