In Search of an American Mythology

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Deep inside the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell comes a memorable passage, to me at least. Describing an arcane theory in the novel’s fictional world, author Susanna Clarke writes, “Men and fairies both contain within them a faculty of reason and a faculty of magic. In men reason is strong and magic is weak. With fairies it is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane.”

The book tells the tale of two magicians practicing their trade in an alternate Napoleonic-era Europe where magic is an accepted fact of history. During their quest to “restore English magic,” the men’s personalities clash very memorably. The first, Gilbert Norrell, is a pedantic, antisocial, somewhat jealous scholar intent on monopolizing the magical arts. His counterpart Jonathan Strange comes from that noble tradition in British literature: the aimless young gentleman in search of a profession (or, failing that, anything at all to do).

The story’s villain is a fairy, the mercurial king of a realm called Lost-Hope. Like most of the gods and spirits populating the world’s myths, he is quite out of his mind. Though that is as it should be. No one expects or wants a character like that to act in a sober and rational way.

The novel’s portrayal of humankind and fairies, the race of reason and the race of madness, appears to trace our concepts of “real” and “romantic”. But what is reasonable isn’t always the most real, especially to those with little stake in the modern world’s bureaucratic regularities. For all their otherworldly allure, “fairy” characters in literature are humans too. Given the power, many of us would behave with a similar impulsiveness, the same willful disregard for social propriety. And we’d have fun doing it.

Sometimes it seems like American history goes through cycles of real and romantic. Definable periods of prosperous bureaucratic order intermixed with madder, headier times. But sometimes everything feels jumbled up, resistant to these blanket categorizations. It’s no wonder academics abandoned that kind of thinking long ago, at least when it comes to the scholarship they generate. Their own lives, no doubt, are an entirely different matter.

Despite (or because of) the technocrats’ best and continuing efforts, I can’t help but feel like we’re in a fairy-world of our own today, a place where astonishing ignorance and wayward power freely associate with the most advanced calculation in history. A place where the compelling case for “progress” has to contend with equally compelling evidence that all such progress is a mere pipe dream.

In the British myths that Clarke draws from, the same places Tolkien looked, there is no bureaucracy to speak of, little real law. Power means violence, and yet modern patterns of totalizing domination are absent. Instead, everything is fickle and free. The mighty are mighty indeed, but they’re often cast down without warning, replaced by servants. People are not as they appear. Chance and coincidence aren’t narrative flaws.

Without a national mythology of that caliber, we Americans are left with a set of vague, recent-ish proscriptions from the founding fathers (and the memory of Native American civilization wiped out). We’re missing the grounding mythology provides. And so we’re stuck in a cycle of national adolescence: proud and self-important on one day, insecure and pouty the next.

Maybe one day, after the five-hundredth movie reboot, Batman and Superman and Star Wars will mature into the role. Maybe one day we’ll be able to properly contextualize our slogans of freedom! and democracy! Maybe we’ll recognize them for the compelling, dangerous things they are, not so easily had or taken away. Until then, we can console ourselves with the fairy stories of foreign lands.

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