He knew so well both that sense of emptiness, that drawing in of the senses (like the antennæ of some creature when danger is no longer imminent, but there), so that the physical world vanishes, while you yourself at once swell out to fill its place, and at the same time shrink to a millionth part of your former bulk, turning into a mere organ of suffering without thought and without emotions; he knew also that other phase, when one seems to be flying from days and months, like a stag from its hunters – like the fugitives, on the old tapestry, from the moon. [loc. 521]Swordspoint and Summer in Orcus.)
Published in 1926, this novel has been hailed as a classic of high fantasy. I wonder if Mirrlees would be pleased at its success, or disappointed that her theme of 'life vs art' was ignored in favour of the lush, almost preRaphaelite descriptions of Lud-in-the-Mist.
Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of Dorimare, a country that borders on Fairyland. Centuries before the events of the novel, the two countries coexisted peacably: then the merchants rose up in revolt, banished their ruler Duke Aubrey (who, rumour has it, fled to Fairyland and lives there too) and forbade mention of anything to do with Fairyland.
But now, it seems, Fairy fruit is being smuggled into Lud-in-the-Mist: and Nathaniel Chanticleer, law-abiding citizen -- indeed, Mayor -- must face up to the uncomfortable truth that both his children (Ranulph and Prunella) have tasted that forbidden produce, and are languishing for want of it. When Ranulph escapes his chaperone and runs away to Fairyland, Nathaniel sets out to rescue him. How fortunate that the young ladies of Miss Crabapple's Academy, lured by their odd new dancing master Professor Wisp, have already skipped away in the same direction: they -- including Nathaniel's own daughter Prunella -- can be returned to the bosoms of their families by some never-detailed action of Nathaniel's. (I am thoroughly unimpressed by Nathaniel's lack of concern for his daughter.)
En route to Fairyland, which is also in some sense the land of the dead (the country people call both Fairies and the dead 'the Silent People), Nathaniel Chanticleer investigates a cold-case murder; uncovers a smuggling racket; and discovers some unexpected truths concerning the disreputable physician Endymion Leer. And returning from Fairyland, he brings reconciliation of a kind that the Dorimarites had, apparently, never considered before.
Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a conservative (or indeed Conservative) idyll of bourgeouis Englishness: its colours are rich (though its inhabitants are homogeneous) and its characters self-satisfied, prosperous and law-abiding. Yet there's this dark underside, the awareness of 'impenetrable shadows' surrounding the small bright places where civilisation reigns: and there is, too, Nathaniel's own underlying melancholy, 'life-sickness', an oversensitivity to 'the figments of his own fancy'. All this against a backdrop of Dionysian 'fairy fruits', the recurring image of fugitives fleeing from the moon, and the memory of lost Duke Aubrey.
Mirrlee's writing reminds me of pre-Raphaelite paintings, jewel-coloured and vivid. There is, too, a certain sardonic tone to some of her descriptions that, had it been more pervasive, I would have found irritating: Mirrlees, though, balances it nicely with gentle amusement at the gentlefolk of Lud-in-the-Mist, and with occasional profundities -- 'There is nothing so dumb as a tree in full leaf' [loc 355] -- which have stayed with me.
I think I'll be returning to this novel again and again.