Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell recap: The Black Tower
It is the best of times but mostly the worst of times for poor Jonathan Strange as episode 6 opens: an advertisement for Mr. Strange’s Remarkable Book of Magic is being casually slapped over his own Wanted poster on a public street, and it looks like his seditious work is selling like abracadabra hotcakes. But our now-fugitive hero is hardly thinking about his literary career at a time like this; his beloved wife is dead, he couldn’t bring her back, and if he shows his face in town he’ll be immediately arrested. And so he absconds to Venice and locks himself in a magic lab, working so fiendishly to find the madness he needs to secure a faerie servant — apparently faeries only answer to the call of crazy? — that his hair is coming out in clumps. But could a demented old lady living in cat-strewn squalor in a nearby palazzo be the solution?
Back in England, our equally stinky little scamperer Vinculus has been locked up in the madhouse for safekeeping, though he is very eager to make a trade with Stephen the butler (or as he calls him, Nameless Slave): “I have the keys to your freedom if you have the keys to mine,” he offers — minus any helpful explanations of what that might actually mean for Stephen, aside from reiterating that he will one day be “king of a strange land,” which of course we’ve heard before.
And if you had any doubt who was responsible for making Strange’s book literally disappear from the hands of buyers, Norrell admits as much when he is charged with using magic to “gain access to people’s homes, to rifle through their property and to destroy every copy,” though he doesn’t mention that he shed a single private tear when he read the Strange’s sweet dedication page to Arabella. The chipmunk also mourns!
But he’s still bent on tracking Strange down, which merits a visit to Drawlight — remember, the gossipy fop who got caught impersonating Strange for petty cash? He’s looking a lot more beaten down in jail without his wig and satin britches, but he can tell them that prison gossip says Strange has gone off somewhere in Italy, and that before he went he had been experimenting with “certain powders and preparations” that “are all the fashion, Sir, you know, amongst the poets — the kind of thing to provoke visions of palaces in Xanadu or Christ stuck up a tree and suchlike.” In other words, the good stuff.
They’ll pay Drawlight’s debts, they say, if he can track Strange down. As desperate as he is for freedom, Drawlight shrinks from the assignment: “There is talk that he is attempting to make himself mad! I do not wish to be in the company of such a person.” but Norrell presents an alternative that is much worse (eternal nightmares, magic damnation, etc.), so it’s not hard to guess who will soon be back in their britches with a round-trip ticket to Italy. He’s already missed a crucial moment in Venice though; Strange has found his way to cat lady and made his own bargain involving a twice-chewed mouse (which is just like a twice-baked potato, except disgusting) and a skull-rattling transformation. We can’t really know yet how this mouse business will manifest, but it does seem to promise the madness he’s been desperately searching for.
Back in England, Childermass is attempting to warn his master that the Raven King’s signature bird is appearing again in his deck of cards, just like it did when he first met Vinculus in the market several episodes back. Though the wheels are clearly too much in motion now: Thanks to his new madness, Strange has already summoned Thistle Down and had a cryptic conversation about snuff and spirits—and Thistle is playing it very close to the vest: “My magical sensibilities are, as you suppose, quite tremendous,” he allows. “And just now they inform me that you have acquired an object of great power. A ring of disenchantment? An urn of visibility? Show me the object.” Oh, but Strange has only ordinary things to show him! Sorry Downy.
And so he will have to wait for his answer on a proposed alliance. Thistle, of course, is actually furious that Strange has the temerity to even request one. “These English magicians are always very stupid,” he fumes to Stephen back in England. “The poor ones desire an unending supply of turnips or porridge. The rich ones want more riches, or power over the world.” Does he really think Jonathan wants anything at all other than the wife that Thistle took from him? In the meantime, Strange has run into his new Venetian-expat friend Ms. Flora Greysteel — who we later learn has a thing for impossible men; she is still recovering from a bad romance with one Lord Byron — and told her about his Thistle Down encounter (“A very odd fellow, with silvery hair”). She’s clearly already smitten both with him and with magic and begs to be made a part of it, though Daddy Greysteel is not pleased to see in the English newspapers that Strange is a wanted man. Strange promises her anyway that when he is done he will teach magic to “all the women and all the poor men” in England.
