Magical Stories for Former English Majors
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
In 1806, an older gentleman named Mr. Norrell introduces himself to English society claiming that he will revive English magic, which had been believed to have died out by "theoretical magicians" hundreds of years before. When Norrell performs magnificent feats, even bringing a person back to life, he attracts the attention of Jonathan Strange, a bored country gentleman with property, who is inspired to become a practicing magician.
Even though Norrell keeps some magical knowledge away from him, Strange proves to be a stronger and more inventive magician, gaining the favor of magical enthusiasts. The two men take separate paths when they argue where the direction of English magic should go, which Norrell believes should only be kept secret, and Strange who believes it should be open to all. Though the more experienced magician, Norrell unleashes a force beyond both their control which drives the magical destiny of both, resulting in ancient prophecies being fulfilled, fairy malfeasance and heartbreak.
This is a great title for English majors because it is full of fascinating footnotes on the (also fictional) history of English magic, which are great reads in themselves, and flesh out the story magnificently. It is wonderfully fantastical and full of dry wit for fans of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
"This is a bad land for gods."
This novel combines the best of modern fantasy, urban myth, and the American folktale. Shadow is a former convict whose wife unexpectedly dies as he is released, and without family to come home to, he takes on a job for a mysterious conman named Mr. Wednesday. All it is not as it seems, as Mr. Wednesday appears to be a weaker incarnation of the All-Father, Odin, the Norse god.
Mr. Wednesday's con involves starting a war for the control of America: the older transplanted gods such as Odin, Anansi, and Anubis versus distinctly American gods such as Internet, Transport, and Media. Each group is vying for power and relevance in a land where "The old Gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing," cannot be more true.
Along the way, Shadow encounters the mysterious and sometimes horrific practices of gods who are just trying to survive in a land where they are less and less relevant. This novel is full of myth and memory of thousands of years of stories that humans have made to make sense of the world.
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
When the watchman on the wall, the Shieldings' lookout
whose job it was to guard the sea-cliffs,
saw shields glittering on the gangplank
and battle-equipment being unloaded
he had to find out who and what
the arrivals were. So he rode to the shore,
this horseman of Hrothgar's, and challenged them
in formal terms, flourishing his spear. - Beowulf (229-236).
This Old English poem, composed sometime between the 7th and 10th century, is the model for more modern epics of today, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The story is the hero's journey, his trials and successes, his honor, and his inevitable passing from the world, leaving his legend and mark upon us all. A must read, as it is a core example of the heroic journey, and Heaney's translation is quite the powerful read as well!
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
The Once and Future King is the most British of epics. We are swept along the story of King Arthur as he is transformed from naive youth nicknamed Wart to a noble yet tragically flawed king whose chivalrous ideal society falls apart despite all the best intentions.
The story begins with Wart's adventures with his tutor, the wizard Merlin, who lives through time backwards. Merlin teaches him about the world by transforming him into a fish, hawk, badger, ant, and goose, and these experiences make for some adventurous and imaginative reading. Then we follow the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, the forbidden love of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, and the tragic fall of the ideal kingdom of Camelot.
The Once and Future King is a wonderful set of tales, very entertaining and full of wisdom of the transformation of boys to kings, and the rise and fall of civilizations.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian begins with the narrator discovering an old book embossed with a dragon and a series of letters beginning with “My dear and unfortunate successor…” We are then swept along with a decades-long historical mystery and horror as our brave narrators travel the world searching for the true story behind the Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula.
The story travels to libraries and historical sites in Amsterdam, America, Istanbul, Romania, Budapest and Bulgaria as our narrators, whose identities are eventually revealed, investigate obscure history even as they are hunted and some of their allies suffer terrible fates from mysterious and vampire-like agents. This is a tale of history and discovery, and lovers of research, horror, and mystery will be swept along the revelations behind Dracula’s true history.
This was Elizabeth Kostova’s first book, and she was inspired by the Dracula tales her father told her as a child when they lived and traveled all through Europe.