Another of my reading assignments for my Readings in the Genre: Fantasy Classics for my Master of Fine Arts from Seton Hill University in Writing Popular Fiction is Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (Fantasy 160 pages).
For whatever reason from the beginning of Lud-in-the-Mist through to the end, this story reminded me of Prohibition in the United States. I did some research to see if Hope Mirrlees was an American author or if she lived in the States from 1920-1933 when there was a nationwide constitutional ban on alcohol. Some quick research showed that she was British and spent time in Scotland and South Africa, but I really couldn’t shake the similarities between Lud-in-the-Mist and the time in American history when alcohol was forbidden. One of my classmates indicated that fairy fruit becomes symbolic and that the symbol is related to purpose and contentment. This brought up a stronger attachment between fairy fruit and Prohibition for me. I first linked it in Chapter II around page 13: “In spite of the law’s maintaining that Fairyland and everything to do with it was non-existent, it was an open secret that, though fairy fruit was no longer brought into the country with all the pomp of established ritual, anyone who wanted it could always procure it in Lud-in-the-Mist.” And the same could be said with the alcohol during Prohibition. In both instances, people in public will discourage the use of fairy fruit/alcohol, but everyone has the public secret that if they truly wanted to partake of those forbidden substances that they would be able to do so. In this sense, the youth seek more fairy fruit because they tasted it and it had an addictive quality to it, just like alcohol. Once they have experienced the fairy fruit and then been denied any more, Ranulph and the Primrose ladies leave the town for the melodies of things beyond the Debatable Hills. And then there was the passage in Chapter XII around page 78 where Luke writes to Nathaniel: “For though it seemed gibberish, it gave me the shivers, and that’s a fact. And mad folks are often as dangerous as bad ones, so I hope your Worship will excuse me writing like this, and that you’ll favour me with an answer by return, and take Master Ranulph away, for I don’t like the look in the widow’s eye when she looks at him, that I don’t.” I saw so many correlations between fairy fruit and Prohibition throughout this story. I think that part of the draw of fairy fruit is that it’s forbidden and known to cause such unsavory actions. It truly is easier to turn a blind eye to the smugglers bringing in fairy fruit and to those accused of partaking of the fairy fruit rather than face the purposelessness of their own existences.
The entire book is all about the denial of non-real elements from the “real” world in which the characters live. This starts in Chapter II around page 12 with: “Well, a few years before the opening of this story, a Winckelmann, though an anonymous one, actually did appear in Lud-in-the-Mist; although the field of his enquiries was not limited to the plastic arts. He published a book, entitled Traces of Fairy in the Inhabitants, Customs, Art, Vegetation and Language of Dorimare. His thesis was this: that there was an unmistakable fairy strain running through the race of Dorimarites, which could only be explained by the hypothesis that, in the olden days, there had been frequent intermarriage between them and the Fairies. For instance, the red hair, so frequent in Dorimare, pointed, he maintained, to such a strain.” The passage goes on to describe a variety of different aspects and physical characteristics you could use to determine whether or not something or someone could have a fairy background. The book has so many instances of men with red-hair causing potential issues throughout the story that the reader is given all the information they need in order to pick up the clues about how fairyland continues to infiltrate the area of Lud-in-the-Mist. There are so many clues, in fact, that it was sometimes difficult for me to understand how the people of Lud-in-the-Mist *didn’t* see the connections. Especially as the opening parts of the story have repeated instances of Willy Wisp or some other version of that name throughout the story. I’m fairly certain that it is only my very recent exposure to The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany that keyed me into the Willy Wisp as a Willow Wisps.
