Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reptiles in Literature Series : Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell

That's Stupid!

Ever notice, the more threatened someone is by something, the more apt they are to put it down; call it stupid, ignorant, etc.? Laughter or mockery is a classic defense mechanism. I’m not even sure most of the time we consciously know that we do it.

I was reading Suanna Clarke's fictional masterpiece, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, when I came across an all too familiar example of this primal defense.

Some years ago, there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month to read each other long, dull papers on the history of English magic.

They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say that they never harmed anyone by their magic -- nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, none of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic, caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter it's course or changed a single hair upon anyone's head. But with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

These men were the most esteemed men in Yorkshire. They studied magic, yet did not practice. When they were asked the legitimate question, "Can you do magic," or "Can I see a trick," the questioner was mocked, as if it were a preposterous notion.

They were threatened by the thought of actually having to perform magic. None of them knew how to do that. It is easier to laugh at the questioner, than risk a situation where they look foolish, and might be laughed at.

c. 2010


  1. Holy cow! That is so cool you are reading "Jonathan Strange..." I happen to think that book, BYZANTIUM by Stephen Lawhead and AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman are the three best novels written. I mean I site those examples for novelists.

    My buddy Tom and I read it about the same time and with Clarke's details, we actually wondered "Did we miss the history class where they discussed the Raven King ruling a chunk of England?" It was that convincing!

    Bravo to you for reading the book!

  2. haha! bravo to adam. he is reading it to me ;) yes, it's very convincing. footnotes & all....b

  3. Great post! It helps to remember this when you see it (in yourself or in someone else) -- a put down usually has nothing to do with the thing (or person) one is putting down, but instead is a revelation of one's insecurity about that thing.

  4. right you are, kristen! it is often tough to remember, though...b