6.19.2013

Currently Reading: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-MistMaster Nathaniel was drinking in every word as if it was nectar. A sense of safety was tingling in his veins like a generous wine... mounting to his head, even, a little bit, so unused was he to that particular intoxicant.

Endymion Leer eyed him, with a little smile. "And now," he said, "perhaps your Worship will let me talk a little of your own case. The malady you suffer from should, I think, be called 'life-sickness.' You are, so to speak, a bad sailor, and the motion of life makes you brain-sick. There, beneath you, all around you, there surges and swells, and ebbs and flows, that great, ungovernable, ruthless element that we call life. And its motion gets into your blood, turns your head dizzy. Get your sea legs, Master Nathaniel! By which I do not mean you must cease feeling the motion... go on feeling it, but learn to like it; or if not to like it, at any rate to bear it with firm legs and a steady head."

Author: Hope Mirrlees

Synopsis: In the long-lost days of Duke Aubrey, both human and fairy tradition had their influence on the city of Lud-in-the-Mist, which sits on the border of Fairyland. But the Fairyland-loving Duke was a rascal, and the law-abiding citizens banished him. With his banishment, importing fairy fruit—or fairy anything else—was criminalized, and the very name of Fairy became taboo.

In the days of mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer, however, the unspeakable things have begun to resurface. Haunted by the memory of a single Note he once heard in playful mimicry of old mysteries, Nathaniel himself feels set apart from his fellow lawmakers—and when fairy fruit smugglers and an enigmatic but popular doctor wreak discord and havoc in the city, and Nathaniel's own son shows disturbing signs of having eaten the fruit, Nathaniel is drawn into the resurgent conflict between the worlds of Law and Fairy. Only he can save young Ranulph and the city of Lud-in-the-Mist.

Notes: This is a tale of the relationship between Fairyland and ordinary life, which puts it at the heart of my favorite storytelling traditions. Born during the late lifetime of fellow countryman George MacDonald (relevant works: Phantastes, Lilith), and just thirteen years younger than  G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy), Mirrlees seems to write under the guidance of the same muse that led them. It wouldn't surprise me if she were directly influenced by either one or both; nor would it surprise me if, like both of them, she influenced Tolkien (I'm thinking especially of "On Fairy Stories") and Lewis with her own work. Neil Gaiman (Stardust) apparently admits her as a favorite, and while I haven't heard anything Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) may have said on the subject, I strongly suspect she's read this book.

For all its both retrospective and forward-looking similarities to other great works of fantasy fiction, it's one of the more unpredictable tales I've ever read that yet managed an emotionally satisfying ending. I won't spoil the central points of unpredictability, but the satisfying ending bit required me to put my whole heart into sympathizing with the unlikely protagonist, which I did.

Nat Chanticleer, a plump, gin-and-cheese-loving, middle-aged lawmaker, is outwardly as steady and stodgy and Law-driven as his exquisitely stuffy friend Ambrose and all their comrades. But inwardly—well, inwardly, he's heard the Note. It's the Note that makes Nat a kindred spirit. He's never perfect; he's dithery and melancholic, and he bears comparatively little attachment to his daughter, for all he loves his son. But that Note helps him, and it's the first thing that puts tears in my eyes when I think back over the book.

For all the story's unpredictability, it's primarily a fairy tale. It reads a little like an allegory for something, but it's hard to fix on what, precisely. Mirrlees converted (from what, I'm not sure) to Catholicism just a couple of years after publishing this novel, and perhaps she, like me, saw in Catholicism one of the few places where Faerie took safe refuge from modernity, but her conversion did apparently come after writing the book, and her creatures of Fairyland are nearer relatives of Clarke's gentleman with the thistle-down hair than they are to any saint. That said, with the exception of possibly justifying certain dispositions of a certain rascal—I dare not get more spoilery than that—the allegory reads as true.

It's certainly an old-fashioned story; modern readers might find it difficult to get into, as it's heavily frontloaded with description and backstory. Nobody browbeat authors back then with the fear that such tactics might bore readers. The first half felt a tad long to me, but the second half—once the story began to be less about Lud in general and more about Nat—did not.

The second half is worth reading the first half for. It's hero's journey and murder mystery and philosophical conflict between law-abiding and lawlessness, and I thought it honestly delightful. But even the first half contains some startling little thought-gems and a lot of beautiful poetic prose.

I could see people disliking it, but it's hard to imagine who. If you like Clarke's work or Gaiman's, MacDonald's fairy stories or Tolkien's, it's worth giving Lud-in-the-Mist a try. It's not derivative fantasy; it's one of the classics from which the greats derive. I loved it. I could see myself reading it again. And perhaps again and again after that.

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