Fantasy Friday:Hope Mirrlees: "Lud in the Mist"

My copy of Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, sits on my dressing table. I can’t bear to put it away, but every time I see it fills me with envy for others who will embark on that journey, one that I can never take again.

And what a journey it was.

Written in the 1920s, 30 years or so before Tolkien transformed speculative fiction with Lord of the Rings, and rarely in print since, Lud-in-the-Mist is a fantasy written before fantasy became a genre. To give you an idea of its pedigree, it has blurbs written by both Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman, one attesting to the quality of the language, and one to the depth of imagination involved.

Genre-wise, Lud-in-the-Mist hops between fantasy, mystery, political drama and social drama. In today’s publishing world, this sort of thing would be edited out before publishing, and made to fit in one clean category.

The book is remarkable for its post-modern elements, especially in the characterization. Nathan Chanticleer is Our Hero, to use the phrase quite loosely. The fact that he’s laughable, boorish, and largely unlikeable elevates the plot from being about ‘a hero doing heroic things’ into the more realistic ‘man with neither wit nor charm nor strength nor magic is fighting for his family, and really makes quite a hash of it.’

All the characters are treading the soft line between dark and light; you can never be quite sure of your own footing within this treacherous world of music and madness. And that’s where the book really succeeds. Atmosphere. The beauty of not being an all-out fantasy. Very little of the book is set in the realm of the fairies, most of it is firmly set in a familiar Northern English town, where strangeness and uncertainty invade slowly and then more forcefully.

Lud-in-the-Mist is that extremely rare find, a highly literate novel, witty and warm, full of social commentary on educational practices for young women at the time, and the pedantic, back-biting nature of small-town politics. It reflects some of the common courtroom practices of the time, never sacrificing on language or imagery. It also happens to include magical fairies.

But when you feel a need to chase your Tesco-value copy of Dan Brown with something a bit more top-shelf, reach for Lud-in-the-Mist.

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