One of the differences between the people from the Vale of Erl and the people from Lud-in-the-Mist is that they both believed in fairylands and where the boundary existed, but for the people from the Vale of Erl, the boundary was a physical manifestation that marked the borders, even though they willfully put it out of their minds, whereas the people from Lud-in-the-Mist only had a vague notion that the boundary for the Elfin lands existed somewhere to the west. The people from the Vale of Erl and the people from Lud-in-the-Mist both acknowledged that anything that came out of the Elfin lands would be something completely different and would be obvious in their encounters with the normal world. The people of Lud-in-the-Mist believed that things from the Elfin lands would change characteristics upon interaction with things from their normal world and the people from the Vale of Erl seemed to think that things or creatures from the Elfin lands would retain their original fairy characteristics. One example of this from Lud-in-the-Mist is when Nathaniel is speaking with Hempie in Chapter X around page 70: “’And as for the shells and pots … when we were children, we used always to whisper that they came from beyond the hills.” Master Nathaniel gave a start, and stared at her in amazement. “From beyond the hills?” he repeated in a low, horrified voice. “Aye, and why not?” cried Hempie, undaunted. “I was country-bred, Master Nat, and I learned not to mind the smell of a fox or of a civet cat … or of a Fairy. They’re mischievous creatures, I daresay, and best left alone. But thought we can’t always pick and choose our neighbours, neighbourliness is a virtue all the same. For my part, I’d never have chosen the Fairies for my neighbours – but they were chosen for me.”’
The people from Lud-in-the-Mist are in a constant state of denial about the interaction between the fairy people and the people they are most familiar with, and attempt to ban anything that is thought to come from the Elfin lands, but most especially the fairy fruit. The fairy fruit is both the proof of the interaction between the Elfin lands and their normal lands and is blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong throughout the novel. If you son or daughter suddenly acts in a completely bizarre and unseemly manner, it must be the ingestion of the nefarious fairy fruit. The conspiracy goes so deep as to acknowledge that the fairy fruit is being somehow smuggled into the land, but everyone denies seeing any trace of it. The proof of the smuggling is hidden so well behind hidden passages and people who the populace know or trust that it’s impossible for the true source of the interactions between the two lands to be brought to sufficient light to satisfy the Senate as to how to stop the smuggling. Ambrose and Nathaniel witness the smuggling in action and when they take appropriate action to show to the rest of the Senate how the fairy fruit is entering their town, but the operation is moved and then looks more to implicate Nathaniel and he is removed from his office as Mayor immediately following his revelations to the Senate. The Senate refuses the potential proof in front of them because they don’t want to see it. Their lives are so much simpler if it’s Nathaniel and his incompetence that are the source of their problems instead of the fairy fruit. So, in a way, they acknowledge the existence of the fairy fruit and its impact on their lives, but they also deny its existence and focus instead on the problems of the person in charge.
Even at the very end in Chapter XXX around page 156, the people still don’t accept how close the Fairy world and their own are intertwined until Ambrose talks to them about the coming of the Fairy people: “I have sometimes wondered, recently, whether we have ever really understood the true meaning of that proverb. Our ancestors built the town of Lud-in-the-Mist between these two rivers, and both have brought us their tribute. The tribute of the Dawl has been gold, and we have gladly accepted it. But the tribute of the Dapple we have ever spurned. The Dapple – our placid old friend, in whose waters we learned as lads the gentle art of angling – has silently, through the centuries, been brining fairy fruit into Dorimare … a fact that, to my mind, at least, proves that fairy fruit is as wholesome and necessary for man as the various other gifts brought for our welfare by our silent friends.” The members of the Senate are at first horrified, even though they heard some of the reasoning behind these actions from Leer during Leer’s trial in Chapter XXVI around pages 138-140.
This whole book is a balance between denial and what could be considered the real or normal world. I think that’s one of the reasons this story is one of the better examples of Liminal Fantasy – there’s always that unclear element between what is fairy and what is “real” and this bleeds into the perceptions of the characters throughout the story. There was always an undercurrent throughout the novel for me about whether or not the entire town was drugged right from the beginning and having some sort of mass-delusions or hallucinations. There was definitely a huge sense of dreams and not reality that I felt as a reader throughout the entire story.
Overall, I’d probably rate this book as a high two or a low three on my rating scale. I’m happy that I read it and I might actually read it again at some point.