Siren song

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
Introduction by Neil Gaiman 2000
Gollancz 2018 (1926)

“… there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.” — Endymion Leer

Something is, if not quite rotten, then unsettling in the state of Dorimare, a sleepy and somewhat smug country centred on its main town, Lud-in-the-Mist. Its principal citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is to all intents and purposes a paragon of conformity, adhering to the letter of the law and to centuries-old traditions, but deep down he fears he is not what he tries to be: he worries he may be an outsider, his concerns arising from the fact that he has heard … the Note.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Note that haunts Nathaniel — which manifests itself as an awareness of something beyond his prosaic, mundane existence — is somehow connected with a nobleman ousted some centuries before and with smuggled goods known (but never referred to) as fairy fruit. Whether he wants to or not the good man will find himself drawn into a situation that will threaten both edifice and foundations of a way of life the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist — Ludites all — take for granted.

This novel, despite clearly being a fantasy, crosses quite a few other genres while yet feeling one of a kind. Is it a philosophical meditation or a detective story? Is it about the conflict of civic duty and personal honour or about family life versus personal quests? Is justice about vengeance and retribution or about readjusting balance? As a novel does it retain a core of realism or is it veering towards a self-indulgent idyll? It is a bit of all these things and yet Lud-in-the Mist is not heavy: there are comic touches aplenty in amongst the satire, smiles amidst the malice, love in the face of broken friendships.

Nathaniel’s world is turned upside down when he starts to recognise that his 12-year-old son Ranulph is displaying symptoms of being worryingly unconventional, possibly from having been fed fairy fruit. The rather suspect doctor Endymion Leer, whom Nathaniel doesn’t trust, advises sending Ranulph off to a farm to the west, not far from the Elfin Marches, where he may recuperate; reluctantly Nathaniel agrees.

But then an unexpected calamity befalls the students of Miss Primrose Crabapple’s academy for young ladies, and Nathaniel finds himself persona non grata for daring to suggest the unthinkable: that Fairyland under its fabled ruler Duke Aubrey is surreptitiously inveigling its way into Dorimare’s sensibly ordered life. Only he — Mayor, High Seneschal, ex-officio president of the Senate and Chief Justice — feels the need to investigate the truth of what underlies social unrest in the country, and the path to that truth turns out more convoluted than he expected.

I cannot overemphasise how utterly delightful this novel is. Like much of the best fiction the forward impulse of its narrative is enriched and embellished by a myriad of details. Words are a delight: many of the women bear flowery or fruity names (Marigold, Prunella, Hazel, Hyacinth and Jessamine, for example) while the inhabitants’ surnames are a riot of ingenuity: Pyepowders, Baldbreeches, Pugwalker and Gibberty, for starters. Mirrlees quietly displays her erudition (for those that recognise it) with the names of Polydore Vigil and young Ranulph, both inspired by the medieval chroniclers Virgil and Higden; while Endymion Leer’s apparently nonsensical but soothing songs may owe not a little to Edward Lear’s verse as much as to traditional rhymes. And a key figure in the story will be the character Portunus who, as classical scholars will know, is not only related to our word opportunity but was anciently the Roman god of … keys.

It is the lore-and-lure of Fairie which is the substratum that continually threatens to burst through to the surface of the narrative. The groom who tempts Ranulph with fairy fruit is called Willy Wisp; Nathaniel finds peace in the burial ground known as the Fields of Grammary at the highest point of Lud, and it is this locus — as the name suggests — that proves to be an unexpected interface between Dorimare and Fairyland. Meanwhile we can’t help noticing that the hunchbacked Duke Aubrey of legend is a Punch-like figure, what with his distinctive cock’s crow and cockscomb strut; and we naturally wonder what relationship he has to Master Chanticleer whose family name comes from the cockerel in the medieval tales of Reynard the Fox.

The strand that ties all together is music. An opening quote about siren songs from Mirrlees’ long-time friend Jane Ellen Harrison plants that idea in our minds. Then it is Master Chanticleer (whose name derives from the French chante and clair and who’s deeply disturbed when first hears the Note) who makes the near-homophone connection between ‘malady’ and ‘melody’. Subsequently it’s the music of Willy Wisp and Portunus which affects Miss Crabapple’s young ladies in exactly the same way it did the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the German fairytale.

And is it a complete coincidence that Dorimare itself is reminiscent of the notes do-re-mi? Indeed, in Chapter Four Endymion Leer declares, “Though we laugh at old songs and old yarns, nevertheless, they are the yarn with which we weave our picture of the world.” For poor Nathaniel the Note:

aroused in his breast an agonizing tumult of remorse for having allowed something to escape that he would never, never recapture. It was as if he had left his beloved with harsh words, and had returned to find her dead.

There is so much one could add about how thoroughly intoxicating this novel is. Characters loom large and live in these pages, from Dame Marigold who becomes the rock on whom Nathaniel depends, to brave Hazel Gibberty who proves to be as pivotal as any of the main protagonists. The usually stolid Ambrose Honeysuckle is solid and dependable when the crunch comes despite his perpetual doubts; and the villains of the piece aren’t always as villainous as you might expect them to be, leaving you to guess whether they will ever get their just deserts.

