Though Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is, on paper, the story of two wizards and their magical exploits — including but not limited to summoning fairies, raising the dead, and communicating with trees — the BBC miniseries, premiering on the network’s American affiliate this Saturday, doesn’t feel like fantasy. Those put off from Game of Thrones by visions of memorizing proper nouns via flashcard in order to grasp the basic plot can therefore rest easy: like the 2004 novel on which it’s based, Jonathan Strange is best described as historical fiction with fantastic elements. The world it takes place in is recognizably our own, minus a century or two, and the rivalry at its center is motivated by forces more tragically human than supernatural.
At the series’ beginning, in fact, magic hasn’t been worked in England for 300 years. Its only practitioner prefers to do his work in both secret and solitude, buying up every spell book in the country to keep any aspiring magicians from following in his footsteps. This would be Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a quiet, middle-aged scholar whose shy demeanor belies his baser motivations, chief among them pride. When a street magician corners him in London to tell him a prophecy of “two magicians… the first shall fear me, the second shall long to behold me,” Norrell seems more concerned by having to share his fame with another magical talent than by the news that a medieval warlock named the Raven King is coming back from the dead sometime soon.
Norrell’s counterpart is, predictably, his complete and total opposite. Intuitive in his spellcasting where Norrell is pedantic, dashing where Norrell is awkward, and happily married where Norrell is happily isolated — the contentment in his voice when he claims “I don’t have any friends!” is somehow sadder than if he were simply lonely — Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) does not mesh well with his mentor. This is more Norrell’s fault than Strange’s; unwilling to share his knowledge to begin with, the older man is preoccupied with some skeletons in his closet, particularly a Faustian bargain with a sinister fairy (Marc Warren) over a politician’s ailing wife (Alice Engler).
All this takes place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, which allow for some of the series’ most entertaining historical cameos (Ronan Vibert plays an endearingly brusque Lord Wellington) and awe-inspiring visuals (Norrell conjures a translucent fleet made of rain; Strange rights a capsized ship with a wave of sand shaped like galloping horses). The war also reveals the differences at the heart of the magicians’ growing animosity. Norrell seeks public acclaim for both himself and the practice of magic, which he hopes to make both “modern” and “respectable.” Strange does what Norrell refuses to and aids with practical matters on the ground; to do so, he turns to the older, wilder magic of which Norrell is so afraid.
As an adaptation, especially an adaptation of a book as acclaimed and popular as its source material, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will have a sizable built-in audience. Book fans will find much to love, and much to dissect, in the mostly faithful work of screenwriter Peter Harness and director Toby Haynes, alumni of several other British series, including Wallander, City of Vice, and Doctor Who. But for those who are new to the series, or those like me who read the book so long ago that we’re basically coming into the show fresh, there’s plenty to encourage the relatively scant time investment of seven episodes. (It’s almost certainly less of an investment than Susanna Clarke’s novel, which clocks in at nearly 800 pages.) There are costumes aplenty to please those in it for the period piece; there are fairy fêtes and animated gargoyles for the fantasy fans.
But the most essential component of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell remains the twisted dynamic between its title characters, fueled by resentment, ambition, and secrecy. Like most of the 21st century’s most resonant fantasies — Game of Thrones has already come up, but the Harry Potter comparisons become inevitable when a minor character attempts to set up a “school for magicians” — the miniseries shows people in extraordinary situations behaving in recognizably, and sometimes disappointingly, ordinary ways. In this case, the intra-odd couple rivalry happens to start with a doomsday prophecy.