Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is considered one of those forgotten classics of fantasy literature. It was written before The Lord of the Rings, by a woman, and has a very different feel than that of what we have come to regard as epic fantasy. Instead of elves, there are fairies. Instead of good fighting evil, there are superstitions and shades of gray. I love The Lord of the Rings, though I don’t know if I will ever re-read it. But sometimes I think fantasy draws too closely from that story, settling easily into stories told in trilogies about voyages fraught with danger and boys growing into men and all the rest. Lud-in-the-Mist is written along different tropes.
The story centers on Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, a city nestled at the meeting of two rivers and dangerously close to Fairyland. No one ever goes to Fairyland, not since the evil Duke Aubrey was dethroned and replaced by staid and reasonable merchants. In fact, no one even mentions fairies any more in Lud-in-the-Mist unless they are flinging a great insult. They just go about their lives, blissfully ignoring the land on the other side of the Debatable Hills. That is, until people begin acting oddly, schoolgirls start disappearing and the Mayor’s son claims to have voices in his head.
Like many, I am beginning the year with a fresh resolve to read more from my shelves, and preferably to read more books that have been on my shelves for a long time. This is one of those books, and I’m happy that I had the motivation to take it down from the shelf and read it. I don’t know that I fully understood it as there was a great deal of allegory and this whole thing of equating Fairyland with death that didn’t quite make sense to me, but I enjoyed the story all the same. Mostly because of how different it is than other fantasy novels I’ve read, though I think fantasy is once again evolving and morphing out of the mold that was set for it.
First, the hero of the novel, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is not in the least bit heroic. He is middle-aged, fairly selfish and not particularly well-liked. He is also a frustratingly hard character to get to know. For example, much of his heroism centers on his quest to save his son (no such quest to save his daughter, I feel compelled to mention), but at the very beginning of the book, we are told that he does not love his son, really, but more views him as a valuable object , much in the way he might value an ancient family heirloom. Well… then what motivates him? I don’t think I ever quite figured it out. In a way, it was very annoying. But it was also kind of cool, having as the main character someone whom I can’t even properly describe.
Another reason I enjoyed this story was because it involved Faerie. I love the whole concept of fairies- wily, mercurial beings who are your best friend one minute and then have robbed you blind and bound you to them for all eternity underwater at a spinning wheel making silk shoes for all the babies they are going to steal from you (or some variation on that theme) the next. But here, too, I never felt like I quite understood what was happening in Fairyland. Were the fairies bad? Or were they just misunderstood? Did they just, like girls, want to have fun? I never knew what was motivating them, either.
In fact, I must admit that I didn’t fully understand the motivations of anyone in this story. It was beautifully written and I loved the glimpse into a totally foreign concept of fantasy fiction for me, but now that I have finished the book, I don’t think I can rightly say what it was really about. Oh, sure, I could tell you the plot, but I have a sneaking suspicion this book was not about the plot. There was Subtext. And I missed it.
But here is a fantasy story that does not feel the need to give you detailed descriptions of the lay of the land, of political factions, of religion and class struggles. It’s a story that doesn’t even fully flesh out its characters- they are really just vehicles to deliver the story about the balance of good and evil and of the nature of people and what drives them and frightens them and motivates them. I can see why it’s considered a forgotten classic, and I’m very glad I read it. But, like The Lord of the Rings, I’m not certain that I’ll be wanting to read it again. And, like The Lord of the Rings, I’m not certain that I understood all of it, either.
PS- My edition of the book, by Gold Spring Press, had many typos in it and while the cover is nice (top left), it's not nearly as lovely as the one up and to the right.