Lud-in-the-Mist

by Hope Mirrlees

Cover image

Publisher: Cold Spring Press
Copyright: 1926
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 1-59360-041-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 239

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Lud-in-the-Mist is a prosperous and very conventional 17th-century English city, a rich city located at the confluence of two rivers and so well suited to trade that the seaport downriver is little but an outpost. It is a city full of comfortable day-to-day life, beautiful architecture, and cultivated trees, surrounded by a typical English countryside. It is, in short, a stable, normal, and quite perfect city that has overcome its wild and questionable past. It is not one to be upset by such obscenities as fairy.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is the mayor and fits the city quite well on the surface. Inside, he's terrified, and his son has inherited the same terror. Lud-in-the-Mist has turned its back on its past fairy associations, has refused to have any contact with Elfland across the Debatable Hills, and treats even references to such matters as obscenities and curses unfit for polite company. And Nathaniel, in his youth, had an experience with the numinous that momentarily filled his life with a longing for something beyond, and has been fleeing from that moment ever since. Life should not contain such things, life should not change, life should be predictable and constant and reliable and quite a bit like the final rest of death. But death is associated with fairy too.

Lud-in-the-Mist has a reputation as an unknown classic of fantasy, particularly English fantasy. It's a favorite of Neil Gaiman (who provides an excellent introduction and a cover quote) and I can see why; it is full of small asides, moments of description, and attempts to capture the feeling of seeing something greater than one's world, of stepping outside of one's perspective. It's also full of references to traditional English tales and mythology, only a few of which I got and many of which are unexplained. But on the surface above that, it's a mystery story centering on the introduction of contraband fairy fruit into city and leading to political intrigue and the untangling of old love affairs and enchantments.

This is a book that I wanted to like more than I did, and one I think that would have benefitted from more research and repeated re-examination for references and resonances. Read primarily for the surface, it's an enjoyable and well-told story that keeps giving glimpses of an inner depth but never grabbed me or raised strong sympathy in me towards the characters. Everyone in this story is strange in one way or another, and its central characters come from a mindset so oddly banal and resistant to fantasy that they often seem like buffoons. Some of this is doubtless intentional, but for me the ridiculousness was sometimes at odds with the attempts to portray the numinous, making the latter less than successful. It's also not a book that helps the reader out with quick recaps or context-setting, and I found myself repeatedly flipping back to previous passages or re-reading sentences to remember who they were referring to and what the context was.

That said, I liked where Mirrlees went with the themes. The Ludites (and I expect the city name was picked precisely for that reference) have turned their back on fairy, unwilling to even speak the word, believing it to be destructive and insane and even refusing to call it by name in their laws. Those who import fairy-fruit, a magical fruit that grows in Elfland and opens the mind to visions and magic and the fae world, are referred to euphemistically as "silk smugglers." This denial of obvious fact by changing the language has a delightful dual meaning, both as a doomed gesture to ignore something that's real, but also and contradictorily a gesture towards the traditional importance of naming in fairy matters. If one can successfully rename something of fairy, perhaps one can change or suppress it. The Chanticleer fear of their moments of perception, and their uncontrollable longing for their moments (which is truly the root of the fear) captures the same duality between successful repression and its failure to entirely undo the reality of the longing. The core of the story for me lies with the perils, pleasures, and frights of learning to change and accept creativity, wildness, and things not understood, particularly after a long period of resistance that's let such things build up like water behind a dam.

The closer I read Lud-in-the-Mist, the more appreciation I had for it. It's not at all from the same tradition as the typical modern fantasy novel. It's more from the tradition of the fairy tale, but still less obvious and less archtypical, and it's full of beautiful descriptions and memorable turns of phrase that are easy to miss while one is trying to puzzle through the plot or wondering what reference just sailed over one's head.

The Dawl is the great river of Dorimare that flows through Lud-in-the-Mist to the sea and carries the wealth of the country and city. The Dapple is a pleasant, gentle river for fishing and beautiful views, a river full of beauty but less mercantile use, a river with its source in Elfland. In Lud-in-the-Mist, there is a saying: "Remeber that the Dapper flows into the Dawl." In the multiple meanings and complexities of that simple statement, in the relationship between life and imagination, in the slow accumulating power of the magical and timeless, and in the practical impact of the statement on the mystery of the plot lies a difficult but quite remarkable novel.

(Unfortunately, and entirely not the fault of the story, the US edition I read was not the best. I'm delighted that a small press has brought the book back in print in the US, but Cold Spring Press's edition is plagued by typos, incorrect paragraph breaks, incorrect punctuation, and similar editing errors. It wasn't so bad that I couldn't read past it, but if you're someone that sort of thing bothers, you may want to find a different edition. Gollancz has also reprinted Lud-in-the-Mist as part of their Fantasy Masterworks line in the UK and there's a hardcover edition from Wildside Press; hopefully one of those is better.)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-11-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21