The first couple of pages of Hope Mirrlees’s novel are filled with deceptively charming descriptions of the quaint and picturesque Lud-in-the-Mist, a city of merchants at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl, in the country of Dorimare. In the very first paragraph, though, we are told, rather matter-of-factly, that “towards the west, in striking contrast with the pastoral sobriety of the central plain, the aspect of the country became, if not tropical, at any rate distinctly exotic. Nor was this to be wondered at, perhaps; for beyond the Debatable Hills (the boundary of Dorimare in the west) lay Fairyland.” The surname of its protagonist, Nathaniel Chanticleer (= Rooster), Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, is a further hint that we’re in fable territory. We also discover that the Dapple has its origins in Fairyland. But very soon, the narrative takes a subtly menacing and sinister turn: Nathaniel Chanticleer, for all appearances the kind of peaceful, pleasant, happy, possibly rotund, gentleman one would hope to find in such literary environs, turns out to be an unhappy, even troubled, man—haunted by a blood-curdling, literally discordant, note he’d struck on a lute-like instrument, “when he was still but a lad.”
Lud-in-the-Mist is a genre bending fantasy which is, by turns and sometimes all at once, an eerie fairy tale, a ghost story, a murder mystery, and an adventure. It never loses its charm, however, with Master Nathaniel Chanticleer being only the first among many characters and chapters named with Dickensian glee. The second chapter introduces the notorious Duke Aubrey, the last of the Dukes to rule over the country before the merchant uprisings, and other folkloric traditions that, in spite of the merchant folks’ aversion to all things fairy, have a strain of Fairyland symbolism and allusions running through them. The Duke, as Aubrey is now known, was, we learn, a capriciously cruel man who had driven his court jester to suicide by relentless insinuation of depressing thoughts into the poor man’s head, just so that he could win a wager. Paradoxically, the country folk of Dorimare remember him, fondly, as a sensitive poet, and a profoundly kind and generous spirit of nature. This mysterious character, part whimsical mad man, part folk-hero, had disappeared after the revolution and passed into legend. Some, however, believe that he had crossed over into Fairyland.
As this tale begins, Lud-in-the-Mist is rife with troubling rumours of fairy fruit trafficking. Fairy fruit had been outlawed in Dorimare since its rise as a merchant state. The new rulers had blamed the madness that had taken hold of the Dukes on hobnobbing with fairy folk and on the consumption of this exotic fruit. Dorimare laws don’t recognize the existence of either. Strange as all this is, we get a glimpse of Mirrlees’s intentions in “a curious parallel between fairy things and the law” drawn by “Master Josiah Chanticleer (the father of Master Nathaniel)”:
The men of the revolution, he said, had substituted law for fairy fruit. But whereas only the reigning Duke and his priests had been allowed to partake of the fruit, the law was given freely to rich and poor alike. Again, fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose. But, whereas fairy magic and delusion were for the cozening and robbing of man, the magic of the law was to his intention and for his welfare.
In the eye of the law, neither Fairyland nor fairy things existed. But then, as Master Josiah had pointed out, the law plays fast and loose with reality – and no one really believes it.
It is probably best to bear this ambivalence—towards both the exotica that was once commonplace and towards the mundane that is no less exotic—in mind while reading this decidedly strange tale that only gets stranger.
Soon, Nathaniel’s son, Ranulph, is afflicted with a strange illness that makes him acutely sensitive and responsive to elements of fairy significance. Fairy fruit consumption is suspected. Rather reluctantly, the Mayor decides to seek the help of Endymion Leer, a dubious physician with experience in such matters. In diagnosing Ranulph, Leer does something that sends a chill down Master Chanticleer’s spine: he sings a song that sounds the ‘note.’ On Leer’s advice Ranulph is sent off to live in the country with the widow Gibberty and Hazel, her granddaughter, at their farmhouse, accompanied by Leer himself and Luke Hempen, the grand-nephew of “old Hempie,” the Chanticleers’ resident nanny. The name ‘Gibberty’ strikes a chord in Nathaniel Chanticleer’s memory. Leer explains, “You may remember having heard her name in the law courts – it isn’t a common one. She had a case many years ago. I think it was a thieving labourer her late husband had thrashed and dismissed who sued her for damages.” This legal matter would turn out to be of far greater significance and, in fact, the key to a number of mysteries that turn up during the course of the narrative. Shortly afterwards, things take a quick and decidedly sinister turn: a strange dance instructor turns up at Miss. Crabapple’s Academy, a finishing school of sorts for adolescent girls; and the “Crabapple Blossoms,” as the students of the Academy are known, run away en masse from Lud and disappear into the borders of Fairyland. Among them is Prunella Chanticleer, Nathaniel’s daughter; Master Nathaniel Chanticleer and Ambrose Honeysuckle discover strange goings-on in the guildhall and the graveyard; a cache of fairy fruit is discovered in the Chanticleer household, on the grounds of which the Mayor himself is impeached.
In the meanwhile, Luke Hempen discovers the strangeness of the Gibberty household: Leer and the widow talk of “trout fishing” in the Dapple; a silent, mysterious figure known only as “Portunus the weaver”; and a mysterious conversation that makes everyone’s intentions and the true purpose of their visit clear. And soon, Ranulph himself would crossover into Fairyland.
On his impeachment, Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, who had always been a man of routine, and one who was wary of nasty surprises lying in wait in banal things, takes matters into his own hands. Digging deeper into the Gibberty case of thirty years ago, he discovers its true nature: a murder trial. Dame Marigold Chanticleer, his wife, discovers another, surprising, piece of the puzzle through an impromptu interrogation of Miss. Crabapple. Armed with these, Nathaniel decides to go on a road trip to investigate and solve this thirty-year-old murder mystery. And he does solve it, in the most perfectly plotted and neatly tied up sections of the novel. These are also the virtuoso sections in which it morphs into everything from a tale of adventure to a detective story to a ghost story to, ultimately, a fairy tale. To say or summarise anything more than this would be to totally spoil it. However, what about the denouement of the novel itself? Does it tie everything up in a neat bow? No, it does not. What it does, though, is to bring the proceedings to a satisfactory close; but, rife as it is with narrative ambiguity and ambivalent characters, it is hard to point out why it is satisfactory. Perhaps it is satisfactory in the same way a dream or a fairy tale is, because of its recurring motifs and the secret logic that holds them together. We know that this is how it ought to be, but cannot explain.
In the final analysis, much of the fascination that Mirrlees’s fantasy inspires springs from its moral ambiguity. Though Duke Aubrey is, without a doubt, a symbol of the liberating powers of sensual pleasure, there is certainly no doubt either that he was, in his time, madly capricious to the point of being cruel. Was his cruel capriciousness an effect of fairy fruit? If so, what are we to make of him or his status among the people of Lud-in-the-Mist, and their relationship with fairies, as the novel comes to a close? Whatever we choose to make of it, it is clear what Hope Mirrlees intended to, and did, make: A fabulous novel of ideas about art and its myriad relationship equations to life.