Strange & Norrell : V - The Raven King


Susanna Clarke's 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, recently finished on BBC One and currently airing on BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

V - The Raven King

Strange & Norrell (the novel) is divided into three volumes: the first is Mr. Norrell, the second Jonathan Strange, and the third is entitled John Uskglass. In the novel, The History and Practice of English Magic is a book written by Jonathan Strange and published in 1816 by John Murray. The third volume of Strange & Norrell opens with Strange's prologue to his book which is a summation of what is known of John Uskglass - the magician they called the Raven King.

In the last months of 1110 a strange army appeared in Northern England. It was first heard of near a place called Penlaw some twenty or thirty miles north-west of Newcastle. No one could say where it had come from –it was generally supposed to be an invasion of Scots or Danes or perhaps even of French.

By early December the army had taken Newcastle and Durham and was riding west. It came to Allendale, a small stone settlement that stands high among the hills of Northumbria, and camped one night on the edge of a moor outside the town.

The farming people of Allendale (a real and extant village in Northumberland, settled since prehistoric times - known today for its flaming tar barrel hurling New Year's celebrations), anxious to befriend the army, sent a party of young beautiful women ("a company of brave Judiths") to make contact, and peace, with the force. There on the moor the women found a host of curious looking soldiers, wrapped in black cloaks, lying on the ground looking like corpses, with ravens roosting on and around them. One soldier stood up and one brave Allendale woman stepped forward to kiss him. They kissed, and kissed, and then they danced, and danced.

This went on for some time until she became heated with the dance and paused for a moment to take off her cloak. Then her companions saw that drops of blood, like beads of sweat, were forming on her arms, face and legs, and falling on to the snow. This sight terrified them and so they ran away. The strange army never entered Allendale. It rode on in the night towards Carlisle. The next day the townspeople went cautiously up to the fields where the army had camped. There they found the girl, her body entirely white and drained of blood while the snow around her was stained bright red.

By these signs they recognized the Daoine Sidhe –the Fairy Host.

The fairy army fought many battles and won them all. By late December hey held Newcastle, Durham, Carlisle, Lancaster (which was burnt to the ground), and were at York. In January the fae army met that of King Henry I at Newark on the banks of the River Trent. The King lost.

The King and his counsellors waited for some chieftain or king to step forward.

The ranks of the Daoine Sidhe parted and someone appeared. He was rather less than fifteen years old. Like the Daoine Sidhe he was dressed in ragged clothes of coarse black wool. Like them his dark hair was long and straight.

He was pale and handsome and solemn-faced, yet it was clear to everyone present that he was human, not fairy.

King Henry asked the boy his name.

The boy replied that he had none.*

King Henry asked him why he made war on England.

The boy said that he was the only surviving member of an aristocratic Norman family who had been granted lands in the north of England by King Henry's father, William the Conqueror. The men of the family had been deprived of their lands and their lives by a wicked enemy named Hubert de Cotentin. The boy said that some years before his father had appealed to William II (King Henry's brother and predecessor) for justice, but had received none. Shortly afterwards his father had been murdered. The boy said that he himself had been taken by Hubert's men while still a baby and abandoned in the forest. But the Daoine Sidhe had found him and taken him to live with them in Faerie. Now he had returned.

He had settled it in his own mind that the stretch of England which lay between the Tweed and the Trent was a just recompense for the failure of the Norman kings to avenge the murders of his family. For this reason and no other King Henry was suffered to retain the southern half of his kingdom.

That day he began his unbroken reign of more than three hundred years.

In a 2004 interview with BBC Nottingham Susanna Clarke was asked whether her master magician, the Raven King, was based upon any historical figure.

