Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You've GOT to Read This: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

(I just had a lovely weekend away with Ms. Musings and ZM down in Charlottesville, VA, and I plan to write about that soon, but today, I am struck with the need to tell you about yet another book.)

Mirrlees, Hope. Lud-in-the-Mist. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2005. (This book was originally published in 1926.)

I don't remember where, earlier this year, I came across the title of this book. I probably discovered it from one of your blog posts somewhere, but I do a lot of online research about books these days, and I tend to jump from one article to another, so I can never be positive what the original source is. However, discover it I did and decided to ask a friend of mine (another one of those colleagues-turned-friend-with-whom-book-titles-are-shared who is my go-to fantasy expert, someone who has an uncanny ability to know what I will and will not like, because I am extremely picky when it comes to reading fantasy) if he thought I'd like this book. This was his response to me:

If you ever paid attention to anything I said, you'd know it was in my Top Ten fantasy list. A few weeks ago I happened upon this link: The Lady Who Wrote Lud-in-the-Mist. Read the Wikipedia article on Hope Mirrlees; very little is known about her, but she was a real character.

After being published in the '20s and promptly sinking out of sight, the book was rediscovered in the 1960s post-Tolkien fantasy boom and has remained in print ever since. It's a sheer delight and sui generis, like The Last Unicorn and the book you should be getting any day now, Twilight of the Gods. [Yes, he, relentless book pusher that he is, encouraged both those highs -- actually having the latter delivered to my mailbox -- that I had earlier this year. He is not only good when it comes to fantasy but also when it comes to obscure pre-20th-century British authors everyone has forgotten.]

(Ms. Musings and ZM, if you didn't already know, I'd only give you one guess as to who sent that email.)

So, off I went to discover this edition with (appropriately enough) a Foreword by Neil Gaiman, and I ordered it via ILL at my local library. My friend, naturally, was absolutely right. I started this book (about the residents of a city in the state of Dorimare -- a Medieval sort of place -- whose last Duke disappeared over the Debatable Mountains into Fairyland a couple of hundred years before we meet its residents. Now, the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist, being a very reasonable sort of people, have nothing to do with Fairyland, most especially fairy fruit, that dangerous, illegal substance produced by the fairies that is rumored to drive people mad. Rumors also abound that the forbidden fruit is being smuggled into Lud-in-the-Mist. The mayor seems to have lost both his children to its enticing lure), and my first reaction was to want to gobble it all down in one sitting (staining my hands and mouth while quenching my thirst with its juices). However, I hadn't got very far when I realized I was feeling the urge to take down quotes from nearly every page, an indication that I needed to slow down, that this was a book chock-full of ideas, a book for pondering, a book that required space and time for thinking. Thus, I began allowing myself only a little bit a day for a period of a few weeks.

That's not easy to do with a book that's only 239 pages long, especially a book that on the surface is about Dukes and witches and ghosts and kidnappers and smugglers and murder and mayhem (oh, and castles and secret passages). Lovely, lovely stuff. It's not easy to do with a book that's so difficult to classify in any traditional sense, a trait that brought to mind Crime and Punishment. Basically, you'll find it in the fantasy section of any library. It's truly a fairy tale. Or is it a detective novel? Perhaps it's a ghost story. You could call it a twist on the classic coming-of-age story. No, it's not easy to slow down while reading such a book until you find yourself constantly running across quotes such as these:

"'Reason, I know is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of a poppy, it often gives a temporary relief.'" (p. 51)

"'It's the Law, Ambrose -- the homeopathic antidote that our forefathers discovered to delusion.'" (p. 141)

"But, as everyone knows, legal rights can be but weaklings -- puny little child princes, cowed by their bastard uncles, Precedent and Seniority." (p. 177)

"And the real anchor is not hope but faith -- even if it only be somebody else's faith." (p. 229)

(And I am restraining myself, because I could give you many, many more.) The book is so beautifully written, ignoring all rules of traditional comma placement to provide the reader with a poetic, dreamy quality that I didn't realize was affecting me so much until I'd had quite a bit but that soon impaired me from reading too quickly. The multiple layers of allegory eventually gave me the sense that I could read into this book forever and still come out of it scratching my head, thinking, "God, I know I missed so much!"

I went through a period a few years ago when it seemed I was reading a lot of contemporary books that were addressing "reason v. romance" or "the head v. the heart," books like Ian McEwan's Enduring Love and Carole Cadwadr's The Family Tree. This book completely blows away all those, which is why Gaiman so hits the nail on the head in his Foreword when he says,
I have seen editions of Lud-in-the-Midst which proclaim it to be a thinly disguised parable for the class struggle. Had it been written in the 1960s it would, I have no doubt, have been seen as a tale about mind expansion. But it seems to me that this is, most of all, about reconciliation -- the balancing and the tuning of the mundane and the miraculous. We need both, after all. (p. 8)
[Gaiman's editor sure fell down on the job with that little bit, but still, his meaning is not lost.]
I know. I know. You're tempted to think, "She just agrees with that because, well, he's Neil Gaiman, and she's Emily." But you're wrong. I'd agree even if Tom Clancy had written those words. The book could be (and is) about so much, but the underlying theme throughout is the ancient human struggle with the prosaic and the poetic, our needs to rationalize, cover up, and control mystery while, at the same time, conjuring up intrigue to enshroud the straightforward.

