Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An "unjustifiably forgotten" fantasy tale

I'd heard Lud-in-the-Mist mentioned in various blogs in the past year or two, but I had never heard of it before that, despite the fact that it is apparently a seminal work of fantasy literature. It sounded intriguing. Then it was mentioned in glowing terms in a short story I read by Neil Gaiman a few months ago, and it seemed like one of those hints from providence that I should probably give it a try. So I put it on hold at my library.

When it arrived, I found that there was an enticing endorsement by Neil Gaiman on the cover: "The single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century." Writer Michael Swanwick writes, "Lud-in-the-Mist is simultaneously one of the least known and most influential of modern fantasies. It is an underground classic among fantasists, many of whom list it among their favorite books." Now, there is the sort of praise that tends to heighten one's expectations just a bit.

The story is about a city called Lud-in-the-Mist, which is the capital of the kingdom of Dorimare. The city is not too far from the borders of Fairyland, but a sort of schism has developed between the folk of Lud-in-the-Mist and those in Fairyland, despite a long shared history. The word "fairy" is hardly to be spoken in Dorimare - it has become an offensive word, and the rejection of all things fairy has been written into the laws in such a way so as to be nearly ridiculous, as if refusing to admit the existence of a thing will cause it to cease to be.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is our hero, and he is not a typical hero at that: he is middle aged, stubborn, short-sighted, self-involved, and a bit pompous. But he has a good heart, and it is that that enables him to overcome his shortcomings and undertake to do what must be done, even when it goes against all he has ever been taught, and all that society approves of. As the story unfolds, we see a land that is out of balance, and as that balance tips further and further from equilibrium, all kinds of strange and upsetting things happen. Nathaniel's daughter, along with the other girls at her finishing school, begin acting strangely and, one day, they simply disappear. His son, it seems, as been tricked into eating forbidden fairy fruit, and now longs for unseen, unheard things. Someone is smuggling fairy fruit into Lud-in-the-Mist, and, whatever odd things are occurring, the mysterious but well-respected Dr. Endymion Leer seems always to be nearby.

The story unfolds like a puzzle box, and nothing, it appears, is exactly what it seems. Fairyland is alternately a menacing presence and a mystical, appealing one. The "rational" land of Dorimare is alternately a place of dreary, meaningless routine and a safe world in which all is as it should be. Which is right? Which is true? Where, in fact, do the greatest dangers lie? The reader takes a journey along with Nathaniel and other colorful characters down a twisting and turning path of discovery.

Hope Mirrlees has a deft hand with imagery, and her writing was a delight. I loved the place names (the Debatable Hills, Swan-on-the Dapple) and the character names (Moonlove, Mumchance, Polydore). Her description of Nathaniel, for example, gives so much with just a few words:

Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, the actual head of the family, was a typical Dorimarite in appearance: rotund, rubicund, red-haired, with hazel eyes in which the jokes, before he uttered them, twinkled like a trout in a burn.

I enjoyed the novel very much, but at the same time I never felt that full sense of being completely immersed in the story, of being intimately connected to the characters and events. This seems to happen, with me, anyway, when a story is more about an idea that is being played out by the characters, rather than a story that stems from the very beings of the characters themselves. What also served to distance me a bit from the story was the fact that Nathaniel, when his daughter goes missing, is a bit upset. But then when his son disappears, he is so distraught and moves heaven and earth to get him back. It made me lose a bit of sympathy for him, there!

I read on more from intellectual curiosity than from a visceral sense of connection to the story - and that's fine. I think that it was the huge build-up to the anticipated storytelling experience that made me feeling a wee bit let down. Still, I'm very glad to have read the novel. Its palpable atmosphere of mystery is sure to stay with me, and it is easy to see why it has influenced so many writers over the years.

Lud-in-the Mist by Hope Mirrlees (Cold Spring Press, 2005; originally published in 1926)

Also reviewed at:
Framed and Booked: "This is not an easy, lighthearted fantasy. It takes some time and thought to really get into the story. As one who likes to breeze through books, I will probably have to read this one several times in order to enjoy all the layers."
Jenny's Books: "...
the book itself is delightful – it’s funny in places and haunting in places, and Hope Mirlees has an excellent turn of phrase."
Quixotical: "It is truly one of the finest works of fantasy I have had the pleasure of reading. The descriptive prose swiftly transports the reader into a classic (and very English) fantasy world full of wit and aphorisms that I for one am powerless to resist."
Things Mean a Lot: "I found it funny and mysterious and frightening just in the right amount, and, on top of that, it’s beautifully and very elegantly written."

10 comments:

  1. I'm really curious about this one. My colleague and fantasy lover told me I'd love it, together with the last unicorn so I have to read it one day.

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  2. I'm with you on Nathaniel's double standards! I still managed to connected with the story and the characters in this case, but I know what you mean about feeling more intellectual curiosity than connection.

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  3. Valentina - I'd definitely be interested in your thoughts on this one!

    Nymeth - I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way - it was a bit annoying, even though I wonder if it was meant to be a cultural thing, maybe a product of the result of breaking away from Fairyland (because there were definitely portrayals of strong women in the novel). Still, I really felt like shaking him!

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  4. This one's sitting on my shelf waiting for me. I have a feeling that I'll have a similar reaction to it, having a rough time getting into it. For some reason, I can never quite get into books that are "classics". I hope this one doesn't disappoint!

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  5. Sounds neat! It always makes me happy when forgotten books are reviewed and re-published!

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  6. Hmm this sounds very interesting. Another one for my TBR list! Great review.

    By the way, tagged you for a meme if you are interested! http://troubles-melt-like-lemon-drops.blogspot.com/2008/12/evas-bookshelf-meme.html

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  7. Darla, that's what I wondered as well. I do suspect that Hope Mirrlees meant us to be annoyed at him. It's nice to think so, anyway :P

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  8. Chris - If you can not let your expectations be hugely built up by all the lovely blurbs on the book and approach it with a grain of salt, I doubt you'll be disappointed! The writing is really beautiful, and there are also nice echoes of Stardust.

    Ladytink - I love when that happens, too!

    Mariel - thanks! I'll be by to check it out. :-)

    Nymeth - Well, if we both think so, we must be right! :-)

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  9. Great review. I remember thinking that I should have liked the book more than I did but couldn't quite figure out what the missing ingredient was. And maybe that was it, sometimes I liked Nathaniel and other times, not so much.

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  10. Thanks, Framed - I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way. I do tend to prefer a character I can identify with most of the time.

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