The Raven King had an odd genesis. Ursula Le Guin has a magician in the Earthsea trilogy who has no name: the Grey Mage of Plan, whose magic was so dubious, his name was forgotten. And there’s a magician in The Lord of the Rings, right at the very end, who comes out of Mordor to do battle against our heroes, and no one knows his name because he himself has forgotten it. I thought this was rather cool, and when I was developing my magicians, I wanted one without a name. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite understood what would happen if I had a major character without a name. The consequence has been that he has acquired more names than most people: the Raven King, John Uskglass, the Black King, the King of the North and a fairy name that no one can pronounce. [1]

While the initial seeds of Clarke's John Uskglass may have been literary, the Raven King's roots stretch deep into the fertile soil of English history and folklore.

Puck is a name we are most familiar with today from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - that "shrewd and knavish sprite", "that merry wanderer of the night", and entertainer of Oberon, the fairy king. Puck pre-dates the Bard by a long way however.

Parallel words exist in many ancient languages - puca in Old English, puki in Old Norse, puke in Swedish, puge in Danish, puks in Low German, pukis in Latvia and Lithuania -- mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. [2]

When not being applied generally to household sprites (the kind that helped with chores in exchange for an offering of food and/or drink which was left by the hearth for them), Puck is then the name of one particular fae who also uses the alias Robin/Robyn Goodfellow. This fairy was portrayed in a 1785 painting by William Blake in which he resembles the Greek God Pan, and an 1841 painting by Richard Dadd as a human-looking child. [3] Post his role in Shakespeare's play, Puck/Robyn found himself the subject of many 17th century ballads in which he was often portrayed as the son of Oberon and an English woman. [4] A creature of several names then, and neither wholly human nor fairy.

Writing as Strange upon Uskglass, Clarke gives us:

The boy said that he was already a king in Faerie. He named the fairy king who was his overlord. No one understood.

The accompanying footnote reads:

The name of this Daoine Sidhe King was particularly long and difficult. Traditionally he has always been known as Oberon.

A connection to Oberon, as (foster) father hinted at, at least.

In chapter one of her 1933 work The God of Witches, entitled "The Horned God", Dr. Margaret Murray wrote the following:

The most interesting of all the names for the god is Robin, which when given to Puck is Robin Goodfellow. It is so common a term for the "Devil" as to be almost a generic name for him "Some Robin the Divell, or I wot not what spirit of the Ayre". Dame Alice Kyteler called her god, Robin Artisson, and the Somerset witches cried out "Robin" when summoning their Grandmaster to a meeting, or even when about to make a private incantation. [5]

While Murray's writings are viewed by many as rather fanciful these days there is, nonetheless, value in her cataloguing of these matters and, I would also argue, in her interpretation of things (even if she did get a little carried away at times). She goes on:

A fact, noted by many writers and still unexplained, is the connection between Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood. Grimm remarks on it but gives no reason for his opinion, though the evidence shows that the connection is there. The cult of Robin Hood was widespread both geographically and in time, which suggests that he was more than a local hero in the places where his legend occurs, In Scotland as well as England Robin Hood was well known, and he belonged essentially to the people, not to the nobles. [6]

In his 1895 essay The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition, Charles P. G. Scot wrote briefly upon the connections and confusions between Hood and Goodfellow:

Robin Hood seems to have been sometimes confused in kitchen tales with Robin Good-fellow, and so to have been regarded in the light of a fairy -or in the dark of a goblin. Reginald Scot, speaking of Hudgin, a German goblin, says:


There goe as manie tales upon this Hudgin, in some parts of Germanie, as there did in England of Robin Good-fellow. But this Hudgin was so called, bicaufe he alwaies ware a cap or a hood; and therefore I thinke it was Robin Hood.

1584 R. SCOT, Discourse upon divels and spirits, ch. 2I (app. to Discoverie of witchcraft, repr. I886, p. 438; ed. i65I, p. 374).


Keightly, no conclusive authority, mentions Robin Hood as an other name for Puck or Robin Goodfellow:
Puck . . . his various appellations: these are Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood, Hobgoblin.

