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Hope Mirrlees
Millennium, Victor Gollancz, 273 pages

David Wyatt

Gervasio Gallardo
Hope Mirrlees

Helen Hope Mirrlees was born in England in 1887. Mirrlees was a close friend of such literary lights as Walter de la Mare, T.S. Eliot, André Gide, Katharine Mansfield, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and William Butler Yeats. Under her own name, she published three novels: Madeleine -- One of Life's Jansenists (1921); The Counterplot (1924); and her 1926 classic fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist, which has acknowledged inspiration to the likes of Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Elizabeth Hand, Johanna Russ, and Tim Powers. She studied Classics at Newnham College of Cambridge University from 1910 to 1913, learning to converse in half a dozen languages including Zulu. She was a pupil of the eminent Greek scholar Jane Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1903). They became close friends, possibly even lovers, and Mirrlees worked as Harrison's assistant and archivist until Harrison's death in 1928. In letters, Harrison (who had had a prior relationship with a woman while studying at Cambridge in the late 1870s) referred to her and Mirrlees as the "Elder Walrus" and "Younger Walrus," or as the "elder Wife" and "young Wife" of the stuffed bear, Ursa Major, and to Mirrlees as "a ghostly daughter dearer than any child after the flesh." In 1915, they went to Paris to study Russian. In 1922, Harrison retired from lecturing and she and Mirrlees moved to a house in Bloomsbury, London. Together they published The Book of the Bear (1926), a series of translations from the Russian, and Life of the Arch-Priest Avvakum, by himself, a translation of a 17th century Russian novel.

Upon Harrison's death, Mirrlees was devastated and, given that her father and grandfather were both highly successful industrialists and had set up a substantial trust fund for her, she simply disappeared from the public arena for the next 50 years of her life. A fragment of an unfinished biography of 17th century British antiquarian Sir Robert Bruce Cotton was published in 1962 as A Fly in Amber. When in March 1970 Lin Carter reprinted Lud-in-the-Mist in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series he was unable to find Mirrlees, and, though out of copyright, the edition was never sanctioned by Mirrlees, who lived until 1978.

Biography: 1, 2, 3, 4
E-text: Lud-in-the-Mist: 1, 2, 3
Review: Lud-in-the-Mist: 1, 2
Letter from Virginia Wolfe to Hope Mirrlees (pay site)
Biography of H. Mirrlees' collaborator and close friend Jane Harrison 1, 2
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Lud-in-the-Mist, published in 1926, is a unique fantasy novel, slow moving and exquisitely written, fairly short but complete at 270-odd pages, and very much unlike the typical Tolkien rehashes of today. This uniqueness relates to the vastly different and wide-ranging "classical" education and interests in legends, sagas, and ancient cultures of such early modern fantasists as Morris, Dunsany, Cabell, Eddison, Tolkien, Lewis, and Hope Mirrlees. How many of today's teenagers tutor classical Greek at the college level, as Cabell did, or how many young women speak six languages by their mid-20s, as Mirrlees did? The other major factor is that the majority of these writers either came from upper class families or were sufficiently well ensconced in academia that they were not writing fantasy to make a living, satisfy an editor or meet a publisher's deadline, but to entertain a fairly narrow circle of friends. The synthesis of their exposure to the best of storytelling and the freedom to write what they pleased led to a great number of unique and classic works of fantasy.

Lud-in-the-Mist, situated at the confluence of the Dapple and the Dawl rivers, is the capital of the country of Dorimare, a land of sensible, prosperous, stodgy, conservative merchants. Some centuries ago a debauched, impulsive, hedonistic sometime poet, and worst of all fairy lore-loving aristocrat, Duke Aubrey, had been deposed by a growing merchant middle class. To the west of Dorimare, beyond the Debatable Hills and home to the source of the Dapple, is Fairyland -- the taboo, unmentionable source of all the worst things that can undermine an ordered society such as exists in Lud-in-the-Mist. Fairyland is also from whence are smuggled the unmentionable fairy fruit, which when eaten lead to exuberant, impulsive behaviour and a heightened sense of wonder. These are items so utterly taboo that merely naming them is considered the vilest of obscenities, and fairy fruit smugglers are convicted as "silk smugglers."

