“There’s no bogey from over the hills that scares one like Time.”
Lud-in-the-Mist is a recently rediscovered example of a tradition of English fantasy comprehensively overwritten by Tolkien and Lewis’ Christian-allegorical epics, and so it seems a shame to write about it only with regards to those works.
On the other hand, part of what intrigues me so much about Lud-in-the-Mist is precisely its relation to Tolkien; particularly to The Hobbit and his minor children’s works (especially Farmer Giles of Ham).
Some exposition may be helpful at this point. Published in 1927 (eleven years before The Hobbit), Lud-in-the-Mist is, superficially, a mannered fairytale centred on the eponymous town: Lud is a city of merchants situated at the confluence of the Dawl and the Dapple. The Dawl leads down to the sea, and is responsible for the town’s wealth, with ships from distant lands docking in the harbours to trade; while the Dapple leads down from Fairyland behind the Debatable Hills to the west. Any mention of Fairyland is vulgar and shocking in the polite circles of Lud. So when its mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer discovers what looks like a conspiracy to smuggle fairy fruit into the town, it’s a sign that the staid, reliable townsfolk are about to get shaken up.
Obviously, Lud bears more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien’s Shire, which is also populated by staid, reliable townsfolk to whom Faerie (magic, elves, story, adventure) is so much unwanted moonshine. But while the insularity of the Shire is one-dimensional, a kind of parody of Englishness, that of the people of Lud has something of repression and incompleteness about it: Mirlees describes, beautifully, Chanticleer’s melancholy, his boredom with everyday life, his search for a half-remembered tune which also terrifies him.
It’s that tension between desire and fear, the search and the unwillingness to find, which is central to the delicately-balanced atmosphere of Lud-in-the-Mist. The key concept which Mirlees seems to be pinning down, and which is relevant to Tolkien is well, is inaccessibility: the idea that Faerie is both necessary and impossible. Faerie in Mirlees’ novel is delusion: those who eat the fairy fruit are no longer fit for polite society, or indeed any society at all (compare Bilbo’s social ostracism after his return from the Quest for Erebor). The ancestors of the Luddites communed with Fairyland, and ate the fairy fruit, often, as some ancient and almost Lovecraftian works of art attest; but in these latter days that experience, that opening to the strangeness of the world, is utterly lost, and yet still desirable, just as in Tolkien the Undying Lands are taken away from the earth and removed forever from mortal men.
We can connect this lostness, I think, with Modernism: Mirlees’ work is one deeply concerned with art and its (ir)relevance. Faerie, and the effects of the fairy fruit, are often connected to art: those strange, half-terrible murals and statues from a vanished past, a folk song that is both familiar and menacing, the will o’ th’ wisp which is the written word. The novel reaches out for the consolation of art as something that’s necessary to alleviate the rationalism of existence, but also fears it as an irrelevance, a delusion, something that we in these latter days can no longer access and remain quite human. Modernism as a movement worries at exactly these questions: the validity of art, of traditional narrative, in a world which seems to have moved on so utterly and so completely in the face of industrialisation, globalisation, total war. We long for the consolation of narrative, the wildness of Faerie; but we are old now, and wise, and the Straight Road is closed to us.