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English Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: If Occultism became Reputable

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes place in an alternative timeline in the early nineteenth-century, where magic becomes demonstrated and reputable amongst society. It delves into an issue and disputes within the history of Occultism to consider. 

Despite exaggerating Magic at times, it would still be of interest to those that study ancient, medieval and nineteenth-century occult philosophy and literature, witchcraft, or just interested in the old History of English Magic. It takes, “having the abilities to move mountains” to more questionable degree, but is nevertheless entertainingUnfortunately, there were only seven episodes, an hour each. It was not sufficient to satisfy my interest for such stories!

Mr. Norrell represents the hesitant Theosophists, in that he only wants to make Occultism “respectable”; but he made a mistake, to save someone else’s life, by practicing an art, he himself forbid.

This sent the entire plot of the show into a spiral from his mistake, to which he did not confess. The natural, Mr. Strange wants to unveil (or reveal) all its aspects to England. As expected, the House and the Government puts Jonathan Strange on commission for the military, to serve his country, with the added bonus of utilising his magical skill, as a weapon. Mr. Norrell is cautious of all this, although he himself gave into the use of magic to bring back to life the woman.

Mr. Norrell, a great fictional character is basically an adept, an old and knowledgeable person, who has dedicated his life to these studies. The amazing thing is that it captures the personality and occupation of well-off alchemists and occultists in those times. Mr. Norrell knows what is acceptable and what is not, more than the prodigal novice in Jonathan Strange, and so Mr. Norrell attempts to neuter magic by outlining an edited version of its history and theory.


Jonathan Strange’s character is that of an amateur (or less known) street magician when the miniseries begins. The antagonist faerie-king of the miniseries is reminiscent of the Germanic and Scandinavian jötunn Loki (Hveðrungr). This miniseries should be adapted into a film in the U.K., or should have been renewed. By the late half of the miniseries, Jonathan Strange begins to feel it is best to only focus on the theoretical and historical side of OCCULTISM.


“Occult philosophy divulges few of its most important vital mysteries. It drops them like precious pearls, one by one, far and wide apart, only when forced to do so by the evolutionary tidal wave (…) Whenever men with peculiar psychic and mental capacities are born, they are generally and more frequently helped than allowed to go unassisted (…) on the condition that they should not become, whether consciously or unconsciously, an additional peril to their age (…)” (Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, pg. 558)

“The world in general and Christendom especially, left for two thousand years to the regime of a personal God as well as its political and social systems based on that idea, has now proved a failure. If the Theosophists say, we have nothing to do with all this, the lower classes and the inferior races (those of India for instance in the conception of the British) cannot concern us and must manage as they can, what becomes of our fine professions of benevolence, philanthropy, reform, etc. Are these professions a mockery? And if a mockery, can ours be the true path. Shall we devote our selves to teaching a few Europeans fed on the fat of the land, many of them loaded with the gifts of blind fortune, the rationale of bell ringing, cup growing, of the spiritual telephone and astral body formation, and leave the teeming millions of the ignorant, of the poor and despised, the lowly and the oppressed, to take care of themselves and of their hereafter the best they know how. Never. Rather perish the Theosophical Society with both its hapless founders than that we should permit it to become no better than an academy of magic and a hall of occultism. That we, the devoted followers of that spirit incarnate of absolute self sacrifice, of philanthropy, divine kindness, as of all the highest virtues attainable on this earth of sorrow, the man of men, Gautama Buddha, should ever allow the Theosophical Society to represent the embodiment of selfishness, the refuge of the few with no thought in them for the many, is a strange idea, my brothers.” (The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Letter to the Simla Eclectic Society, 1880)

“As my own experience when fully described will show, the great adepts of occultism themselves have no repugnance to the dissemination of their religious philosophy so far as a world untrained as ours is in pure psychological investigation can profit by such teaching. Nor even are they unconquerably averse to the occasional manifestation of those superior powers over the forces of Nature to which their extraordinary researches have led them. The many apparently miraculous phenomena which I have witnessed through occult agency could never have been exhibited if the general rule which precludes the Brothers from the exhibition of their powers to uninitiated persons were absolute. As a general rule, indeed, the display of any occult phenomenon for the purpose of exciting the wonder and admiration of beholders is strictly forbidden. And indeed I should imagine that such prohibition is absolute if there is no higher purpose involved. But it is plain that with a purely philanthropic desire to spread the credit of a philosophical system which is ennobling in its character, the Brothers may sometimes wisely permit the display of abnormal phenomena when the minds to which such an appeal is made may be likely to rise from the appreciation of the wonder to a befitting respect for the philosophy in which it accredits. And the history of the Theosophical Society has been an expansion of this idea. That history has been a chequered one, because the phenomena that have been displayed have often failed of their effect, have sometimes become the subject of a premature publicity, and have brought down on the study of occult philosophy as regarded from the point of view of the outer world, and on the devoted persons who have been chiefly identified with its encouragement by means of the Theosophical Society, a great deal of stupid ridicule and some malevolent persecution. It may be asked why the Brothers, if they are really the great and all-powerful persons I represent them, have permitted indiscretions of the kind referred to, but the inquiry is not so embarrassing as it may seem at the first glance. If the picture of the Brothers that I have endeavoured to present to the reader has been appreciated rightly, it will show them less accurately qualified, in spite of their powers, than persons of lesser occult development, to carry on any undertaking which involves direct relations with a multiplicity of ordinary people in the common-place world. I gather the primary purpose of the Brotherhood to be something very unlike the task I am engaged in, for example, at this moment — the endeavour to convince the public generally that there really are faculties latent in humanity capable of such extraordinary development, that they carry us at a bound to an immense distance beyond the dreams of physical science in reference to the comprehension of Nature, and at the same time afford us positive testimony concerning the constitution and destinies of the human soul. That is a task on which it is reasonable to suppose the Brothers would cast a sympathetic glance, but it will be obvious on a moment’s reflection, that their primary duty must be to keep alive the actuality of that knowledge, and of those powers concerning which I am merely giving some shadowy account. If the Brothers were to employ themselves on the large, rough business of hacking away at the incredulity of a stolid multitude, at the acrimonious incredulity of the materialistic phalanx, at the terrified and indignant incredulity of the orthodox religious world, it is conceivable that they might — propter vitam vivendi perdere causas — suffer the occult science itself to decay for the sake of persuading mankind that it did really exist.” (Alfred Percy Sinnett, The Occult World, 1881, pp. 28-30.)

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