I find myself in something of an awkward position with Lud-in-the-Mist, which is in part why it’s difficult to review. The fact of the matter is that while Lud-in-the-Mist is unequivocally an excellent novel, it is not always an enjoyable novel, and there is a large population of readers out there who may find it close to nauseating.
Lud-in-the-Mist is Hope Mirrlees’s only fantasy novel, and indeed the only one of her three novels for which she is remembered (and that, for the most part in recent years, because Neil Gaiman has put in a good word or two for the book). To say that the text is unconcerned with market appeal is a vast understatement. This is a dense, often beautiful, just as often frustrating book rife with so many literary and mythological allusions that the mind fairly boggles.
The protagonist, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is the mayor of Lud, a town that takes pride in its absolute normalcy and, thus, security. The prosaic is lionized above else, and the romantic looked upon with suspicion, even to the point of excising certain types of music. The inhabitants of Lud do not believe in the sublime, and in a way they have good reason. Faerie lies so near that fruit from the enchanted land is commonly smuggled into the staid and provincial Lud, causing all varieties of trouble. What Chanticleer is forced to realize over the course of the novel is that, for all his efforts, there may be no way to keep the power of Faerie, in its incarnations as both breathless allure and very real menace, beyond the borders.
As is likely evident already, this is a highly symbolic novel. The dichotomy between Lud and the influence of Faerie is fascinating, as are the moments of contention between the two. Chanticleer is deathly afraid of what he calls “The Note,” a single note from a disused musical instrument he found in the attic. On one level, this is merely the fear of the unknown. On another, it is the fear of the greatest unknown, death. Faerie, then, may represent death, but as the Doctor of Lud, Endymion Leer, reminds us, what is life without a touch of death to make it meaningful?
Let me be frank: I loved this book. I adored it. It is unquestionably one of the best Faerie tales I have ever encountered. Mirrlees’s prose is superb, her symbolism poignant, her imagery gorgeously realized. One can only marvel at the mind that came up with some of her turns of phrase, placing a word just so to evoke the perfect sensation, and that is the true hallmark of the faerie story if nothing else — the sensual.
I have said that the book may be divisive and I meant it. This is a difficult book to get into and follow through to the end. There are extended periods of rather dry explanations that may turn some readers away, and it is frequently difficult to tell which way the plot is going, or even if there is a plot beneath it all. Mirrlees’s evident reluctance to allow simple answers keeps the reader from even being positively sure that Chanticleer is the hero for much of the time, or whether the audience is meant to be rooting for Lud or Faerie; at diverse points in the text, it could go either way, or neither.
Lud-in-the-Mist, then, is often a confusing little book, but ultimately rewarding. You will never read anything quite like this again, and in this way, the novel itself becomes rather like the lurking Faerie outside Lud: it is thoroughly unconventional, but in that unconventionality, it is terribly lovely.