It may say something about the withered state of modern fantasy that there's so much current interest in unearthing its roots. To stretch the metaphor to extremes - which after all, is one of the things that fantasy is best at - it's as if the genre's garden has become so overgrown that hope for its renewal lies partly in delving into the oldest parts of the grounds and finding original rose bushes under the crush of later weeds. The Victor Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series is among the most prominent fruits of this gardening. One of its sweetest discoveries is widely regarded to be Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist.
First published in 1926 (before sinking into decades of obscurity), the novel has collected a cult of prestigious followers in the intervening years. One of Hope Mirrlees' most articulate champions is Michael Swanwick, whose essay, The Lady Who Wrote Lud-in-the-Mist, can be found here in the infinity plus archives: readers with even a slight curiosity for this book are strongly encouraged to read it for a delightful history of both the book and its colourful and mysterious author. This was Mirrlees third novel (and her only fantasy). After this, she retired from fiction, giving the impression - as with Tolkien after and Dunsay before her - that fantasies like Lud-in-the-Mist were the kind of distractions in which the classically-educated, well-heeled intelligentsia of the time dabbled when not taking tea with CS Lewis or the Russian chess champion. In an age when Joyce, Fitzgerald and Faulkner were wrestling with the great matter of Literature, such novels almost feel as if they've been tossed off as simple entertainments.
Any brief description of the Lud-in-the-Mist's story can't help but reinforce the book's seeming inconsequentiality. At its heart is a story of the everyday world facing a subtle invasion from the topsy-turvy world of Faerie. Lud-in-the-Mist is a quietly bourgeois place, residing in the kind of fairy-tale Never-Never-land where Disney movies are set and people have daft names like Nathaniel Chanticleer and Endymion Leer. The town borders the hinterland of Faerie, a darker country which in the past has brought violence and chaos and which Lud's good burghers now steadfastly refuse to acknowledge in either memory, law or language. Over the course of the novel, we watch first the gradual emergence of a Faerie conspiracy to subvert the townspeople - by smuggling in a kind of fairy fruit which unhinges and dazzles all who eat it (substitute 'drugs' and you have a bizarrely modern fable about the advantages and disadvantages of prohibition) - and then the rise of the counter-plot by the book's hero, Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer.
The book is a curio, meandering between broad comedy, suspense, murder mystery and adventure, veering from moments of slapstick to moving scenes of pathos. Like all good magic tricks, the charm of the book lies in the craft of its glamour and sleight of hand. While it has its fair share of lo! and behold!, the simplicity of the writing conceals exquisite turns of phrase and an underlying intensity that can burst unexpectedly upon the reader. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the book's weaknesses. Mirrlees' plotting is episodic, and the overwhelming feeling at the end is deflation that the long-promised fireworks of the final confrontation in Faerie should take place offstage. But by this point, it's clear that Lud-in-the-Mist is not all it seems: what at first appears to be a hotchpotch novel reveals itself as a carefully-considered - if not executed - allegory about the nature of 'fantasy'.
This becomes clear if Lud-in-the-Mist is set beside The King of Elfland's Daughter, published two years before. More than kissing cousins, the two books bear such striking similarity that it's easy to imagine Mirrlees reading and being influenced by Lord Dunsany's more famous novel (also available in the Fantasy Masterwork series and reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus). Both concern illicit crossings between the mundane and transcendent worlds, both climax in difficult journeys into Faerie/Elfland that lead to a permanent change in the boundaries between the two worlds. However, where Dunsany has Elfland annex the land of Erl, Mirrlees is strict in keeping the full force of Faerie on its side of the line. At the end of her book, Faerie has been invited to seep back into the humdrum lives of the people of Lud, but only in small doses, not with the vertiginous embrace of the fantastic that characterized Dunsany's tale.
If someone were to construct a secret history of modern fantasy, there's a clear enough line to draw from Dunsany through Tolkien and his imitators. The men of Erl in The King of Elfland's Daughter abandon the mundane world and pull the reader through into the extraordinary Elfland. Tolkien doesn't even bother with customs and drops the reader right into Middle Earth. Together, the two writers describe a yearning to indulge in the fantastic as a literary landscape worth exploring in its own right. While the end result may have been an inevitable domestication of the fantastic to the point that modern fantasy has lost much of its power to astound, in these landmark books, you can sense the writer's enthusiasm at slipping the binds of conventional fiction.
Yet Mirrlees hangs back at the fence. After storming Faerie, her Bilbo-esque everyman, Chanticleer - pompous with the trappings of office and status, yet still endearingly whimsical - does not hang about, returning immediately to settle back down in this world (at least, Tolkien recognized in the long coda to The Lord of the Rings that after fighting dragons, you can't ever really go home again). Mirrlees gives us glimpses of that other world, but she's far more preoccupied with the more familiar secrets and plots of our world. 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. As she cheekily closes the book:
Faerie is the delusion that makes the burden of life almost bearable. Speaking of Chanticleer, she writes, "The spiritual balm that he had always found in silent things was simply the assurance that the passions and agonies of man were without meaning, roots or duration." In other words: you're born, you live, you die. If this was how Mirrlees genuinely felt about the wellsprings of creativity, it's perhaps no surprise she never completed another book.
So despite the claims of Mirrlees' fans - in his introduction to the novel, Gaiman describes the fantasy as "one of the finest in the English language" - 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. Such a level-headed recognition of the need for balance certainly makes a welcome change from the indulgences of other fantasy writers (Dunsany and Tolkien included). But to return to the metaphor at the start, it's like hacking your way through all those vibrant and wayward bushes, only to find a simple kitchen garden underneath.
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© Philip Raines 5 January 2002