Friday, September 09, 2016

The gentleman with thistledown hair

The Gentleman with the Fabulous Eyebrows?

So I finished watching the BBC's version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, via Netflix just the other day.  The BBC dramatization took out all the lengthy footnotes, inserted all the fairy stories in the mouths of the characters to good effect, and set aside all the artifice of an 19th century novel in favor of a cracking good yarn with action in every episode.  But I don't come here to praise the BBC, but rather to examine again the metaphor of magic in modern literature.

Well, sort of.  Magic here turns either on power (casting, or even "spinning," spells) or invoking the aid of fairies.  Oh, not the winged sprites too wee to see.  The fairy here is a gentleman with longish pointed fingernails (almost feminine) and a British 19th century version of a B-52 hairdo, silver-white.  He is quite powerful in his magic (more powerful than the magician who must call on him), and he does nothing without making a bargain, which he then adheres too quite legalistically.

The problem is, his contracts are always full of what the laity calls "fine print," and his actions are those of a child.  A very, very powerful child.  Let me give you one example:

In the story, the fairy (identified only as the Gentleman in the novel, never really named in the teleplay) decides to take the wife of Jonathan Strange.  To do so he creates a simulacrum (never mind how) whom Strange (again, ignore the plot details) takes to be his wife.  The circumstances are such that this is a reasonable thing for him to do.  Unbeknownst to him (hey, it's early 19th century England, I'm allowed!), the fairy has already taken his wife, and awaits only the acceptance of the bargain to seal her fate.

We see this in a carefully edited scene, switching between the fairy's castle as he greets his newest possession, and the fake wife who entreats Mr. Strange "Do you accept me as your wife?"  He does, of course, not realizing he is making a bargain, and the fairy tells the real wife "Your husband has traded you for a piece of wood" (what he made the fake wife from).

It is a bargain, Jonathan Strange did accept it; but he had no idea there was even a bargain offered.  Still, the fairy considers it binding, and as there is no power greater than his, he gets to keep the proceeds of the arrangement.  In other scenes we see that this kind of bargain is indeed binding on him as well; it is the greater power that rules his; but he keeps the terms to his advantage, through guile or simply by making a devil's deal (he makes an earlier on with Mr. Norrell, but too many examples spoil the soup).

All very interesting, you are thinking, but who cares?  Well, as I watched it, I realized that a kingdom ruled by the Gentleman (two other characters I haven't named  suffer from his rule very cruelly) seems extremely similar to a country ruled by Donald Trump.  Trump is a man with childish ambitions and a child's attitude toward his power.  He seems to think he can rule, not administer (it is, after all, an "administration" he would oversee), by will alone.  Consider again the "bargains" of the Gentleman.

They are contracts, but they are a child's (or perhaps a non-lawyer's) idea of a contract:  once agreed to, the terms are set, no matter how burdensome or unjust the exchange is.  No court would ever enforce such an agreement, but then no court is available to appeal from the decisions of the Gentleman.  This could well be the perception of the poor, those with no access to the law (there are few contingency cases in contract law), while those who can afford lawyers see the matter quite differently (and that is how the system should work).  But a child can be forgiven for thinking you made the deal, you are stuck with the consequences; and a child with the power of the fairies in the world of the BBC series, would be a frightening thing indeed.

Or with the powers of the President of the United States.  Trump says he will fire the generals when he takes office, even though he can't do that.  He says he'll defeat ISIS in 30 days with a secret plan he doesn't have; but no matter, such a thing is physically impossible.  He thinks he could destroy the oil fields of Iraq and get Exxon to rebuild them in two months.  He is a child who thinks the Presidency would give him the power of a god.

The solution of the novel/teleplay is to make one character in the story even more powerful in magic than the fairy, and so destroy the fairy (no one weeps for him).  That's the nice thing about fiction:  you can always make it work out into a fairly happy ending.  To whom would we give more power than Donald Trump, and how much damage would he do before we gave it, and who would replace him?  Someone replaces the Gentleman as king of his kingdom, but that's another story.  Our national story would not so easily close the book.

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