Lud-in-the-Mist is wonderful. Today, would an agent read past page one?
Last month, a book I’d never heard of found its way into my consciousness twice in one week. I’m not one to assign supernatural sources to serendipitous events (after reading that book, I’m wondering if I should . . . ), but with two mentions coming so close together, I figured it was worth looking into. My son is a serious fantasy fiction reader and told me that he had just read Lud-in-the-Mist. He found it extraordinary. I don’t often read fantasy fiction, but his praise was high, and he’s a harsh critic of fantasy authors whose world-building is inconsistent, whose characters are not as fully developed as any serious literary fiction. So I thought I might add Lud-in-the-Mist to the end of my 100-book-long ‘to read’ list.
A few days later, I happened upon a discussion of fantasy and literary fiction (and the intersection of the two) between Neil Gaiman and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, Gaiman mentioned that Lud-in-the-Mist was an unjustly ignored novel, one of the best of the twentieth century. I forwarded a link to my son and said maybe I would go ahead and read the book. As this was just prior to Christmas, he bought me a ‘print on demand’ copy.
You can look on Goodreads to see how much people love this novel, so a positive review isn’t entirely my purpose here. However, as someone who reads little fantasy, I found it so good that I sat in my yoga pants and t-shirt all day and read until I’d finished. It has a traditional sense of the hero’s journey. The mayor of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer (love that cocky name!) is conventional. He’s an enforcer of rules and laws, one of which is that no fairy fruit from the Fairyland beyond the Debatable Hills is to be eaten.
Fairies are often associated with the dead or the ‘Silent People’ and are feared. Their fruit was outlawed after the merchant middle class managed to overthrown the aristocracy and rid the town of both the pain and pleasures of that elite group. The fruit appears to have caused the extremes of behavior exhibited by the aristocrats. Thus the fairy fruit has an obvious analog in illicit drugs. I read that Hope Mirrlees, author of Lud-in-the-Mist, was influenced by the work of Christina Rossetti. You’ll have some fun with that as you read if you remember Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” from your college English literature course.
Although the wellness generated by the new law is a delusion (according to Nathaniel’s lawyer father), at least, unlike fairy fruit, it is available to all and treats people equally. It offers a contented orderliness.
Mayhem sneaks into the mayor’s household when a wiley servant gives Ranulph, son of Nathaniel, a taste of fairy fruit. The boy begins to act strangely and the effort to correct the situation leads to a hero’s quest for Nathaniel, who until this moment had never understood how much he loved the boy.
I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that villains are interesting and multi-dimensional; the longtime friendships humorous and enduring; all characters grow in understanding; the adventure is surreal and creepy; the hero’s quest and return are as magical as you could hope for; the fairy fruit itself is a powerful metaphor and argument for the dark side of creativity and the necessity of letting it in.
So here we have this very good book. My question, as a writer, is: would it be published today?
First, there is the title, Lud-in-the-Mist. Fantasy books need the names of towns to feel fantastical and this one fits the bill. However, I think, as a title, it would turn people away—at least those who hadn’t read Gaiman’s praise. Yet, this is a good introduction to the novel. ‘Lud’ is sometimes used when authors want to signal past usage for ‘Lord.’ The lords and their fairy fruit have been banished, but the mayor and other jurists are certainly the new lords in the sense of having power in the community through law. Contrarily, ‘-lud-’ as a root word from Latin means play, joke or jest, even mock. (Lots of words contain this meaning—allude, collude, delude, elude, illusion, interlude, ludicrous, prelude.) Playfulness is not what the town is known for, but something that needs to be recovered if it is to survive.
Strike two against Lud is the length of the introductory chapters which give the reader a good deal of setting and backstory. We learn about the “capricious’ and “selfish” Duke Aubrey, “a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty, who seemed to be possessed by a laughing demon of destructiveness.” He’s interesting, but generations have passed since he disappeared, by many accounts, to Fairyland. Would an unknown contemporary writer be allowed to start there?
Many early pages are spent on the setting, a sort of idyll at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl (large and commercially valuable) and the Dapple (small and rumored to have its origin in Fairyland).
I was recently at a writers’ conference and attended a session where three agents on a panel listened as the first page of each of many attendees’ novels were read aloud. (The authors of these first pages were anonymous, but surely they were attending the session.) The agents were to pretend that they were reading the page as part of a query for representation. They were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading. If two of the three raised their hands, that query was a reject. Of about sixteen first pages that were read aloud, only one wasn’t rejected. The reasons for rejection were sometimes obvious—the writing was no good. But all of the pages that described natural settings or landscapes were rejected out of hand simply because two of the three agents said they hated that as a beginning. Some of these were lovely. If they had made it to a book in that form, I would have kept reading. So, too, did I love the descriptive passages at the beginning of Lud. They drew me into the world of the novel, and while it was an earthly town with some familiar elements, it was also distinct in its beauty.
Mirrlees’s descriptions of landscapes are all vivid. Because her town and countryside are so richly evoked early on, when she moves into the dark otherworld of Fairyland and the Silent People, the contrast is eerie and the reader is chilled. It exactly hits the mark that Joseph Campbell describes as the business of mythology and fairytale—the dark configurations enter the unreal, fantastical space that represents the psychological fear inherent in facing the great challenges and passages of life.
I would be sorry not to be able to read new works of fiction that set this slow pace through which we best enter an unknown world.
Note: As I mentioned, I read (and write) mostly realistic fiction, so I’m not well-versed in fantasy. But I do enjoy Neil Gaiman (who doesn’t?) and found a few of his books great for book talking to teens in the library. On my School Library Lady blog, I reviewed both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book; I see parallels to Lud-in-the-Mist in both.