Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Owen Barfield, Language, Childlike Faith, Joy, and the Inklings

I have just begun reading Susanna Clarke’s weighty novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I mean “weighty” in the literal, physical sense: I am finding this 1,000-page wonder, a book I did not believe could be written in this century, a difficult one to hold comfortably while reading in bed! But it is also weighty both in its material–a Regency-era fantasy presenting an alternative world not far off our own maps–and its impact. Incredibly, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize; less surprising, it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books of the decade.

And I am enjoying it. True, I have needed supplementary physiotherapy to adjust for the weight of the tome. But I am pleased to finally get to Strange & Norrell, which has been tempting me for years.

Besides the desire for a SHANWAR 2021 read, part of my reason for pulling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell off the bookshelf now is because Clarke has recently published Piranesi, a dramatic fantasy experiment in fiction. I had heard that there is a significant connection to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. This novel has been noted for its fantastic evocation by J.K. Rowling, and continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. A quote from Uncle Andrew is also the epigraph to Piranesi, inviting us to think about the possible links between these two fantastic worlds.

Because I study literature and the spiritual life, someone recently sent me an interview with Susanna Clarke by Sarah Lothian of the Church Times. Lothian notes the importance of The Magician’s Nephew for its ability to help her think about difficult questions of life. While it seems that no doubt The Magician’s Nephew is worth reading with Piranesi, it is actually Owen Barfield who seems to be the most important influence behind the new novel. Barfield’s philosophical treatments of the evolution of language–captured in philosophical books like Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearance, or more popularly in things like History in English Words–is one of the critical unseen realities that binds together the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It also seems to be the core material for a literary experiment by one of the 21st-century’s most important speculative fiction writers, Susanna Clarke.

This note remains just a teaser, as it will take me weeks to read Strange & Norrell before I finally get to Piranesi. However, I thought it was worth sharing the Church Times interview. This podcast is actually quite lovely as a whole. Clarke talks about Owen Barfield’s work about 30 minutes in, with an intentional nod to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings and a thanks to Malcolm Guite. But beyond these literary Inklings’ links, it is a winsome conversation about Clarke’s own faith journey, as well as a cautious invitation to a childlike faith and a robust invitation to consider religious joy.

You can find the podcast here or click below.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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43 Responses to Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Owen Barfield, Language, Childlike Faith, Joy, and the Inklings

  1. What strikes me here is the central importance to good fantasy of the True Myth. I have not yet read Susanna Clarke but your thoughts here encourage me to do so. I let her work drift by towards the edge of my awareness until becoming aware of correspondence between her and Malcolm Guite somewhere on his blog some time back. Interesting how I increasingly rely upon who is recommending something in order to encourage me to read something.
    This seems to be true for me of popular culture as well. The two Netflix series that drew my family together last year were Schitts Creek and The Good Place. We watched both in substantial quantities and I was glad to spend quite a bit of time with both as well as with Laura and the girls.


  2. I definitely like the SHANWAR idea: I re-read _Middlemarch_ last week and am now much refreshed. I also love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell. I read it when it first came out, and I listened to the audiobook once while on a solo road trip across the US. The audio is surprisingly good; you would think the footnotes would make audio awkward, but the producers made it work. The BBC mini-series of Strange&Norell is also quite faithful to the book, as I recall, and very well done.
    Piranesi is near the top of my pile, and I’m now that you’ve clued me into the Barfield connections, I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks for the interview link.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have not read Middlemarch! One of my problems is this: I keep thinking, “hey, time for a 19th c. novel.” I go to the shelf, there is Middlemarch and a few others. But then I keep rereading Jane Austen–or Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
      I’m quite far behind on Strange & Norrell, obviously–and waited to see the show until I knew the book. I think I have my winter of reading in front of me!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Middlemarch is definitely worth the effort!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Cecilia Zeichner says:

        I read Middlemarch a few years ago, partly as a tribute to my grandmother, who loved George Elliot, and partly as a tribute to Lewis, who said that it was his favorite Elliot novel and quotes it somewhat frequently in his letters. I feel like it’s almost a post-modern Jane Austen; I had to keep checking the publication date of the book because it felt so modern. It takes place in the 1830s, so not quite Regency, but it’s meant to be a sort of nostalgia novel for Elliot’s contemporaries since the 1830s were the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the accompanying scientific revolution in England. I think it’s also sort of a response to Austen and the Brontes. I definitely recommend it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. danaames says:

    Interesting how the Inklings connections unfold.


    Liked by 3 people

  4. Joe says:

    A big Tolkien and Lewis fan here… ‘Piranesi’ was my favourite book of last year -and as someone who works in a public library with plenty of time on their hands due to COVID, I read a lot of books last year! There’s definitely a lot of material for the Lewis and Barfield fan, both thematic connections as well as concrete nods to plot & characters from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. Although an entirely different beast to ‘Jonathan Strange…’, and a lot shorter, I actually found it far more enjoyable. Less of an intellectual game than ‘JS&MN’. The end moved me to tears.


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