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Vinculus is an important figure who intervenes at various points in the Revival of English Magic, principally by his recitals of the Prophecy of John Uskglass to those whom it most intimately concerned - Gilbert Norrell, Jonathan Strange and Stephen Black. When first met with he is an impoverished street-magician whose 'magic' is a matter of dishonest tricks. He is the foremost of the disreputable London street sorcerers, men who operate out of dirty booths and are seen by all but the most credulous as vulgar entertainers. Vinculus appears merely to be the boldest member of a rabble of charlatans, but it gradually becomes clear that although he has no training in magic he has innate ability. As John Childermass observes, "You have talent and no knowledge" . It also becomes clear Vinculus has much more than magical talent: he is the living embodiment of the King's Book, the lost work written by John Uskglass himself.
Little is known of Vinculus' early life. He appears to have been born in London c. 1759, the son of a servant girl in Wapping and a Yorkshireman named Clegg with whom she had a brief, disreputable connexion. When born, Vinculus had blue marks covering most of his skin. These transpired to be the text of the King's Book which was destroyed when his father Clegg tore it up and ate it four years earlier. If what he reveals to his first wife Nan Purvis is true, as a child Vinculus did not meet his father, though as an adult he was able to recognize him when he stumbled across him lying drunk in a London street . This discernment may be due either to his latent magical abilities or to something he learned when, at age 17, he sought out the man who was the last Reader of the King's Letters to discover from him the meaning of what was written on his skin. Vinculus has clearly led a harsh life but at some point must have received basic education, as in 1808 he is certainly able to read . He is of irregular life, being really married to a certain Nan Purvis while also having four subsequent "wives"; but no mention is made of any offspring .
Vinculus is an established street magician when Norrell arrives in London. Christopher Drawlight describes him to Gilbert Norrell as an amusing street sorcerer working from a curtained booth in Threadneedle-street. Vinculus' first direct appearance in the book is when he breaks into Norrell's London house in December 1807, first stealing some food and then successfully delivering the whole of the King's Prophecy to the indignant Norrell. He is then summarily ejected by the servants .
Despite dismissing Vinculus as an ignorant charlatan, Norrell is sufficiently disturbed both by this visit and the prophecy Vinculus uttered to send John Childermass to drive him out of London some two months later . To effect this he provides Childermass with suitable spells, but the self-willed Childermass prefers not to use them. Instead he and Vinculus have an amicable interview in a public house, the Pineapple, in the course of which Vinculus confides that he owns a rare book of prophecy. He describes it guardedly as his "inheritance" and "the greatest glory and greatest burden that has been given to any man in this Age", but cannot be drawn to say what or where it is. Childermass then tells Vinculus' fortune with the Cards of Marseilles, and is amused to discover from them that despite his apparent defiance of Norrell Vinculus had already made up his mind to get out of London. It transpires his reason for this however is not so much fear, as compulsion; he has decided to leave because he feels he must now deliver the prophecy to the second person it concerns, and so intends to go a-wandering to seek him out. Childermass then shows him the 'Chevalier de Baton' card representing the person he is to seek - who is in fact Jonathan Strange, although neither man knows this yet - and Vinculus studies it carefully, indicating he had not until then any idea of the identity of the man to whom he is to give his message. He then attempts in turn to tell Childermass' fortune: but although he successfully lays out the cards to form a fair account of Childermass' life so far, having no instruction in magic he cannot interpret them. (It is this which prompts Childermass to say he has talent but no knowledge.)
Finally Vinculus boldly says he will tell Norrell's fortune, and at this point something occurs which is explicable only as a consequence of magic. All the cards Vinculus lays out become the same image, "L'Empereur", a black king. Childermass knows this to be impossible, as the cards are a unique set drawn by himself and there is only one L'Empereur card among them! Norrell later suggests Vinculus has switched packs, but Childermass dismisses this theory .
Vinculus' next intervention takes place in February 1808, in the village of Monk Gretton, Gloucestershire, where he meets Jonathan Strange and repeats the King's Prophecy to him. Strange, who has no interest in magic and no notion of becoming a magician, is wholly unimpressed. Being penniless however Vinculus also sells to Strange two spells in his possession: they are those Norrell had given Childermass, which Vinculus had stolen when he picked Childermass' pockets . It is Strange's playful use of one of these spells - done merely for the amusement of Arabella - which leads him to discover his natural talent for magic and sets him on his new career.
