Tue 24 Jan 2006
EDITOR’S NOTE: As promised, here is the first post syndicated from Catherynne M. Valente’s writing blog, Goblin Market. If you’re not familiar with Cat or her work, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I urge you to visit her website and cool your heels a while. It’s well worth becoming acquainted with — and not coincidentally, so is she.
A little while back I spirited a copy of Lud-in-the-Mist away from a friend’s bookshelf, curiosity piqued by that by now very old meme about Neil Gaiman referring to it in his blurb for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had no idea what to expect, beyond knowing some vague trivia about Ms. Mirrlees herself and that it was, assumedly, somehow quintessentially British, since Gaiman had disqualified The Lord of the Rings (there’s no real reason for me to link to that, is there?) as the “finest English novel of the fantastic” until Jonathan Strange, as it was not, strictly speaking, an English novel about England. Or something.
All that meta-commentary aside, Lud is, in short, an extraordinary book. If Lord of the Rings is the big, bombastic Grandfather of modern fantasy, Lud is obviously the quiet, unassuming Grandma who showed everyone how to grow wild mint out back and jitterbug in the kitchen. In fact, given that Mirrlees published in 1926, some time before Dr. T’s opus, I would not be at all surprised if the Shire was full of Granny Hope’s patented mint.
It is, however, one of the most deeply strange and alien books I have ever read, and what’s more, it sucker-punches the reader with that Otherness right at the end, after a long, meandering narrative, that, much like the river Dapple, turns and wanders around the land of Lud without much hurry at all. The tidy, measured style is not at all dated, and the descriptions of the turn of the seasons, village life, and the flora and fauna of everyday are truly transcendant–even leaving aside the unsettling and eerie landscape of Fairyland itself. But for me, the novel, while charming, would have been a failure without its disturbing and marvelous conclusion.
The story is simple: Nathaniel Chaunticleer (one of dozens of wonderful names that hover just this side of twee, but manage, most of the time, to sidestep it) is the Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist. He has a son and a daughter and a host of responsibilities, not the least of which is keeping the dreaded “fairy fruit” out of the wholesome hands of Luddites. Fairy fruit is most easily allegorized as an opiate drug–its consumers wander in a daze, eventually absconding to Fairyland under its spell. Chaunticleer’s young son is tricked into eating the stuff, and is sent to the countryside to recover. In his absence, an entire school-ful of young girls vanishes off to parts unknown, including the other Chaunticleer child. Papa Nathaniel sets out to recover his lost chicks, along the way being deposed from power, uncovering a decades-cold murder case, and venturing into Fairyland itself.
For the sake of spoilers I don’t want to directly discuss the ending. But throughout the book I kept thinking: “This is wonderful, and so very Shire-like, and the writing is gorgeous, but the stakes just aren’t very high.” It would be as if The Fellowship of the Ring were the story of Tom Bombadil poking at bats in the Old Forest. Charming, but hardly what one has been conditioned to expect in high fantasy, where the stakes are usually volcanic, and drawn in very clear shades of black and white.
This ending, however, makes the stakes irrelevant. It is the ultimate literary expression of unification with the Other, of synthesis with the unrecognizable. The rather simple notion of fairy fruit as drug metaphor is exploded, and the fruit becomes the stuff of Rossetti: an all-in-one symbol of sexuality, mysticism, art, passion, political unrest, and altered, even exalted, consciousness. I cannot think of another fantasy novel in which the unreconcilable Other is brought into the Self, embraced, called brother and friend, and the whole unified body politic shrugs and lives happily ever after.
Frankly, at this particular monomaniacal moment in history, it is a revolutionary suggestion. It can have been no less so in 1926.
As far as I’m concerned, Lud-in-the-Mist is a Master’s Class in fantasy writing, and should (and clearly has been) be required reading for anyone aiming their arrows at that august genre.
May I also point out that it took me a half hour of discussion to learn how to do this footnote thingy? Thus proving that I am, in fact, a classics major, and in possession of no marketable skills whatsoever.
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