1828 T. K[EIGHTLEY], Fairy mythology, 2: i 8. [7]

The oldest surviving document mentioning Robin/Robyn/Robe Hood (also Hod, Hode, Whood, Wood, and so on) is a 14th century poem entitled The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman which alludes fleetingly to the "rhymes of Robin Hood" - therefore suggesting that the tales were already well told and known. The real Robin Hood (if there ever was one) is long obscured by the hundreds, if not thousands, of tellings, re-tellings, and re-imaginings of his life and deeds which continue to entertain into the present day. There are at least three sites in England which claim to be the outlaw's final resting place and though Sherwood, Nottingham is the location most of us automatically associate with Robin, many historians now believe that Yorkshire was his (or his tale's) place of origin.

Robin [Hood] has been presented as a personification of the Green Man (he was always dressed in Lincoln Green), a folk character with fairy origins, a political rebel, and even a Witch-Cult figure. [8]

Though a yeoman in the earliest ballads, the idea of Robin Hood being the rightful Earl of Huntingdon, robbed of his title by scheming family members who abandoned him as an infant, goes back to the late 16th century at least. Robin is supposed then to have been raised by Gilbert Whitehand (a now largely overlooked member of the Merry Men), and schooled by him in the ways of the bow and the staff. In later versions Robin it is said to have quarrelled with the king (almost always King John by this point, though an unspecific Edward in the original tales) and was forced to flee north, taking refuge in Sherwood Forest. [9]

Compare this with Strange's account of John d'Uskglass' origins: the entitled noble, abandoned as a child, raised and schooled so well he bettered his master, living in the north while the true king remains in the south. (I could go on, bringing in other sources but for the constraints of time and word-count).

I am not suggesting that Susanna Clarke meant in any way to deliberately base The Raven King upon Robin Hood or Robyn Goodfellow, merely that such figures - complex, elusive, many-named, trickster-ish , champions of "otherness" who live and operate outside the normal rules and constraints of society - are now and always have been part of the English psyche.

Robin Hood is a greatly sanitised version of the archetype, the Raven King a darker, more alien, and dangerous one. Lincoln Green and Raven Black.

There is, of course, also the shared avian nomenculture: the Robin and the Raven. The former having recently been voted the National Bird of Britain, the latter not even making the top ten. The Robin is a cheery, plucky bird that reminds us of Christmas and all the Victorian trappings and customs we carry with the season (consciously or not). The raven is a midnight-hued carrion eater with an IQ comparable to that of a primate, long associated with omens, magic and witch-craft. The raven represents the ancient, the untamed, the occult while the robin represents whimsy, nature at it's back-garden level, and the familiar. England may try to maintain its Victorian composure, try to keep up appearances, but in the fields, and on the concrete roofs of blocks of flats, along the motorways, and even in the Tower of London, the ravens watch and wait.

All of Man’s works, all his cities, all his empires, all his monuments will one day crumble to dust. Even the houses of my own dear readers must –though it be for just one day, one hour be ruined and become houses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said that in that day, in that hour, our houses become the possessions of the Raven King. Though we bewail the end of English magic and say it is long gone from us and inquire of each other how it was possible that we came to lose something so precious, let us not forget that it also waits for us at England's end and one day we will no more be able to escape the Raven King than, in this present Age, we can bring him back. -- The History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.


*When he was a child in Faerie the Sidhe had called him a word in their own language which, we are told, meant "Starling", but he had already abandoned that name by the time he entered England. Later he took to calling himself by his father's name John d'Uskglass but in the early part of his reign he was known simply by one of the many titles his friends or enemies gave him: the King; the Raven King; the Black King; the King in the North.


[2] Gillian Edwards (1974) Hobgoblin and sweet Puck : fairy names and natures
[3] [4]
[5] [6] Margaret Murray (1933) The God of Witches
[7] Charles P. G. Scott (1895) The Devil and His Imps: An Etymological Inquisition
[8] Marc Alexander (2002) A Companion to the Folklore Myths and Customs of Britain

Animal Alliances: Cooperation or Domestication?

