As described in a 1974 essay by author Ursula K. Le Guin, Americans are afraid of it, the French haven’t had it for centuries, Germans have a good deal of it, and the English “have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else.”
That thing? A literary tradition of adult fantasy. Our national bookshelf (with thanks to Ireland, Scotland and Wales for the lend of Swift, Stoker, Lewis, Stevenson and more) is packed with the stuff, from epics to folklore, the Gothic and the satirists to the Romantics, Victorian moralists and Edwardian golden agers, to Tolkien and the twentieth-century conjurers, all the way up to today’s imaginative tale-spinners.
Such an august library should speak for itself. With all that precedence, you’d think the national attitude to fantasy would be pretty well-adjusted. If the fantastic, in Le Guin’s words, is “probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality,” there’s no reason that it should be viewed as a lesser genre than realism.
Yet it is. Especially on screen. English fantasy TV has yet to escape an association with childishness. Unless they sit identifiably in the horror genre, fantasy’s trappings of magic, fictional creatures and other realms are stubbornly seen as childhood accessories.
If TV fantasy doesn’t prove its “adult” suitability through dragon-fire immolation, full-frontal nudity, or zombies noisily chewing their way through some poor extra’s guts, it’s seen as somehow below par. Fine for kids, a shared voice seems to say, wrinkling its nose, but come on, not for grown-ups.
That sense of embarrassment is discernible in several reviews of the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Even positive write-ups were iffy about whether the drama strictly qualified as grown-up entertainment. Amid its praise for episode two, The Telegraph couldn’t quite shake “the suspicion that this was actually a children’s drama dressed in adult garb.” The Guardian suggested that Marc Warren’s character in episode one “could have emerged straight from an Eighties teatime drama”. And The Spectator saluted the series’ ambition but concluded with the worry that it might yet “end up seeming a bit silly.”
Less enthusiastic responses were also unable to take the drama’s magical element seriously. The Express was grumpy about the predominance of fantasy “stalking our TV screens nowadays” and expressed that dissatisfaction via the medium of Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee gags.
(The Daily Mail, it should be noted, didn’t take great issue with the perceived childishness of magic. It simply hated the first episode, awarding it one out of five and lamenting its lack of damsels with heaving bosoms, bodice-ripping, or any “female under the age of forty” whose eye-candy potential wasn’t compromised by her inconveniently impending death.)
The New Statesman’s response to episode one typified the qualms. It followed up deserved praise of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s central performances with the judgement that the adaptation was “aimed at a generation brought up on Harry Potter and still feebly in mourning for it. I mean, there are CGI talking statues, for heaven’s sake.”
As soon as those York Minster statues sprang to life in episode one, alarm bells started to ring for many. This is pretend, they chimed. It’s like Narnia. It’s like Doctor Who. It’s Harry Potter for grown-ups. On came the blinkers and off flicked the switch of critical investigation. Talking statues equalled kids’ stuff, and kids’ stuff is silly and unsophisticated. For heaven’s sake.
The Potter association was especially widespread. Comparisons are obviously useful things. They help language to specify and inform, explaining that the little star twinkles like a diamond and not a knife blade in the sky, or that St. Nick’s belly shook like a bowlful of jelly and not, say, an earthquake. But if our frame of reference is poorly stocked, then comparing the similarities of two things can chip away at, rather than cast light on, both.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell bears several similarities to Harry Potter. As well as both featuring a character’s initiation into a world of magic, there’s a shared interest in opposing dualities—reason/madness, good/evil, love/loneliness—and historical oppression, for a start. But the flippancy of the comparisons being made here suggests that this isn’t what’s meant when people dismiss Strange & Norrell as “a J.K. Rowling rip-off.” They mean that it has talking statues, and as such, isn’t worthy of grown-ups’ time.
That attitude unhelpfully muffles the rest of the conversation, stopping it before it’s even begun. The Potter label is slapped over the mouth of anyone piping up to draw links every bit as useful between Strange & Norrell and Austen and Thackeray’s satire of elegant Regency society or Dickens’ comedic caricature, melodrama and reversals of fortune.
We know that anything not easily categorised will suffer from a lack of nuance in discussions surrounding it, and the truth is that Strange & Norrell defies simple categorization. It’s neither Poldark nor Merlin, which sends some into a state of eye-twitching agitation, tripping over themselves in attempts to coin a reductively catchy headline.
When Susanna Clarke was asked to define the genre of her debut novel, she rightly called it “something new,” which historically bear the brunt of unfamiliarity and ignorance; they’re famously mistrusted and branded absurd.
Combine novelty with an ingrained suspicion of imaginative storytelling’s value (as we’ve seen, the England of Strange & Norrell isn’t the only place where magic isn’t deemed respectable) and the result is just this kind of simplistic dismissal.
Happily, if anything can convince an audience that grown-up fantasy has a place on UK screens, it will be Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a drama so finely adapted and performed that it’s destined to outlive playground name-calling.
Instead of hoodwinking viewers with a blockbuster premiere that splutters out as it’s dragged limply through multi-season renewals and cash-in spinoffs, it builds a complete story and promises to tell it from start to finish. It also dares to do so with genuine light and shade, not a patronisingly unsophisticated take on what it means for drama to be “adult.”
As it’s where we started, let’s give the final words to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?
“Fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.”
And, it seems, of anything they haven’t seen done before.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell continues on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One.