Even though many have tried, only a few fantasy books have the qualities that come naturally to “Lud-In-The-Mist” – a quirky sense of humor, a complicated and timeless plot, and a sense of the ethereally magical that makes you feel like you’re walking on the thin edge between the real and the mystical.
And while not as influential as works by the titans of the fantasy genre, Hope Mirrlees’ classic novel is nevertheless a haunting and engaging read – it’s as if “The Hobbit” had been written by Lord Dunsany, edited by Neil Gaiman and given a few extra flourishes by Peter S. Beagle. It’s a sweet pastoral story that slowly blossoms out into a very unique story — there’s a little murder mystery, an amusing village of hobbity people, and a quicksilver dream of beautiful fairyland and otherworldly danger.
Fairy is forbidden in the town of Lud — not just fairy creatures and their exquisite fruit, but mentions of them, the dead who walk with them, and the Duke Aubrey who left with them. But all his life, the steadfastly dull Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer has a lingering longing/fear for a strangely magical musical note. Despite all this, life remains boring and rather pleasant — until Chanticleer’s son Ranulph begins acting strangely, claiming that he’s eaten fairy fruit.
After Chanticleer sends his son off to a farm for a vacation, the teenage girls at Miss Primrose’s Crabapple Academy suddenly seem to go pleasantly insane, and then race off into the hills. Life seems to seep out of the old town, and Nathaniel must connect the present crises to a past conspiracy, all of which hinges on Fairyland, fairy fruit, and the sinister doctor Endymion Leer. The journey to discover the truth will take him out of the everyday world — and change him forever.
“Lud-in-the-Mist” is not one of those stories where the fairies and elves feel like humans with pointy ears, and their magic can be easily understood. Mirrlees conjures a dreamlike atmosphere and faraway lands that are only glimpsed in passing – there’s the underlying feeling that there’s a frightening, exquisite world that is barely separated from ours.
Some parts of “Lud-in-the-Mist” are pleasantly familiar, even if you don’t live in pastoral British regions of the early twentieth century. Little charming towns full of staid, prosperous people who try to avoid the dark, wild things that dwell outside their borders, and definitely The strange and exquisite is always just out of sight, and Mirrlees’ writing is capable of bringing that to life.
She also is capable of spinning up a very solid plot to match the fantastical atmosphere – she intertwines a fantasy and a murder mystery seamlessly into one another, and then winds Chanticleer’s personal journey into it. Her writing style also evolves over the course of the story; during the first parts of the book, her style is pleasantly cozy, mellow and reminiscent of the era in which she wrote it. But as the story blossoms into a tangle of crises and mysteries, Mirrlees’ writing becomes more lush, exquisite and haunting.
It also has a hero who doesn’t fit the usual mold of a high fantasy lead character. Chanticleer is very reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins – who was first written several years later – being a pleasant, boring, stodgy middle-aged man. But we learn that he has a brave, eccentric interior that gradually transforms him from respectability to something more attuned to the fairy world. And the other inhabitants of Lud are similarly engaging and just a little bit quirky — fairy-struck teenagers, snippy old ladies, the haughty farmer’s wife, the quietly malevolent Endymion Leer, and the happily mad people.
While it doesn’t have the fame that many subsequent fantasy novels still enjoy, Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-in-the-Mist” is a thing of beauty – funny, exquisite and boundlessly clever. Most of all, it will leave you feeling like you just ate fairy fruit.