Lud-in-the-Mist: Unconventional and terribly lovely

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Hope Mirlees Lud-in-the-MistLud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

I find myself in something of an awkward position with Lud-in-the-Mist, which is in part why it’s difficult to review. The fact of the matter is that while Lud-in-the-Mist is unequivocally an excellent novel, it is not always an enjoyable novel, and there is a large population of readers out there who may find it close to nauseating.

Lud-in-the-Mist is Hope Mirrlees’s only fantasy novel, and indeed the only one of her three novels for which she is remembered (and that, for the most part in recent years, because Neil Gaiman has put in a good word or two for the book). To say that the text is unconcerned with market appeal is a vast understatement. This is a dense, often beautiful, just as often frustrating book rife with so many literary and mythological allusions that the mind fairly boggles.

The protagonist, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is the mayor of Lud, a town that takes pride in its absolute normalcy and, thus, security. The prosaic is lionized above else, and the romantic looked upon with suspicion, even to the point of excising certain types of music. The inhabitants of Lud do not believe in the sublime, and in a way they have good reason. Faerie lies so near that fruit from the enchanted land is commonly smuggled into the staid and provincial Lud, causing all varieties of trouble. What Chanticleer is forced to realize over the course of the novel is that, for all his efforts, there may be no way to keep the power of Faerie, in its incarnations as both breathless allure and very real menace, beyond the borders.

As is likely evident already, this is a highly symbolic novel. The dichotomy between Lud and the influence of Faerie is fascinating, as are the moments of contention between the two. Chanticleer is deathly afraid of what he calls “The Note,” a single note from a disused musical instrument he found in the attic. On one level, this is merely the fear of the unknown. On another, it is the fear of the greatest unknown, death. Faerie, then, may represent death, but as the Doctor of Lud, Endymion Leer, reminds us, what is life without a touch of death to make it meaningful?

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope MirrleesLet me be frank: I loved this book. I adored it. It is unquestionably one of the best Faerie tales I have ever encountered. Mirrlees’s prose is superb, her symbolism poignant, her imagery gorgeously realized. One can only marvel at the mind that came up with some of her turns of phrase, placing a word just so to evoke the perfect sensation, and that is the true hallmark of the faerie story if nothing else — the sensual.

I have said that the book may be divisive and I meant it. This is a difficult book to get into and follow through to the end. There are extended periods of rather dry explanations that may turn some readers away, and it is frequently difficult to tell which way the plot is going, or even if there is a plot beneath it all. Mirrlees’s evident reluctance to allow simple answers keeps the reader from even being positively sure that Chanticleer is the hero for much of the time, or whether the audience is meant to be rooting for Lud or Faerie; at diverse points in the text, it could go either way, or neither.

, then, is often a confusing little book, but ultimately rewarding. You will never read anything quite like this again, and in this way, the novel itself becomes rather like the lurking Faerie outside Lud: it is thoroughly unconventional, but in that unconventionality, it is terribly lovely.

~Tim Scheidler

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrleesfantasy book reviews Hope Mirlees Lud-in-the-MistReading this book is like finding buried treasure; a perfect gemstone hidden where you least expect it. Some years ago it was a list of must-read fantasy classics that recommended Lud-in-the-Mist to me, but on attempting to track it down in the local library catalogue, I found it had been out of print for a long time.

Now, after being championed by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Michael Swanwick, Hope Mirrlees‘s captivating story has been reprinted, described perfectly by Gaiman as: “the single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century … a little golden miracle of a book.”

Lud-in-the-Mist is a prosperous and pastoral township situated at the fork of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. Its people are staid and reliable, collectively keeping in check any flights of fancy that might attract the attention (or even invoke the memory) of what lies to the west across the Debatable Hills: Fairyland.

Now this is not the Fairyland of Enid Blyton or Cicely Mary Barker; but the darker, older Fairyland of Christina Rossetti or the Brothers Grimm. To eat fairy fruit is to lose your sanity, to hear fairy music is to lose your soul, and to cross the Debatable Hills to the Elfin Marches means you’ll never be seen again. It’s no wonder the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist adhere so closely to their laws and propriety.

But then strange things start happening throughout Lud-in-the-Mist; unexplainable things. Most are eager to rationalize the strange behaviour in their children and the odd occurrences across the town, but Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer has always felt an uneasy affinity with Fairyland, and becomes more and more convinced that the distribution of fairy fruit is to blame.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope MirrleesNot your typical hero, Nathaniel is fusty and worrisome — but when his own son seems stricken by the madness that comes with eating fairy fruit, he puts aside decorum and tradition in order to find a solution.

Mirrlees writes beautifully, filling Lud-in-the-Mist not only with descriptive passages of the countryside and its splendour, but also strange and eerie insights regarding the effect of Fairyland on ordinary people. She never spells out exactly what’s happening, instead carefully parsing out the clues of the nefarious plot that’s taking place in Lud and allowing the reader to piece things together themselves.

