Oct. 5th, 2009
There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.Mirrlees, Hope. Lud-in-the-Mist. London: Millennium, 2000. [1926.]
--Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Some time ago the good burghers of Dorimare rose up in rebellion against their ruler Duke Aubrey and drove him and his folk back over the hills to Fairyland whence they came, and ever since then have never had traffic with that realm more. But there are those in Dorimare who don't believe that the Law is an adequate delusion through which to view the world, and smuggled fairy fruit is not unknown in the country. When agents of the Duke conspire against him and his family, the Mayor of Lud, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is forced to undertake a journey unique in the annals of both realms.
Lud-in-the-Mist has the distinction of being one of the most unique books in fantasy both for its content and for the story of its author, who wrote three novels in her life, of which this is the final, quit writing, moved to South Africa, and vanished into obscurity so thick that when the novel was re-published in 1970, the edition was technically unauthorized and pirated because no one knew whether Mirrlees was still alive or where, though she did not die until 1978. In some ways, reading her scanty biography gives one the impression that after the death of Jane Ellen Harrison, Mirrlees' former tutor with whom she lived for 15 years, Mirrlees' life was effectively over. Certainly the two had an extraordinarily close relationship; Harrison described Mirrlees as a daughter, and the epigraph to Lud-in-the-Mist is taken from Harrison's writing (she was a noted classicist). Whether that was the full extent of their relationship is impossible to determine at this remove, and in some sense irrelevant, though the biography of Mirrlees that will supposedly appear in 2011 may offer new insight. This page has a picture of both women together.
As fascinating as all this is, though, it can't actually overshadow the novel itself, which is remarkable in that it's a novel about Fairyland in which no events actually take place in Fairyland--the closest the narrative gets is the Elven Marches, and those are uncanny enough. The novel also insists repeatedly and uniquely in my experience on equating Fairyland with Death--Duke Aubrey is an Aidean figure as well as a Dionysiac, and there is continued uncertainty whether the denizens of Fairyland are fairies or the mortal dead. Moreover, the dead walk back into Dorimare from Fairyland, and can in fact tell tales.
The book is so unique that really my best description is the exhortation to go read it yourself--not for nothing has Mirrlees' book had an enormous influence on contemporary fantasy, particularly the works of Neil Gaiman (whose Stardust is a clear homage to Lud-in-the-Mist) and of Susanna Clarke--Duke Aubrey and the Raven King are close cousins, and a lot of the narrative techniques and flourishes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are clearly derived from Lud-in-the-Mist. Nor should I neglect to mention Joanna Russ, whose short story "The Zanzibar Cat" was written as a direct response to this book. I think it not impossible that Mirrlees herself was influenced by Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, with its insistence on "the fields that we know," but there is plenty in here that is utterly singular. In some ways the book does not wear its age completely lightly (indigo page-boys and bawdy deaf-mutes, as well as the aristocratic biases, are tiresome), but the flaws are tiny compared to Mirrlees' achievement. If only she'd written more.