Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Before The Shire or Narnia came, there was Lud-in-the-Mist. Published in 1926, this is the oldest fairy tale novel I've reviewed to date—almost a century old! But it has unobtrusively stood the test of time, and undoubtedly influenced a new generation of fantasy authors.
A line from the Odyssean epigraph at the opening of this story gives a clue as to its theme, as all good epigraphs should do: "magical voices called to a man from his ‘Land of Hearts Desire,’ and to which if he hearken it may be that he will return no more…”
But what does Homer have to do with little Lud-in-the-Mist? What does the tempting song of the Siren, the forbidden intoxication and lure of the soul, the Odyssean quest through immortal worlds and back again have to do with quiet, law-abiding Lud-in-the-Mist and its bourgouise inhabitants? Quite a lot, as it turns out...
Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital town of Dorimare, an unremarkable country in itself, except that it borders the country of Fairyland, though there are no longer any dangerous dealings between the two; despite generations of intermarrying between the countries in times past, the greatest insult one could give to a Dorimarite is to call him ‘the son of a fairy’. When the Dorimare uprising removed all the nobility of the duchy, not only was the nobility outlawed and destroyed, the but the sensual excesses of fairy fruit and fairy ways went with them. Fairy has become an unspeakable word. And fairy fruit is absolutely forbidden by law, and the new mayor of the town is a stickler for the law.
But trouble comes, as it always does in stories, and this one comes in the form of the mayor's son.12-year-old Ranulph Chanticleer has a public meltdown at a dinner party and subsequently admits that it is due to having eaten fairy fruit. And young Ranulph is not the only victim of this dreadful calamity. Soon the daughters of the town are dancing off into fairyland, to be lost forever. What is to be done, and who is to be trusted? Where is this influx of illicit fruit coming from? Who are the smugglers? Why are there rumours of sightings of the exiled Duke Aubrey, who was said to have fled into fairyland to escape the violent revolution? Are these sightings merely the awful visions of unhinged minds, or is something even more sinister happening? Is the local apothecary as helpful as he seems? Is poor Widow Gibberty truly innocent of the dreadful charge of murder brought against her? Mystery abounds, and Mayor Chanticleer must undertake a voyage into fairy land if he wants to recover his children and save Lud-in-the-Mist. But will he make it back with his mind intact? Will it make it back at all? It’s not very likely…
It’s not enough to say that this is a fantastical mystery, a cosy fairy tale thriller, it is also whimsical, charming, quirky, and written in the most gorgeous prose. Mirrlees lulls you into a nostalgic mood with lush descriptions of the natural world and all things tame and pastoral, and then she pokes you with a pinprick of satire and a neat story twist.
There is good reason why this is hailed as a fantasy classic, and it's impossible not to read it and think of the contemporary fantasy novels I've read that Lud-in-the-MIst reminds me of: Robin Mckinley's Spindle's End, Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and Charlotte E. English's Wonder Tales to name a few. I read this on my kindle, but now I've got to find a nice hardback copy to go on Favourite-Fairy-Tales shelf.