Originally published in 1926, you can clearly see how much Lud-in-the-Mist has inspired other fantasy writers: I can see a lot of Gaiman’s Stardust in this book, and plenty of Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as well. There’s even a little Tolkien and C.S. Lewis here and there.

Lud-in-the-Mist was one of the most satisfying fairy tale-based fantasies I’ve read in a long time. No modern deconstructions or subversions, just Faerie in all its dangerous and beguiling beauty, as ancient and new as it’s ever been. Mirrlees’s work is tragically underappreciated, so if you’re a fan of fairy tales — don’t let this slip through your fingers.

~Rebecca Fisher

Lud-in-the-Mist — (1926) Publisher: This was one of the most well-loved fantasy novels of its day. This is the story of Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, a respectable burgher who learns that his young son has eaten forbidden faery fruit. Lud-in-the-Mist, of the title, is a quasi-medieval town, governed by Master Nathaniel Chanticleer. The town is of the very sensible sort, but being bordered on the west by Fairyland and the Debatable Hills, there are problems in the trafficking of illegal fairy fruit, which Nathaniel’s young son eats. The real story underneath concerns the place of fantasy and the imagination in real life, and in the end there is a fine reconciliation of the two. There are swirling subplots as well, which add layers of mystery to an extraordinarily enchanting tale.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  1. Based on the plot as outlined by Tim, I can also see why Neil Gaiman is so enthusiastic about it — it sounds like it may have helped inspire Wall in Stardust.

  2. This was a charming book.

  3. While I know this isn’t a book that I would have an interest in, I have to state Tim’s review is awesome.
    “Terribly lovely” immediately caught my eye. Also, if I had read Lud-in-the-Mist but didn’t like it; this review would give me an complete understanding of why its a classic and why other readers like it. That’s a quality I always look for in a review.

  4. I agree, Greg. I thought the same thing. It’s also a good warning to read the book when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. Tim’s review reminded me of how I felt about Catherynne M. Valente’s recent Prester John series. It’s magnificent in a similar way and I would definitely not recommend it to everyone. In fact, I was thinking specifically that you would not like it!

  5. Kat- I read your review of The Folded World and you’re right, not for me. But that reminds me of comment I meant to post for it. I’ll do that right now. :)

  6. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of this classic until reading Tim and Rebecca’s reviews, but it does sound truly lovely, and I’ve added it to my TBR. Thank you both!

  7. Gerwyn /

    I wonder why nobody’s ever tried to film Lud-in-the-Mist. It would be a lot easier than anything by Tolkien, and it’s just begging for Timothy Spall to play Nathaniel Chanticleer (I’m still pondering Endymion Leer).

    I met Willy Wisp once; he was on the reception desk in a hotel in Riva del Garda. He was a skinny, deathly pale youth with long auburn locks, squashed into a sombre black suit, of the kind that the real Willy Wisp wore when he was prenticed to Ebeneezor Prim.

  8. Paul Connelly /

    This is a hard book to like. The characters are difficult to warm up to and seem to go out of their way to be unpleasant if not outright cruel. Nathaniel eventually gets to become more heroic toward the latter part of the tale, but he and Marigold act like unfeeling and uninvolved parents to their children for most of the first half. Luke and Hazel are really the only likable characters, the only ones who seem to feel any responsibility and compassion toward others. Why anyone is nostalgic for the Duke who made a habit of forcing himself sexually on young brides and driving people to suicide (or murder) is a total puzzle.

    There’s an echo of Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter in this, and Lud-in-the-Mist shares some of the entrancing descriptions of that story, but it makes the humans and the faeries more actively unsympathetic. In both books the human society more or less gets its comeuppance at the end, but with a gentler irony in Dunsany. I didn’t try to unpack all the symbolism in Lud-in-the-Mist, of which there is obviously more than a little, but if you enjoy untangling the author’s intentions in that vein, this might be a rewarding read just on that basis. To me the virtues of the story were overcome by its frustrating aspects.

    • Gerwyn /

      What, you couldn’t even like Willy Wisp?

      • Paul Connelly /

        At the risk of dating myself, Willy came across like the kind of minor villain you would see on a bad (i.e., typical) Mod Squad episode, pushing meth or STP on the little schoolgirls so they could, like, free their minds, throw off their uptight middle class values, run away from home, live on the street, be cool people, etc. Except verbally, he stuck to channeling Santa Claus.

  9. I first read Lud in 1970, when I found the Ballantine edition in my university bookstore, and I have adored it and sung its praises ever since. It is slow, yes, but worth the effort, and is a fantasy experience totally different from the Tolkienian rut most modern fantasies are stuck in. Throw off your chains and enjoy, dear reader!


  1. The Great Bookshelf Tour: Fourth Stop - […] on we have another ancient tome called Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1926. It was recommended by…

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