Segueing with Greg's observation of 'freaky' performances across different animal species, here's an article New Scientist published last month re. an unusual behavior recently observed by zoologists in the grasslands of Africa: A group of gelada monkeys mingling peacefully with a pack of Ethiopian wolves, making a picture more appropriate for an artistic depiction of the Garden of Eden, than an natural life documentary.

The monkeys don't seem to be in any way perturbed by the proximity of the wolves, and the canids don't display the predatory behavior one would expect of them. Instead of attacking the monkeys or their small offspring, the wolves seem to take advantage of their presence to capture rodents which crop op from their burrows between the grass. This peculiar alliance was first observed by primatologist Vivek Venkataraman, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, during fieldwork at Guassa plateau in the highlands of north-central Ethiopia. The scientist even speculates whether this is the beginning of a form of domestication, similar to what happened between the ancestors of dogs and our own species, between 40,000 to 11,000 years ago.

"You can have a wolf and a gelada within a metre or two of each other and virtually ignoring each other for up to 2 hours at a time," says Venkataraman. In contrast, the geladas flee immediately to cliffs for safety when they spot feral dogs, which approach aggressively and often prey on them.

But if this is a domestication, then who is taming who?

Given the increase of successful rodent captures when they are hunting among the monkeys --67% success rate, in contrast to just 25% when they're hunting alone-- it's clear what the wolves get from their end of the deal, even though it's not yet clear how the monkeys help in attracting the rodents; perhaps their grazing in the vegetation 'flushes' them out of their nests, or maybe the wolves manage to 'blend in' among the monkeys undetected thanks to their similar body size.

But what of the monkeys? Venkataram is not sure what they exactly get from tolerating the wolves' presence, since they would probably be unable to deter other predators such as leopards or other kinds of feral dogs.

Perhaps --and this is MY own speculation here-- the wolves could still be useful to the monkeys by detecting a potential threat more quickly, given their more acute senses of hearing and smell? I'd presume the same might have happened millennia ago, when the packs of wolves following the nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers would undeliberately alert the humans about a nearby presence with their cries or reactions of alertness.

Or maybe the monkeys just like to have the wolves around, for reasons we can't even imagine yet.

Whatever the reason, biologists are starting to suspect these types of trans-species cooperation between predator and non-predator animals might be more common than we think; which would not only stretch our current definition of Symbiosis, but prove Thomas Hobbes's vision of Nature wrong, when he described it as "red in tooth and claw."

Maybe we don't have to wait the 'End of Days' to watch the lion and the lamb lying together… which no doubt would be just as cute as a polar bear playing with a sledding dog!


News Briefs 02-07-2015

Really TV Land? This is how you think Racism is fixed?

Thanks to Daisy Duke and her shorts.

Quote of the Day:

"Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come."

˜Victor Hugo

Animals Around the World Keep Riding Each Other and it's Starting to Freak Me Out

Crow rides an eagle

What's this? Oh nothing, just a crow riding an eagle...

Photographer Phoo Chan took the extraordinary photo above last spring while shooting near Kitsap, Washington. Surely such a strange thing has never been seen before?

Except perhaps for just a few months ago when a weasel was photographed riding on a woodpecker?

Weasel riding a woodpecker

Well that's just freaky. But it's hardly as if every creature out there is teaming up, like some sort of animal uprising is underway against humanity, right? Oh that's right, a couple of weeks ago someone photographed A RACCOON RIDING AN ALLIGATOR!

Raccoon riding an alligator

Okay, that's it...I'm heading for the bunker. Come get me when the animal-pocalypse is over...

Keep up to date with more fascinating stories like this one by liking The Daily Grail's Facebook page, or by following us on Twitter.

News Briefs 01-07-2015

It's Weirdnessday again!

Quote of the Day:

Says he's got a thing about burning witches - some of these were mighty fine bitches.

