Reviewed by Michael Dirda

The psychologist C. J. Jung maintained that the true purpose of middle age was the integration of all the varying, and sometimes unacknowledged, aspects of our personalities. Perhaps this accounts for the unusual protagonist of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1925), one of the most admired fantasy novels of the 20th century — and one that is clearly intended for adults. Mirrlees’s book explores the need to embrace what we fear, to come to terms with what Jung called the shadow, those sweet and dark impulses that our public selves ignore or repress. There are no elven blades or cursed rings here; no epic battles either, and the novel’s hero resembles the aged Bilbo Baggins more than the charismatic, sword-wielding Aragorn.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is, in fact, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, the chief port and capital of pre-industrial Dorimare. He is a somewhat dreamy, slightly melancholy 50-year-old businessman who might nonetheless pass for one of those plump Dutch burghers in a 17th-century painting. He enjoys his gin, his imported cheese, his evening pipe, and his position in society. Indeed, the city of Lud-in-the-Mist is distinctly stolid and unimaginative; its motto might be “Live well and obey the law.” Such bourgeois complacency is so pervasive that it even dulls normal marital and parental affection: for instance, nobody does much of anything when all the young ladies of Miss Primrose Crabapple’s Academy simply disappear into Fairyland.

Fairyland? Not far from Lud lie the Debatable Hills, and beyond these dwell the Silent People, governed by the amoral and madcap Duke Aubrey. Adapting a widespread Celtic belief, Mirrlees actually conceives of this Otherworld as the realm of the dead. Of course, the successful merchant class of Lud would rather think about good dinners than about death. So it’s hardly surprising that when the novel opens “there had…been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.” Even to refer to Fairyland or, worse yet, its fairy fruit reflects ill-breeding and incipient depravity. That wasn’t always the case:

In the days of the Dukes, fairy things had been looked on with reverence and the most solemn event of the religious year had been the annual arrival from Fairyland of mysterious, hooded strangers with milk-white mares, laden with offerings of fairy fruit…. But after the revolution, when the merchants had seized all the legislative and administrative power, a taboo was placed upon all things fairy.
This was not to be wondered at. For one thing, the new rulers considered that the eating of fairy fruit had been the chief cause of the degeneracy of the Dukes. It had, indeed, always been connected with poetry and visions, which, springing as they do from an ever-present sense of mortality, might easily appear morbid to the sturdy common-sense of a burgher-class in the making. There was certainly nothing morbid about the men of the revolution, and under their regime what one can only call the tragic sense of life vanished from poetry and art.”

In due time, the eating of fairy fruit came to be regarded as the most obscene and degenerative of practices — and yet somehow the noxious stuff kept being smuggled into Lud. The desire for the forbidden fruit was like a drug addiction, like a secret sexual vice. After all, the effects sometimes included “madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon.” Nonetheless, the more people ate “the more they wanted, and though they admitted that the fruit produced an agony of mind, they maintained that for one who had experienced this agony life would cease to be life without it.”

Despite the streak of wistfulness and vague yearning in his own makeup, Mayor Chanticleer staunchly believes in his society and its rule by law. But one day he learns the inconceivable: his 12-year-old son, Ranulph, confesses to having tasted some fairy fruit. How? When? A red-haired servant named Willy Wisp — who has long since disappeared — gave it to him, and ever since the boy has been prey to strange ecstasies and violent outcries. The troubled Chanticleer consequently engages the mysterious and unorthodox doctor Endymion Leer to cure his son. Leer suggests that some wholesome country air would do the boy a world of good and so sends Ranulph to the farm of the Widow Gibberty. There the boy and his servant, Luke, encounter the mysterious Portunus, who speaks in broken phrases and what sound like riddles and is said to eat frogs that he has toasted in the fire.

Readers familiar with folklore — or in possession of Katherine Briggs’s classic Encyclopedia of Fairies — will recognize that the name Portunes belongs to a class of rather friendly agricultural hobs or brownies. But Mirrlees’s Portunus is distinctly unnerving, especially to the Widow Gibberty. Which would take some doing, as the Widow is herself fiercely witch-like, with a shadowy past. (Did she do away with her late husband?)

As the novel proceeds, our sense deepens that things are out of joint in Lud. The illicit traffic in fruit from Fairyland seems to be escalating, people begin to glimpse Duke Aubrey out of the corner of their eye, the red-haired Willy Wisp reappears. Even much used phrases like “By the Sun and Moon and Stars and the Golden Apples of the West” start to take on ominous connotations, as does a certain mocking laugh: “Ho, ho, hoh!”. In particular, the old nursery song “Columbine” begins to sound “strange, and very terrifying”:

Any lass for a Duke, a Duke who wears green
In lands where the sun and the moon do not shine,
With lily, germander, and sops in wine.
With sweet-brier,
And bon-fire
And strawberry-wire
And columbine.