When I was reading about this book online, I discovered that it is considered to have been a precursor to Tolkien. The Introduction to this edition notes that, although their paths could have crossed, Tolkien and Mirrlees most likely never met. My friend, above, mentions Tolkien. Does this mean that (SIGH!) I need to try Tolkien yet again? All my memories of every attempt I've ever made to read Tolkien (why have I tried so often? Let's face it: there is no such thing as a lukewarm Tolkien fan, and my life is -- and always has been -- full of Tolkien fans, not the least of which is the man I married) boil down to this for me: way too earnest and complete lack of irony. If this was his precursor, though, I must have missed something, because I would never describe this book thus.

My one complaint upon finishing the book has nothing to do with what Mirrlees wrote or intended, and that is that this edition has more typos than any book I've read in recent memory. If you're going to read this book (and you are, because you've GOT to, right?), and you are someone who finds typos to be extremely distracting, get yourself a different edition. I know, that means you'll miss out on what the brilliant Gaiman had to say, but sacrifices must be made when it comes to Great Literature (besides, I've given you, in a nutshell, what Gaiman had to say anyway).


Ide Cyan said...

Hope Mirrlees wrote two other novels before this one. If you'd like to read her first novel, Madeleine: One of Love's Jansenists, I can e-mail it to you.

Anonymous said...

I know who recommended it, because he recommended it to me, and I also loved it. Although I think Neil Gaiman is getting a bit 'rent an intro', but at the same time his name on a book guarantees sales, which is good for small presses who may then be able to afford, you know, proofreading.

I think that the book on its way to you is by Lord Dunsany, who he also recommended to me. But if he steers you in the direction of Jack Vance, don't bother.

Stefanie said...

I've got this book on my TBR list but had forgotten all about it. Thanks for the reminder :) As for Tolkein, if you are having a difficult time reading him, try listening on audiobook. Get the LOTR read by Rob Inglis. He is brilliant.

Emily Barton said...

Ide, sure. You'll find my email address on my profile page.

Ms. Musing, oh yes, he's been pushing Lord Dunsany on me every chance he gets. He didn't recommend Jack Vance but did recommend Mervyn Peake.

Stef, time to remember it, and thanks for the tip about LOTR in audio version.

Rebecca H. said...

Well, this sounds really fun! I don't read much fantasy, so it's good to know of something really great in the genre, for when I am in the right mood.

Stephen said...

I just read Lud, and am a long-time Tolkien fan. While I like both books, and can see why someone might see a connection, I don't think that liking Lud would correlate with liking Tolkien particularly -- especially given what you say you don't like about Tolkien. (Irony is a quality that Mirrlees has which is *not* reflected in Tolkien.)

I think it's a precursor insofar as they're both attempts to write serious, adult fantasy, to rehabilitate faerie from their Victorian dumbing down -- but that they do so in very different ways. (Personally, if you liked Mirrlees, I'd recommend John Crowley's fabulous 1981 novel LITTLE, BIG, or the recent JOHNATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susana Clarke -- both fabulous books, and more in the tradition of Mirrlees (especially the latter.))

Incidentally, my understanding is that, so far as is known (and not much *is* known about Mirrlees), Tolkien never read her book, and she never read his.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, it IS really fun. Save it for a rainy day.

Stephen, thanks for the clarification and the other-than-Tolkien recommendations. I think I'll give those a whirl, and yes, I'd read that Mirrlees and Tolkien had not read each others' work.

Steve Aelfcyning said...

There's a nice little biograpy of Mirlees now, if you can find it: http://www.amazon.com/Hope-Mist-Extraordinary-Mysterious-Mirrlees/dp/0976466058


m g meile said...

I may be one of the rare people who enjoy both Mirrlees and Tolkien (for different reasons), and I find Tolkien to be VERY ironic, though his irony is far more subtle than Mirrlees. I've been writing my own blog here on Blogspot on this subject, and perhaps it would move you to consider giving JRRT yet another go.
I've found that reading LOTR aloud is a great way to get people into the work, and I think the suggestion to hear Tolkien instead of read him is excellent. In the two years since your post and this response I hope you get a chance to enjoy T's masterpiece. Take care.

Emily Barton said...

m g, oh I do plan to give Tolkien another go. I keep hoping that one day I'll do so and will finally get it. The friend who introduced me to Mirrlees also loves Tolkien.