Finally, with a story arc that runs from midsummer to October’s end Mirrlees can be as beautifully lyrical about nature as, say, Kenneth Graham was in the chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in The Wind in the Willows (1908) or E Nesbit in The Enchanted Castle (1907), as this passage from Chapter Twenty describing sunrise partly suggests:

It was as if the earth had been translated to the sky, and they had been left behind in chaos, and were gazing up at its towns and beasts and heroes flattened out into constellations and looking like the stippled pictures in a Neolithic cave.

With its bittersweet nostalgia perhaps a reaction to the horrors of the recent War to End All Wars, Lud-in-the-Mist is all that its reputation promised. Despite its vaguely Georgian ambience and strong bourgeois setting (in a town a little reminiscent, to me, of Rye in East Sussex) the novel feels like a plea to throw off stuffiness and accept the unconventional into our lives in the form of a distinct feyness, before death claims us. Hope Mirrlees herself was “an exquisite apparition” (as Virginia Woolf, who published her work, described her) and, according to Michael Swanwick, “must have seemed like the heroine of her own fairy tale.” If so, then Lud-in-the-Mist is a fitting memorial to an otherworldly imagination.

Sketchmap of the principal features of Dorimare (not to scale)

Was Mirrlees familiar with Rye? This former seaport, now a few miles from the sea, is on a natural eminence and surrounded by rivers. Like Lud it has a border to the east (Kent, in Rye’s case) and hills to the North and East (comparable perhaps to the North Downs and the South Downs).

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)
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37 thoughts on “Siren song

    1. Mirrlees really creates a credible microcosm, albeit a miniscule version of an early modern England! Glad you liked the maps, Jane, only a suggestion of course. 🙂

  1. I love this novel and your review of it is really excellent and has made me want to reread it yet again.

    Yet I have always felt (whisper it) that the structure is a bit imbalanced – I’m thinking of the whodunnit element which has always struck me as rather awkwardly worked in. I’d like to be convinced otherwise though.

    1. I know what you mean, Helen, in that the novel at times seem to be like the fur coat in the Grimm fairytale ‘Allerleirauh’ (“Many-pelts”) with so many aspects vying for attention. On the other hand, if we were to remove the detective story strand I think it would severely weaken the impact of the narrative, like forgetting a component in the framework of a tent.

      Better to ask why Mirrlees included it: maybe it was to give added motivation to Nathaniel by calling on his expertise as well as justifying his pursuit of Leer. Or maybe it was to accentuate that feyness needs to be balanced with a bit of logic. I’m just guessing of course: maybe a reread would make it clearer to me!

      1. That is indeed a better question and I like your ideas. It just felt a little less well integrated than the rest of the novel. But perhaps I should reread it again? it is in any case a very minor carp. I feel a bit embarrassed for having brought it up. 🙂

        1. No need to be embarrassed, Helen, it’s a valid point and I don’t think you’re the first to air it. I intend to read it again some time so it would interesting to gauge that balance with the benefit of hindsight!

  2. piotrek

    It really is,a one-of-a-kind, delightful novel. I’ve read it a few years ago as a part of my ‘read the classic!’ quest,and I was very happy I did. I really felt the mystery and the atmosphere, Mirrlees did a great job!

    1. If it’s the sickly sweet cover I’ve seen online then be reassured, the illustration was done by someone who’s never read the book but was told it was about Fairyland. There are NO castles with turrets or teeny flying creatures with gauzy wings like this: 🧚‍♂️

    2. On the other hand, if it’s the flowery symmetric design of the edition I’ve got (with, yes, fairy silhouettes in the corner) don’t be put off: it’s what’s inside that counts… 😊

        1. Ooh, that’s pretty bad. But I think the cover of the 2005 edition by Cold Spring Press which I first saw on Goodreads was the singularly worst one I’ve seen, artistically as well as in terms of relevance… I dare you to admire it! 😁

  3. Correction. I’ve listened to a couple of his books for children with my girls, and we liked them a lot. I need to get to one of his adult novels.

    1. Another correction! (I got confused, Neil Gaiman wrote the intro. It didn’t sound as a book by him. I like that cross of genres you mention.

      1. Sorry, I sometimes don’t make it easy to work out who wrote what! I can heartily recommend this, Silvia, very literary but very readable.

        As for Gaiman, you can see the influence of this book in his Stardust (also a film). Adult books? I can suggest Neverwhere; I enjoyed American Gods but it’s not for some who might be of a more prudish disposition, and I’m not always taken with the seemingly gratuitous sex he sometimes includes elsewhere. His kids stuff is great though.

        1. I got it for my Kindle already! I read a bit and LOVE IT. We are going camping and it’s going to be my book. I also love to have it on Kindle, I am using the built in dictionary. It’s one of those books rich in language. Thanks for your recommendations, they always enhance my reading.

          1. You’re welcome, Silvia! I like your bookish discussions too—I’m still digesting the mammoth selection of books you’ve finished since the summer, and hope to get round to commenting sometime. Not just now though, time for some shut-eye!

            1. Good night, Chris, and no obligation, I just thank you very much for being so generous and stopping by to like my posts and to discuss books and life!

        2. Thanks for the tips on Neverwhere and American Gods. I have a better idea of what I may like thanks to your succinct explanation. He is a story teller extrordineur, we love how he narrates his books, and his rendition of the Jabberwocky.

  4. Pingback: Thanksgiving with a Mediterranean Flair – Silvia Cachia

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