To tell more of the plot of Lud-in-the-Mist would diminish the reader’s pleasure in Mirrlees’s wonderful book. Suffice it to say that before its final pages, Chanticleer must not only turn detective to solve an ancient murder but also boldly go where no living man has gone before — to Fairyland. He must literally make a leap of faith.

“Fantasy,” Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul.” Certainly, that is the case here, as Mirrlees’s novel draws on English folklore traditions, Christina Rossetti’s lusciously sensuous poem, “Goblin Market” — a poem about the voluptuous abandon that follows upon eating fairy fruit — and some of the researches into primitive belief (such as the necessary interlacing of what Nietzsche called the Apollonian and Dionysiac) explored by Mirrlees’s teacher and partner, the celebrated anthropologist Jane Harrison.

As such, books like Lud-in-the-Mist are anything but cutesy or twee. None of the characters is wholly good or bad; all of them possess qualities we sometimes admire, sometimes deplore. They may be bumbling and their self-importance comic (like their names: Ambrose Honeysuckle, Penstemmon Fliperarde), but their story is a serious one, nothing less than what late antiquity called a psychomachia — a battle within the soul. Mirrlees’s style is consequently just slightly formal, almost noble at times, though she never abandons a subtly dry humor. An old, and suppressed, historical study once hinted that the citizens of Lud carry a strain of Fairyland in their blood:

The anonymous antiquary could have found in the culinary language of Dorimare another example to support his thesis; for the menu of the supper provided by Dame Marigold for her guests sounded like a series of tragic sonnets. The first dish was called The Bitter-Sweet Mystery — it was a soup of herbs on the successful blending of which the cooks of Lud-in-the-Mist based their reputation. This was followed by The Lottery of Dreams, which consisted of such delicacies as quail, snails, chicken’s liver, plover’s eggs, peacock’s hearts, concealed under a mountain of boiled rice. Then came True-Love-in-Ashes, a special way of preparing pigeons; and last, Death’s Violets an extremely indigestible pudding decorated with sugared violets.

Note that these various dishes are often made from prosaic ingredients (boiled rice, indigestible pudding) but their names are redolent of romance. Apparent dualities, secret complementaries, elusive unities — these are recurrent motifs in Lud-in-the-Mist. Endymion Leer, addressing a courtroom, underscores that humankind can never quite attain the inner peace, the serene harmony of a tree (trees play an important role in the novel):

“My friends, you are outcasts, though you do not know it, and you have forfeited your place on earth. For there are two races — trees and man; and of each there is a different dispensation. Trees are silent, motionless, serene. They live and die, but do not know the taste of either life or death; to them a secret has been entrusted but not revealed.

“But the other tribe — the passionate, tragic, rootless tree — man? Alas! He is a creature whose highest privileges are a curse. In his mouth is ever the bitter-sweet taste of life and death, unknown to trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell. For every man worthy of the name is an initiate; but each one into different Mysteries. And some walk among their fellows with the pitying, slightly scornful smile of an adept among catechumens. And some are confiding and garrulous, and would so willingly communicate their own unique secret — in vain! For though they shout it in the market-place or whisper it in music and poetry, what they say is never the same as what they know, and they are like ghosts, charged with a message of tremendous import who can only trail their chains and gibber.”

Near the end of the novel, Nathaniel Chanticleer is permitted a chilling glimpse of eternity’s terror and bathos. And what is it? Nothing but an endless ride on a worn-out carousel: “Round and round whirled the tarnished horses and chariots with their one pathetic rider; round and round trudged the pony — the little dusty, prosaic pony.”

Besides being a wonderful novel in itself, Lud-in-the-Mist has been an important influence on such contemporary writers as Neil Gaiman and Michael Swanwick (both of whom have written appreciations of Mirrlees and her work), Joanna Russ (in “The Zanzibar Cat”), and Susannah Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). Like so many fantasies, Mirrlees’s book is at heart an exploration of humankind’s pervasive sense of rift, the unshakeable feeling that Things Aren’t as They Should Be. The world, our manner of life, or even the fundamental nature of the universe is somehow…wrong. Using both whimsy and mystery, Lud-in-the-Mist looks hard at the human condition and suggests how a sick society might be healed, how our divided selves gradually be made whole. Of course, this isn’t to say that afterwards we will be perennially carefree and cheerful, let alone happy. Our all-too-human hearts were never designed for that.