Lud-in-the-Mist

by Edward O’Connor on 31 October 2006

Lud-in-the-Mist’s book cover

Lud-in-the-Mist
Hope Mirrlees

What we have here is that rarest of creatures, the fantasy novel of ideas. So said Michael Swanwick of Lud-in-the-Mist in his article on Hope Mirrlees, The Lady Who Wrote Lud-in-the-Mist. Big words for a small book! Yet they couldn’t be more well-deserved. You should procure and devour Lud-in-the-Mist as quickly as possible, as if it were a cache of fairy fruit.

Here’s a spoiler-free summary, from the Wikipedia article on the book:

In this novel, the law-abiding inhabitants of Lud-in-the-Mist, a city located at the confluence of the rivers Dapple and Dawl, in the fictional state of Dorimare, must contend with the influx of fairy fruit from the bordering Land of Faerie, whose presence they had sought to deny from their rational existence. Their mayor, the respectable Nathaniel Chanticleer, finds himself quite reluctantly at the center of the conflict.

Lud is, at its heart, a fundamentally English fantasy.1 Consider this passage from Philip Raines’ review of Lud (emphasis mine):

… Her attitude to Faerie remains ambiguous. She describes it as the source of art, song, all the wild impulses that are essential in making our lives sparkle. Yet Faerie is delusion. In one bravura passage, Mirrlees compares Faerie to human law as a kind of necessary lie we need to manipulate and keep at bay the world as it actually is. …

So despite the claims of Mirrlees’ fans… I find there’s something half-hearted about the book, a sense that the fantastic should not be trusted and only allowed into our lives in prescribed amounts[…] It’s like hacking your way through all those vibrant and wayward bushes, only to find a simple kitchen garden underneath.

Raines is let down by precisely the qualities which give the book its identity. It’s here, in the book’s reconciling of passion with reason, its moderation of the fantastic, where we find its Englishness. Consider the protagonist, Nathaniel Chanticleer. He’s a bumbling gentleman with few of the qualities we’ve come to expect from the heroes of epic fantasy. He is neither strong nor particularly intelligent, neither skilled in magic or motivated by a strong drive to save the world. Yet when his children suffer from the terrible affliction of consuming illicit fairy fruit, he steps up to the occasion in an essentially gentlemanly manner.

When Aubrey did live there lived no poor,
  The lord and the beggar on roots did dine
  With lily, germander, and sops in wine,
    With sweet-brier,
      And bon-fire,
      And strawberry-wire,
        And columbine.

Swanwick says that Lud’s diffuse influence runs like a scarlet thread through the body of serious fantasy today. You don’t have to cast far and wide to see this. Lud’s influence can most easily be seen in the work of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. Especially Clarke, whose Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a tribute to and synthesis of Mirrlees and Jane Austen. Indeed, Gaimain says that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years, carefully wording his praise so that he doesn’t compare it to Lud.

Lud is unquestionably a great English novel of the fantastic, though I wouldn’t go as far as Gaiman — I think Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the stronger work. Perhaps I like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because I read it first, and Lud would have had a similarly big impact on me had I read it first. Or perhaps it’s simply my love for Austen-like things.

There are windfalls of dreams, there’s a wolf in the stars,
  And Life is a nymph who will never be thine,
  With lily, germander, and sops in wine,
    With sweet-brier,
      And bon-fire,
      And strawberry-wire,
        And columbine.

Notes

  1. They say that Tolkein set out to write the first distinctively English epic fantasy. While I love his work, I don’t think he did that: Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy of the highest order, yet it’s a universal epic; it doesn’t strike me as distinctively English. Here’s the sort of thing I have in mind when I think about what a distinctively English epicness: When the English built their empire out of huge swaths of the planet, it wasn't a slash-and-burn like Alexandar, nor a process in which local culture completely gave way to that of the conquering people, like Rome. Basically, the English would show up, plant the flag, and then the officers would sit down to tea while the enlisted men taught the natives how to play cricket and soccer. You see what I mean?

Comments

  1. "Perhaps I like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because I read it first, and Lud would have had a similarly big impact on me had I read it first. Or perhaps it’s simply my love for Austen-like things."

    could be, but i liked the book a lot despite actively disliking austen.

    stephen o'grady, 31 October 2006

  2. pat harben

    I have loved lud-in-the-mist since I first read it in the 70's. Much of its Englishness lies in the faery story theme of the after death journey - which is ancient and possibly has roots in the ancient classical world - but which is so widespread in ballads and folk tales that it could be even more ancient.

    Pat.

    pat harben, 19 June 2009

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