Lessons on Legacy from Strange and Norrell

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I recently read the 2004 classic Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. While charmingly entertaining, this book also spurred my thinking about traditions, values, and the importance of intentionally passing on our most important legacies.

Spoiler warning: from here forward, we’ll discuss plot specifics for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. 

In Strange, we enter an England filled with magicians which has not seen a spell cast in over 200 years. These gentlemen of leisure call themselves “theoretical magicians.” They spend hours reading about, discussing, and debating magic, but will not attempt to produce it. They assuage their egos by considering it crass and ungentlemanly to perform magic. They debate long into the night the mystical cause which they believe prevents them from producing magic. 

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Their world is turned upside down when they are confronted with a man who claims to perform real magic. Rather than embracing this revolution with joy, they bluster and call him a liar. The existence of a so-called “practical” magician is a threat to their complacency and their place atop the magical food-chain. The theoretical magicians cannot handle this affront to their worldview. 

Of course, magic happens – powerfully, undeniably, and for many theoretical magicians, ruinously. 

We discover that no outside force prevented the theorists from performing magic other than the reality that at some point the final practical magician died without passing on the tradition.

That reality struck me hard as a reader. Knowledge is so fragile. If we take it for granted, we are one generation away from ignorance. 

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What precious, fragile knowledge do you cherish? Maybe it’s a family tradition, a native language, or a trade. Perhaps you think of a value, a lesson from history, or religion. Whatever the “magic,” if it is important enough to touch our lives, it is important enough to intentionally pass on to our children, friends, and neighbors. 

An optimistic view of human experience says that if something is important to us, others will absorb it by osmosis. I believe this can be true to an extent in some circumstances, but in most situations passive mentoring is a recipe for “theoretical magicians.” 

Theoretical linguists
Theoretical activists
Theoretical scientists
Theoretical environmentalists
Theoretical social-justice warriors
Theoretical faithful
Theoretical disciples

What’s important to you, reader? Who can you mentor today? How can you start actively sharing your most important values with them?

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