Wednesday, 29 April 2009
This book, which I read for the One Upon a Time III Challenge, immediately reminded me of Tolkien: the small town of Lud-in-the-Mist feels so very much like The Shire. It was published in 1926, and Mirrlees was quite a well-known figure in literary circles, so it's quite possible that it had some influence on Tolkien's creation, while the book itself owes something to William Morris's medieval romances. It is at the same time recognisably English and "domestic", yet with an alien feel concomitant with the town's location on the edge of the Elfin Marches. There are echoes too of Sylvia Townsend Warner's work. Modern readers will find a town reminiscent of Wall, in Neil Gaiman's Stardust, not surprising as Gaiman lists Mirrlees an one of his influences, and has written the introduction to this Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Lud's citizens have the same air of comfortable smugness that the Hobbits have before trouble comes to The Shire and, like the Hobbits, they want no truck with anything unsettling - indeed there are marked similarities between the Hobbits' distaste for anything that smacks of the exotic or adventure and that of the good burghers of Lud who, afraid of the taint of fairy fruit, refuse even to name it. When the Mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is told that his young son may have eaten the fruit he is appalled, and it is a matter for utmost secrecy. He decides to send Ranulph away, not realising that he is sending him into even greater danger. It is up to Chanticleer, an unlikely hero who is lost in a marriage the heart has gone out of, to find his son and set the town to rights.
While the writing style is very much of its period, there is a timelessness about this book. In many ways it is less dated than Lord of the Rings or, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for its themes are universal. Its inclusion in the Fantasy Masterworks canon is well-deserved - a must-read for anyone interested in the genre, and certainly for everyone reading for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.