NEXT: Strange learns about Arabella
Thistle Down returns to Strange and he agrees to any bargain, and Strange tells him he doesn’t want riches or power or anything but Arabella, which Thistle Down says is impossible. Wouldn’t he rather have a kingdom, or a princess? There’s a delightful one just down the road! But of course he doesn’t, and when Thistle lets it slip that he had something to do with Lady Pole’s resurrection, Strange catches on: “Who was the last English magician you dealt with? What token did he give you? Bring it to me! Bring me what you gained from your last dealings with an English magician.” Thistle swears it is “worthess, utterly.” Honey badger don’t care; he understands exactly what he needs. “A binding agreement, I think you said? BRING IT TO ME.”
Thistle disappears with the poof of a candle but leaves Lady Pole’s little totem finger behind, and Strange is able to let it lead him to Lost Hope, where the world’s grimmest dance party is never not going on. And look, there is Lady Pole! And Arabella, his beloved! Except she doesn’t know him at all — just calls him Sir and asks him blankly, like a tranquilized courtesan, whether he’d like a dance. Which is more torture for Strange, who begs Thistle Down to set her free. But of course he will not, only conjure a swirling storm of bats and leaves and proclaim that he will never give him what he wants, only “claim what is mine.”
What seems like it should be the climactic reveal of the episode—finally, Strange knows Arabella is alive! — is actually just a warmup for the real shocker: Stephen and Vinculus are down by a pond and Stephen has basically had it with Vinculus. When will he deliver the goods he’s promised? Well, Vinculus has a story he’d like to tell him first: “My rotten no-good bastard father was stupidly entrusted to deliver the Book of the Raven King to a man in the Derbyshire Hills, the last man in England who could read the King’s letters. Unfortunately, en route he got himself embroiled in a drinking competition with a blacksmith in Sheffield, and when challenged proceeded to eat the book. Four years later, I was born… with it written all over my infant body.” Whipping off his shirt: He is the book.
More pressingly, though, Venice is now under siege, a swirling whirlwind of dark raven dust over the city that is also a reflection of the storm inside Strange now that he knows what his wife is “alive but not alive,” and that Thistle Down has cursed him — “imprisoned in a tower of eternal night.” Sweet Flora is desperate to help him, but what can she do? The authorities in England are in a panic too; they come to Norrell and want to know what this chaos means. “It means he has trafficked with creatures that are the enemies of Great Britain, of Christianity, of mankind itself. It means wicked mad magic. It means catastrophe!” They promise to make him their only magician, if he will stop him. But can he?
In the meantime, Vinculus and Thistle Down are having their own little showdown. Vinculus is fearless, Thistle is disdainful; Vinculus is a stupid little pig-person who knows nothing and will be very easy to kill. Vinculus knows better — he may be miserable, but he’s basically immortal. Drawlight is almost definitely not immortal, but he is geographically convenient to Venice so he has also been summoned to lend his services. Strange needs him, he says, because it is all clear to him now: “Lady Pole is not mad. She appears mad but that is Norrell’s fault. He summoned a fairy spirit to raise her from the dead and in exchange he gave it all sorts of rights over her. This same creature has threatened the liberty of the King of England and has enchanted at least two more of His Majesty’s subjects, one of them my wife. Your first job is to tell John Childermass what I have just told you and to give him this. It contains a gift for Lady Pole and my instructions. He must not give it to her before I send the word. Not before then, do you understand? I’m opening the doors. I’m returning magic to England.” Drawlight has the first two messages, but where is the third, he asks? “Tell Norell… I am coming.” As in, immediately: via Norrell’s drawing-room mirror, there is a pecking beak and then a splintering and a swarm of ravens fills the air.
There is bad news for Stephen and Vinculus too; it looks like Vinculus was easy to kill after all, and as he sways from a noose, Thistle Down assures a stricken Stephen that he will still be king, and it is no matter: “Let us return to the dance.” Fantastic; back to hell, then.
Readers, do you believe that Vinculus is really dead? Will Strange’s message make its way to Childermass? Is there anything that can take down Thistle Down? The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been — and next week is all we’ve got left, so prepare for a very full 59 minutes on July 25.