Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
|This picture bears almost no relation to the story.|
It really wasn't what I expected, not quite sure what I expected but I imagine my expectations were coloured by all the modern fantasy I read. The book was written before Tolkien set the stage for traditional fantasy tropes. So what do you call something that predates the traditional? I have no idea, and I'm not sure I'm knowledgeable enough to answer that, but it actually felt different to a lot of other books I've read.
The story is set in the country of Dorimare, which borders Fairyland. The capital Lud-in-the-Mist was ruled by a rational-minded mercantile upper class who relied on trade and put their faith in the law. As the fanciful and magical have no basis in law the upstanding citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist disregarded the neighbouring land, it's mischievous inhabitants, and dangerous exports. So when entrancing fairy fruit starts affecting the great and good of Lud-in-the-Mist it takes a man with a fanciful frame of mind to solve the problem.
The protagonist Nathanial Chanticleer is a rich older man, upstanding citizen and Mayor of the capital - a very different sort of hero to most fantasy novels. This is more a midlife crisis than a coming of age story, though that perhaps sounds uncharitable. It's made clear that though he seems like any other respectable Lud citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer has always had a wistful, introspective side that doesn't fit with his peers.
The book has a rich descriptive style that you don't tend to get so much nowadays, and while there is a lot more telling (as opposed to showing) than I'm used to, it works fine in a period piece. The humour is mild and wry, the fantastical elements are mostly hinted at and are made mysterious rather than overt. I had expected to see more of fairyland, but the impact of magical encroachment into the tight-laced Lud society worked well.
There's a strong comparison between the country and the town. The country folk stuck to the old superstitions and, in this book, were proved to be right, while the townfolk consider themselves more sophisticated and enlightened. However it's made very clear that their insistence in dealing only in the rational and understandable blinkers them and leaves them unprepared for things outside their ken.
It also felt as though the fairy fruit, contraband magical food which is referred to only euphemistically, is an analogy for all sorts of disruptive influences within society. The most obvious parallel is with drugs, as the fruit must be smuggled into the country and distributed in secret. I'm sure that a reread would bring other themes to mind.
I enjoyed reading Lud-in-the-Mist as I was interested to see the kind of fantastical story written before Grandfather Tolkien, and because it worked well with my general enjoyment of fairytales and the mythic. The country of Dorimare -fictional though it may be- is rich in history and folklore and the references to traditional tales, songs and images felt very nostalgic even though they were inventions of the author.