Vinculus then vanishes from our narrative again until he meets Stephen Black in Yorkshire in January, 1816 . From what Vinculus says, he has in the interim been homeless and continually tramping the country to avoid the pursuit of Childermass, who is doggedl hunting him down to obtain the King's Book for Norrell. Vinculus repeats his prophecy to Black and leaves; however his final comment, "The first part of my task is done," intimates he will reappear before matters conclude.
In February 1817 the gentleman with the thistle-down hair - who like all tyrants is ever a prey to guilty fears - performs a spell intended to bring him into the presence of his greatest enemy. He is at once transported to a snow-covered moor which is apparently empty until, presently, Vinculus arrives. Although the gentleman cannot see what threat Vinculus could possibly pose to him he decides, with his usual insouciant depravity, to kill him anyway. Vinculus' behaviour when threatened with death is characteristically defiant, and he seems more irritated than frightened by the preparations the gentleman makes to hang him, even going so far as to jeer "I am very hard to kill!". He is quickly despatched however so that Stephen Black, who is also present, clearly hears his neck snap as he is hanged.
After Vinculus is dead, John Childermass comes across his body and realises that the marks on Vinculus' skin form the text of the King's Book. He is attempting to transport the body somewhere where he can copy the markings on it when the Raven King appears and magically immobilizes Childermass. He then changes the writing on Vinculus' skin before restoring him to life! He also bewitches Childermass so that he forgets that he has seen Vinculus stone dead, instead making him believe he somehow arrived in time to cut him down and so rescue him. The Raven King then vanishes.
Childermass forms the ambition of interpreting the new writing which appears on Vinculus' body. He and Vinculus travel to York where Childermass summons all those who are interested in magic to a lecture at which he presents them with the conundrum of Vinculus - the King's new book.
Vinculus, whose name might be identified with the Latin word for "link" or "chain", intervenes at several cardinal points during the events of the Revival. He might even be said to set the events in motion, since it is an interview with "a vagabonding, yellow-curtain sort of fellow with a strange disfiguration" which makes John Segundus ponder the problem of why English magic has declined to the merely theoretical . Segundus later poses the same question to the Learned Society of York Magicians, who contact Norrell, and from this everything follows. My readers will surely have seen an idle child play with a set of dominoes, placing them in a row with the pieces all stood up on end one after another? A push from the child's finger makes one not only fall itself but knock down its nearest neighbour, and that the next, until in a moment the whole row is tumbled. Some process of this sort begins with Mr Segundus' encounter with the "yellow-curtain sort of fellow with [the] strange disfiguration", and it ends with the complete restoration of English Magic.
Vinculus's uttering of the prophecy to Norrell has two effects: it brings home to Norrell how dilatory he has been so far in his grand design of restoring English magic, and prepares him for the discovery that, despite his attempts to suppress other magicians, there is a second one.
Vinculus' uttering of the prophecy to Strange plants the idea in his mind that the new occupation with which he hopes to impress Arabella Woodhope might be the study of magic: and it is Vinculus' sale of two spells to Strange which allows him to discover, in the course of trying to amuse Miss Woodhope by performing them, that he is a naturally talented magician.
When Vinculus repeats the prophecy to Stephen, warning him that he will become king of a strange country, he also makes a remark about the "meaning" of skin which prompts Stephen to reflect, and adds to his growing sense of estrangement from English society which treats all men of colour unjustly.
Lastly, it is the pitiful manner of Vinculus' death at the hands of the Gentleman and the threat of a similar fate being visited on Lady Pole which finally drive Stephen into destroying the fairy when he (temporarily) has the power to do so.
There is evidence that Vinculus, more than anyone else, understands the hidden part played by the Raven King in what appear to be spontaneous, random events. At the end Vinculus dismisses Strange and Norrell as mere catspaws in a complex strategy of the King's: "They are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been. And he is doing it now!" Vinculus may even have a claim to be the conscious emissary or agent of the King, who takes a particular interest in him. The matter of the changed L'Empereur card at The Pineapple Inn, and the events surrounding Vinculus' death, certainly suggest this. Regarding the changed card, the incident is only explicable as an act of magic - but the magic is certainly not being done by Norrell or Childermass; the gentleman is not involved; Strange is not yet a magician, and Vinculus has already proved he does not have the training to accomplish such an act. Quod erat demonstrandum! If the only explanation for the changed card is that a magician changes it, then the only magician left who could have done it is the Raven King himself. Furthermore, Vinculus before his hanging seems deeply contemptuous of the gentleman's threats to harm him, a contempt not lessened by the fact that the gentleman is visibly carrying them out. The likeliest explanation for his scornful attitude is that he already knows any 'death' he suffers will be purely temporary - that the King will triumph and he will be safe.