The Written Word is a Fairy: Lud-in-the-Mist as Modernist Fantasy
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Colours spill from the opening pages of Lud-in-the-Mist, its fictional territory outlined with the assured strokes of paint on canvas. The river Dapple emerges from its subterranean cover ‘stained like a palette, with great daubs of colour reflected from the sky and earth.’ Doves are described with ‘the bloom of plums on their breasts, waddling on their coral legs.’ Hope Mirrlees’ novel is a sensory fairy story draped in the primary colours of Enid Blyton – yet it soon becomes apparent this is no fantasy designed merely to comfort.
Written in 1926, Lud-in-the-Mist emerged in the decade of British modernism. Completed in the wake of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), caught between the publication of Virginia Woolf’s masterpieces Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), it is perhaps unsurprising that the novel has never quite broken through to popular acclaim. In recent years Mirrlees has been reappraised as a significant modernist in her own right, with attention directed towards her fragmentary poem Paris (1919). Yet Lud-in-the-Mist seems an anomaly among these texts. Its titular city is the capital of Dorimare, a country bordered with Fairyland. For centuries Dorimare has blocked off all relations with the neighbouring state, demonising its population and cracking down on smuggled imports of fairy fruit, which are rumoured to incite madness and delusion. When his children go missing after eating these illicit fruits, Nathaniel Chanticleer begins to suspect a hostile fairy invasion. With the authorities quick to deny any such possibility, Nathaniel must venture on a likely-doomed journey into Fairyland alone.
On the surface, the novel lacks any of the notable features of modernist writing – the stream of consciousness, the subjectivity of the prose, the fragmentation of the narratorial voice. Yet there is undoubtedly a tension at play within Lud-in-the-Mist, a tension which Woolf recognised in her assessment of Mirrlees herself. She described the author as ‘a very self-conscious, prickly and perverse young woman’, possessing ‘an aristocratic and conservative tendency in opinion’. This contrast between perversity and a more conservative edge tosses and turns at the heart of the book. At a glance it appears to be a fairy story more indebted to the Victorian fantasies of Tennyson then to the kaleidoscopic subjectivity of Woolf’s work. This is further underlined by the issue of clarity – to put it simply, Lud-in-the-Mist is startlingly easy to read. There is none of the knotted prose associated with modernism’s seminal texts – no overwhelming intertextuality that requires readers to buy a separate reference handbook.
Nevertheless, Mirrlees’ writing sets the novel apart from the Arthurian pastiches or odes to far-off lands that gained popularity in the preceding decades. Within the parameters of a seemingly simple tale, moments of phantasmagoria intrude like creeping roots. Those ever-present primary colours unveil a story-book framework which is destabilised in the early introduction of Nathaniel. Our protagonist is a man who attends a funeral dressed in canary-coloured stockings, claiming in his defence that ‘it’s a blackish canary’. Though this may appear as a throwaway joke, among Dorimarites such subjective views on seemingly fixed reality are bound to turn you into an outsider. Nathaniel begins to understand the danger of ‘Seeing things as he wanted to see them’, filtering the world through his subjectivity. Mirrlees is not simply making a point about colour – she is exploring the elusiveness of words themselves as tools to reveal the flexibility of reality. The stable, outlined landscape of Dorimare melts away once Nathaniel enters Fairyland. Footsteps become the sound of wind through dead leaves. Dancing sprites are transfigured into patterns on a tapestry. Images flit in and out of view and perceptions are redefined (‘The moon kept playing tricks on him, turning trees and boulders into goblins and wild beasts’). Mirrlees provides descriptions of colour and texture, but we are no longer in a familiar, cosy landscape – the territories are now distinctly Impressionistic:
Nathaniel felt convinced that this was not merely a story he was inventing himself, but, as well, it was a dream – a grotesque, illogical, synthesis of scraps of reality, to which he could add what elements he chose.
Modernism is not simply a historical backdrop to Lud-in-the-Mist – it is a delicately wielded weapon by which Mirrlees destabilises the structures of language. The first chapter ends with Nathaniel looking over gravestones, musing that ‘perhaps after all epitaphs are not altogether to be trusted.’ Text which is carved in stone (both metaphorically and literally) rejects flexibility, and should in turn be rejected. As a statement of intent it’s hugely provocative – were Woolf or Eliot ever so bold in their declarations? Rigid words lead to rigid perceptions of reality, and become a tool for upholding singular views of the past. Fairies are effectively unpersoned by the Dorimarites, removed from histories and consigned to rural myth. A modern echo might be found in Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris novels, especially Shriek: An Afterword (2006), with its tales of suppressed subterranean races wiped from the collective consciousness through the rewriting of historical texts. Whereas Vandermeer’s focus is on colonialism, Mirrlees explores the process by which language is used to demonise outsider groups – but also the way in which art allows fragments of these old cultures to survive:
Another tradition said that their only means of communication was poetry and music; and in the country poetry and music were still called ‘The language of the Silent People’.
Mirrlees reiterates her intention in the novel’s final lines: ‘The Written Word is a Fairy [...] speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning!’ Such tongue-in-cheek moralising reminds us of the critiques of fairy fruit as an escapist drug that provokes madness. It also holds echoes to the crude dismissal of fantasy that has long dogged the genre, casting imaginative works as delusions which cause readers to stray too far from serious reality. Mirrlees’ solution is to seek a balance – Lud-in-the-Mist ends with the peaceful union of Dorimare and Fairyland, as the long-separated forces of wild imagination and orthodox convention are finally joined into one. ‘Fairy’ is allowed to prosper again, representing the volatile magic of written words, ‘moulding reality into any shape it chose.’ ▲
Victor Rees is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He took an Undergraduate degree in English at Cambridge and has recently completed a Masters in Playwriting at the University of Edinburgh.