Wed
Oct 6 2010 9:59am
Next-door to Fairyland: Hope Mirrlees Lud-in-the-Mist

LUD-in-the-Mist by Hope MirrleesLud-in-the-Mist is an unusual fantasy first published in 1926, before The Hobbit and considerably before the existence of fantasy as a marketing genre. It would be recognised as one of the founding works of the genre except for the way it has rarely been noticed and seldom reprinted. It’s a book that is itself in the tradition of Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862) and Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). It’s very clearly an influence on Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and the work of Greer Gilman, so perhaps it has contributed to a particular strand of fantasy, a particular way of approaching the numinous.

Lud-in-the-Mist is a sleepy comfortable settled town in Dorimare, a country that borders on Faery but which has turned its back on Faery and all the possibilities of Faery. The book is poised on that edge in which the uncanny spills into the mundane. It’s also beautifully written and a joy to read aloud. The theme, and the shape of the story, is pretty much that of The Bacchae, which isn’t unknown as a modern plot (Joanne Harris’s Chocolat) but is an unusual one to borrow, especially in this kind of setting. The story is shot through with folklore and country superstitions and the looming presence of the faery folk under the edges of the everyday.

We’re told in the first paragraph that Dorimare bordered on Fairyland, and then, immediately that “There had, of course, been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.” The mayor of Lud, Nathaniel Chanticleer, heard a note plucked from an old instrument, and the note was magical and changed the tone of his life.

It had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was holding in his hands. From this there sprang an ever present sense of insecurity, along with a distrust of the homely things he cherished.... Hence at times he would gaze on the present with the agonising tenderness with which one gazes at the past.

He suffers this strange affliction, and then his son eats fairy fruit. Fairy fruit is treated here like drug addiction, but also it’s very analogous to the way homosexuality was treated at the time Mirrlees was writing—something that feels good to the practitioner but something strongly disapproved of by society, something to grow out of, be cured of, and above all not to be mentioned in polite company. The people of Lud are so worried about fairy fruit that all mention of it has become completely taboo, and the laws banning it treat it as a kind of woven silk. I think it’s interesting to consider fairy fruit here as in Goblin Market as an analogy for “the love that dare not speak its name,” but it’s a subtext, not a laboured allegory. Whether or not Mirrlees intended this comparison, it’s reasonable to say that fairy fruit here takes the place of wine in The Bacchae and chocolate in Chocolat as the little madness that can spare you the greater madness, the little madness that gives flex to life.

The other very unusual thing about Lud-in-the-Mist as a novel is the way it’s set among the bourgeoisie. Nathaniel Chanticleer is a mayor, the town has thrived on trade, the masters of the town are merchants. The old aristocracy, Duke Aubrey and his court, have gone into Fairyland. Most fairy tales deal either with kings and princesses or with peasants—miller’s sons, girls who live in cottages and spin. Fantasy mostly goes with this. Lots of fantasy has kings coming back—here we have senators and masters and a trading republic, and that really is unusual. It’s without precedent and hasn’t been much copied either.

Lud-in-the-Mist is beautifully written, charming, funny, and always just a little creepy. It’s this combination that keeps bringing me back to it.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

9 comments
Jo Walton
1. bluejo
I want to add -- if you can get someone to read this aloud to you, do. Someone should make an audiobook of it, as it's lovely to listen to.
LAJG
2. LAJG
I was at a book fair a couple of weeks ago, and at one booth I bought a grab bag of 10 books that included this one. I plan to put it near the top of the to-be-read pile.

At this very same book fair (and also at the adjoining university used book sale), I bought, among other things, Brat Farrar (to re-read), The Ivy Tree, and something called Farthing by some author whose name escapes me. ;)

I really need to stop reading your posts and start reading some books instead!
Wesley Parish
3. Aladdin_Sane
FWLIW, I did a search for Lud-in-the-Mist on the Net, and came up with this site:
Etexts available here
with the information that:

"All these are in the public domain in the United States; some are in the public domain worldwide, but some (the Dunsany and Mirrlees) may still be in copyright in the United Kingdom."

Just FWLIW ...
BTW, this focus on the ordinary in life, is also a major feature of Phillip K. Dick, and one of the reasons why I enjoy reading him so much - I cried over Mary and the Giant, it was such a refresher at a time when everything felt terribly dry and drab and ghastly ... (And is probably why Stephen King is so popular - Cujo could happen to anybody ... :)
Sam Kelly
5. Eithin
Hm, just had a comment flagged as spam. Anyway, the gist of it was that the site @Aladdin_Sane cites is (unfortunately) out of date - this blog gives more updated details. I did some digging a while ago, when I was typesetting a PDF edition and wanted to double-check whether I was allowed to. Ended up having to err on the side of safety, but it's a fun way to re-read closely so I don't regret it.
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
Sigh. Four copies spotted in inter-library loan, but none available.
LAJG
7. Coalbiter
How can you not love a book where the hero's a slightly pompous, middle-aged man, who loiters in the graveyard because he envies the dead the safe haven they've reached after long, productive and above all uneventful lives?

Lud-in-the-Mist is one of the reasons I have fond memories of Lin Carter. He may not have been a very good writer, but as an editor for Ballantine Books he brought some wonderful stuff back into print in the early 1970s.

Carter said in his introduction: "In the forty-four years since it was first published, Lud-in-the-Mist has not been permitted to die. Someone, somewhere, has been reading it, and keeping it alive."

Glad that's still true, another forty years on!
LAJG
8. Eugene R.
Lud-in-the-Mist partakes of the same nostalgia of the Celtic Twilight that informs Dunsany's work and touches on Tolkien's fiction, the sense of a greater, more magical past that is moving finally out of sight. Adventure is something that happens Beyond the Fields We Know, where the old magic is still potent. Even as we crave it, it does not sustain us and even threatens us. Nathaniel is clearly right to go off to Faerie to rescue his daughter.

Back home, it's bourgeois pleasures and pursuits of shopkeepers which keep us warm and safe and well-fed. Nathaniel Chanticleer and Bilbo Baggins would have a lot over which to chat and commiserate. An occasional piece of fairy fruit or a visit from Duke Aubrey won't hurt, though they may sting the heart a bit, as long as we understand the risks of our indulgences.

Lud-in-the-Mist is a fantasy for grown-ups.
LAJG
9. houseboatonstyx
"It had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was holding in his hands. From this there sprang an ever present sense of insecurity, along with a distrust of the homely things he cherished.... Hence at times he would gaze on the present with the agonising tenderness with which one gazes at the past."

Many echoes there, some reversed, of Lewis's reading of MacDonald.

"How can you not love a book where the hero's a slightly pompous, middle-aged man"

Blaylock.

"The other very unusual thing about Lud-in-the-Mist as a novel is the way it’s set among the bourgeoisie. Nathaniel Chanticleer is a mayor, the town has thrived on trade, the masters of the town are merchants."

_The Wicked Enchantment_.
LAJG
10. pingu
I wonder about the comparison to homosexuality - just because something is forbidden does not automatically mean that it's sexual.

I'm re-reading this book now and if anything, it seems as if imagination - and that which sparks imagination - is what's actually been banned in Dorimare.

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