In this context, we are introduced to Nathaniel Chanticleer, the seemingly prosaic mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist. At first all seems well, but suddenly his son is exposed as having eaten fairy fruit and must be removed to a remote farm for a "cure." Chanticleer himself is not entirely untouched by fairy himself, and constantly fears a sudden loss of rationality. When a Puck-like character bearing fairy-fruit leads the prim and proper young ladies of Miss Crabapples' Academy for Young Ladies in wild orgiastic dancing, and the young women then disappear, Chanticleer must do something to save Dorimare from utter chaos. His quest to save his son leads him to uncover a murder and, most importantly, the importance of a balance between the mundane and the miraculous.

One of the greatest fortés of Lud-in-the-Mist is its ability to present a number of different ways in which it can be interpreted. In general, it can be seen as a commentary on British class structure. Contemporary critics saw in the Dorimare-Fairyland dichotomy the worlds of the living and the dead in the context of the massive human losses of WWI. Certainly, many references in the book make it clear that once one crosses over into Fairyland, one never returns. Others have given the book a Freudian interpretation, with Dorimare representing the conscious and Fairyland the unconscious. Still others see the dichotomy simply as one of the mundane and the fantastic, and the need for a balance between them. When Lud-in-the- Mist was reprinted in early 1970, it could clearly have been read as being in support of the use of mind-expanding drugs. Whichever interpretation one wishes to espouse, Lud-in-the- Mist also shines by its prose.

Besides the plot, the great fantasy novels, particularly those published before WWII, are blessed with a prose that immediately creates an atmosphere that says "Here there be fantasy." Besides such lovely place names as Appleimp Alley and Swan-on-the-Dapple, wonderful character names like Diggory Carp, Endymion Leer, and Hyacinth Baldbreeches, there are exquisite toasts: "Fill your glasses, and drink to the King of Moongrass cheeses," sayings: "Sea-dogs are like other dogs, and bark at what we're not used to," oaths: "by the Golden Apples of the West," and expletives: "Busty Bridget" and "by my Great-Aunt's Rump." Some of the descriptive prose is worth quoting:

Having inquired his way to the Gibberty's farm, he struck off the high road into the valley -- and very lovely it was in its autumn colouring. The vintage was over, and the vines were now golden and red. Some of the narrow oblong leaves of the wild cherry had kept their bottle-green, while others, growing on the same twig, had turned to salmon-pink, and the mulberries alternated between canary-yellow and grass-green. The mountain ash had turned a fiery rose (more lovely, even, than had been its scarlet berries) and often an olive grew beside it, as if ready, lovingly, to quench its fire in its own tender grey. The birches twinkled and quivered, as if each branch were a golden divining rod trembling to secret water; and the path was strewn with olives, looking like black oblong dung. It was one of those mysterious autumn days that are intensely bright though the sun is hidden; and when one looked at these lambent trees one could almost fancy them the source of the light flooding the valley

From time to time a tiny yellow butterfly would flit past, like a little yellow leaf shed by one of the birches; and now and then one of the bleeding, tortured looking liege-oaks would drop an acorn, with a little flop -- just to remind you, as it were, that it was leading its own serene, vegetable life, oblivious to the agony ascribed to it by the fevered fancy of man.

If the recommendations of authors like Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Elizabeth Hand, Johanna Russ, and Tim Powers mean nothing to you, and the description of the Chanticleer's garden on the second page of the book doesn't impress you as some of the most evocative descriptive writing in fantasy, then by all means leave Lud-in-the-Mist to a chosen few and sink yourself in the mire of the latest doorstop that passes itself off as fantasy.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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