Carl Douglas

Wanderer: Self-Portraits Under the Northern Lights

This astonishing image is part of photographer Tiina Törmanen's project Wanderer, in which she chose to travel the most remote regions of the Käsivarsi Wilderness Area in northern Finland on a snow mobile, and stay all by herself until the early hours of the morning, to capture the otherworldly beauty of the Northern lights using long-exposure shots.

“I was so impressed with the loneliness, the air and the silence,” she says. “Out there you feel so small because there is only cold and ice.”

Törmanen had already experience in capturing the Arctic Aurorae, but this time she decided to place herself at the forefront to provide a sense of human scale, and using a headlamp which she moved slightly during the delayed exposure, she created a small pool of light beneath her feet as an artificial contrast to the river of light flowing above her head. Quite poetic, indeed.


9 Portraits on LSD, For Science!

Here's an interesting remnant from back in the days when it was still kosher to conduct scientific studies with LSD. An artist --whose identity has been lost-- was administered two 50-microgram doses of LSD, each separated by a lapse of one hour, and was then asked to draw portraits while under its influence, using the doctor who administered the drugs as model. The gradual progression into a freer and more abstract style, is a tell-tale indication of how the psychedelic is influencing not only the perceptions of the test subject, but also its creative processes.

It is believed these artworks are part of a study conducted by Oscar Janiger, a University of California-Irvine psychiatrist known for his work on LSD, which started in 1954 and continued on for the next seven years.

Einstein once said "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Given the incapacity of our world leaders against not only the age-old problems plaguing humanity since the Dawn of Time --e.g. War, Hunger and Poverty-- but also new threats like Climate Change, I'd say the answer to their stagnation is pretty obvious...


Be sure not to miss more fascinating stories like this one by liking The Daily Grail's Facebook page, or by following us on Twitter.


The Fallen of WWII: An Interactive Experience

World War 2 is quite likely the most-studied conflagration between nations in history --it practically makes half the ratings of the History Channel, which prompted comedian John Cleese to call it 'the Hitler Channel'.

The above video does not employ any actual footage of World War 2. It doesn't show recorded statements of Holocaust survivors either. The only tools Neil Halloran --the sole creator behind it-- used was infographic-style animation and statistics extracted from Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature [Amazon US & UK]; and yet I dare you to watch it without shuddering at least ONCE, when gauging the terrible cost in human life which was paid to secure victory against the Axis powers.

It certainly plays a different picture from how we tend to view a war we may think we know so much about. For one thing, I think it clearly shows Joseph Stalin was a greater criminal than Adolf Hitler himself --and yet his cold-blooded willingness to sacrifice the Soviet people to defeat the Nazis is what (probably) significantly reduced the casualties suffered by the rest of the Allies.

Halloran and Pinker's Neo-Hobessian opinion that we seem to be well in our way to eradicate war altogether --despite evidence to the contrary offered by our media on an almost daily basis-- is open to interpretation. Again, my personal take on the matter is that Poverty itself is the worst kind of violence you can subject a human being to; that said, I'm aware I have the liberty to proclaim such 'naive' thoughts, because I'm living in an unprecedented time devoid of open conflict between industrialized nations --something Halloran asks us NOT to take for granted.

To have a more interactive experience with this project, visit where you can also donate the suggested ticket price.

News Briefs 30-06-2015

I added an extra news story when I heard y'all had a bonus second to use today...

Quote of the Day:

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.

Elon Musk

The Psychedelic Mountains of China

The above image is not the result of Photosop wizardry. These multicolored mountains are real, and part of China's Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park; their rainbow-like hues is the result of colored sandstone and minerals pressed together over 24 million of years, then buckled up by tectonic plates, followed by erosion through winds and rain. Since 2010, this region has been listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.

If God was high on pot when he made possums, I wonder what He had for breakfast while working on this part of Creation ;)

For more stunning images, check this 2013 Huff-Post article.