It is both the blessing and curse of the age of information to have laid bare many of life’s little secrets. We may stop and admire the beauty of a rainbow, but we ruminate less on any mystical significance it might have knowing the scientific principles behind prisms. The Earth is not flat, and indeed we are a speck of cosmic dust in the larger scheme of things. Science has turned over the stone of knowledge such that we can see all the little insects of bald fact crawling beneath. Fewer and fewer are the little mysteries that give life an edge of the perplexing and peculiar—that entities beyond humanity’s knowledge are still at play in the world. Enter Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 masterpiece Lud-in-the-Mist. Anything but fairy apologetics (ha!), it sets a little drop of something ethereal dancing on the fingertip of life—including its shadow.
Lud-in-the-Mist is the story of the town of Lud and its jolly, troubled mayor, Nathanial Chanticleer. Though Lud is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl, which flows from wholesome English lands, and the Dapple, which flows from Faerie in the West, the people have evolved to the point all talk of fairies and elves is like unto heresy. Even the slightest mention of anything ethereal is probable cause for scandal. It’s thus when Mayor Chanticleer’s son admits in public that he ate of fairy fruit, the town goes into uproar. But when a troupe of young girls at the local primer evince the same, a plague is proclaimed, and it is up to the Mayor to get a handle on the situation. Fluffy white clouds and thunderheads descending on Lud, the sleepy little English village is never the same.
Her reins sustaining even pressure throughout, never does Mirrlees reveal her hand to be full-on FAERY in Lud-in-the-Mist. Dependent instead on subtle references, circumstantial quirks, and splashes of corporeal yet crystal delight, through a variety of indirect means the idea Lud and its people are not a normal little village is impressed upon the reader’s understanding. Which is strange because, the people do seem so normal. Mayor Chanticleer, Dr. Leer, Ranulph, Ms. Crabapple—all spring from the pages of countless English novels before. And indeed it is a very English book. In fact, I don’t know how it could get more English. The mannerisms, affectations, courtesies, terms of address—everything breathes rural Albion. Thus when fairy does poke its nose above the surface, it’s in the form of music and food, and at social gatherings and hedgerows—never quite revealing its full face, but certainly a presence felt by all, and most especially the reader.
A core text of the fairy fantastic, Lud-in-the-Mist displays all of the delicate lightning and lace of modern novels involving faery. I wonder whether Neil Gaiman, Graham Joyce, Susanna Clarke, Michael Swanwick, John Crowley or other authors today would imbue their stories with the sentiment and style they do were it not for Mirrlees’ gem of the fantastic. Incising story with a willful scalpel, a jeweled brilliance of life and love bursts forth that captures many of the mysteries and truths, sorrows and joys of this thing we call life. Indeed it is, as Swanwick states, “the rarest of creatures, the fantasy novel of ideas”. (For that wonderful essay on Mirrlees and the novel by Swanwick, see here.)