One of Lin Carter’s greatest achievements as editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, in my opinion, was rescuing Lud-in-the-Mist from obscurity. The third and final novel by Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist was her only fantasy. After this book was published, she stopped writing. More on that later.
Carter tells the story in his introduction that he had never heard of the book when a friend recommended it to him. The friend had a copy, which he loaned to Carter. Carter was immediately impressed and wanted to include Lud-in-the-Mist in the BAF series. At the time, Carter says, he didn’t know if Ms. Mirrlees was even still alive. (She died in 1978.) It’s questionable how much effort he put into locating her, since by that time the book was in the public domain.
The story takes place in a country based on both England and the Low Countries. Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of the small country of Dorimare. It is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dawl is the largest river in Dorimare. The Dapple, on the other hand, has its source beyond the Debatable Hills in the land of Fairy.
Until 200 hundred years ago, relations between Dorimare and Fairy were good. Then, during the reign of Duke Aubrey, the merchants rose up and overthrew him. Aubrey wasn’t the best of people. He had a bet going with another man that they could drive the court jester to suicide. (They were successful.) But he wasn’t all bad, either. He was also known for acts of extreme generosity.
Since the time of the revolution, all traffic with the inhabitants of Fairy is forbidden. Indeed, even mentioning fairy fruit is illegal. According to the Law, it doesn’t exist, despite the fact that it was consumed with regularity before Duke Aubrey’s overthrow.
The novel concerns Master Nathaniel Chanticleer. He’s the Mayor. When he was a boy, he found an old harp in the attic. Upon plucking a string, he heard a Note that he’s never heard since.
Chanticleer isn’t your typical fantasy hero. He’s older, overweight, has marriage problems, and is something of a distant father to his son and daughter. He’s part of the upper classes, who are all vain, pompous, and somewhat foolish.
In fact, there are no typical heroes, and depending on how exactly you define “hero,” you could argue that there really aren’t any heroes in the book, even though some of the characters perform heroic acts. There are a couple of villains, but for the most part, even their motives are understandable.
Things get rolling when Nathaniel’s son Ranulph is given some fairy fruit by a hired hand, who then disappears before he even gets paid. The worried parents call in Dr. Endymion Leer. He’s got the largest practice in town, although it’s mostly confined to the lower classes of society. His treatment seems to be the only thing that helps Ranulph’s condition. He suggests that Ranulph spend some time in the country on a farm, and he has just the farm in mind, one owned by the Widow Gibberty.
But Leer has secrets and an agenda of his own…
Nathaniel thinks that everything is fine, but he soon learns otherwise. The daughters of the merchant class attend Miss Primrose Crabapple’s Academy for Young Ladies (and are called by everyone the Crabapple Blossoms). One day, a new dance instructor shows up and plays for them some wild tunes on the fiddle. In no time at all, the Crabapple Blossoms are hot-footing it for the Debatable Hills.
During the ensuing crisis, Endymion Leer manages…well, I’ll let you read the book yourself. I recommend this one highly.
Lud-in-the-Mist was written before fantasy had become a well-defined genre. As a result, the story doesn’t do some of the obvious things a modern reader would expect. As I mentioned, there are no heroes in the mold of today’s rugged warriors.
Instead we have a novel written from a literary perspective, with info dumps and background and detailed descriptions of the characters’ inner lives and family histories that you usually don’t see in pure genre writing. It’s a testament of Ms. Mirrlees’s skill that these passages are as engaging as the rest of the novel.
Much of Lud-in-the-Mist can be read as social satire, albeit gentle satire. Mirrlees seems to have a fondness for almost all her characters, in spite of the flaws with which she imbues them. The only real exception I can think of is the Widow Gibberty, who has no redeeming characteristics at all. Many of the characters do vile things from the best of motives. No one is presented as without flaws. But other than the Widow, they are all presented with sympathy.
The whole theme of the story concerns the need for the fantastic in the mundane. By forbidding contact with Fairy, the merchants of Lud-in-the-Mist have created a totally mundane society, what in contemporary terms would be called a secular society, as the priests all leave when Duke Aubrey is overthrown. The society in Dorimare is presented as one that is bleak and dull. The arts are not central to daily life, and other than music, there doesn’t appear to be much social support for anything involving creativity. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the inhabitiants of Lud-in-the-Mist are called Luddites.
Ms. Mirrlees makes the argument that separating the fantastic from the mundane is harmful to society, that both are necessary. I suspect this is an argument most of you can support.
I mentioned earlier that Lud-in-the-Mist was the final novel Mirrlees wrote. After the death of her mentor and friend Jane Harrison, Mirrlees ceased writing. Both her father and grandfather were industrialists, so Mirrlees didn’t need to write for money.
It’s too bad she didn’t write more fantasy. Although well-received, her first two novels, which weren’t fantasy, are totally forgotten today. If Mirlees had continued to write fantasy, she could very easily have become one of the major authors in the field.
From what I’ve been able to determine, the BAF edition is the first edition of Lud-in-the-Mist published after two editions in the 1920s. Today multiple editions, both in print and electronic formats, are available.
Michael Swanwick has written a biography of Hope Mirrlees which appears to be out of print, Hope-in-the-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees. It’s one I’m going to keep an eye out for.
I’m not sure what I’m going to read next. After Lud-in-the-Mist are three titles by authors we’ve looked at before, namely Dunsany, MacDonald, and Lovecraft. I may skip to the first Clark Ashton Smith title, Zothique, or I may read something else entirely from later in the series. If anyone has any requests, let me know. No promises, but I’ll certainly take any suggestions under consideration.
Recent posts in this series are:
Lin Carter and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series
Lilith by George MacDonald
The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell
The Sorcerer’s Ship by Hannes Bok
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz
Land of Unreason by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp
The Doom that Came to Sarnath by H. P. Lovecraft
The Spawn of Cthulhu edited by Lin Carter
Keith West blogs way more than any sane person should. His main blog is Adventures Fantastic, which focuses on fantasy and historic fiction.