‘Nor ever done any one the slightest good’

‘Nor ever done any one the slightest good’ January 21, 2012

I’ve just begun reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — the first book purchased for the Kindle I got for Christmas. The Kindle tells me I’m just 7 percent along, but so far it’s delightful and engrossing.

The opening chapters introduce us to the Learned Society of York Magicians. I’m not sure Clarke intended a specific target for the affectionate satire of this section, but I can’t help reading this as an elliptical description of the church:

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

They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic — nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one 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 its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

Reading it that way, I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

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  • Funny, I thought that same passage in JSMN was just like most witches I know.  Church, you say?  Academia, you say?  I must go back and actually finish reading the book this time.

  • FangsFirst

    I still need to read something other than The Colour of Magic, as I have a need to read things in order, and found out after I was unimpressed that that one wasn’t really supposed to be funny, but it threw me off completely. I was also coming off my lifelong love of Robert Asprin, so there’s that…