Sunday, September 12, 2010
Burned Out on Old-School Fantasy
As I noted in this post, Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter didn't do much for me. Now that I've finished Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist with similar feelings, I wonder if I wasn't simply burned out on pre-Tolkein fantasy. I'd read rather a lot of it over the last year, and it was with a feeling of homecoming that I turned back to Olaf Stapledon's science fiction (to be covered in a later post).
Lud-in-the-Mist is the story of the upper class of a prosperous town dealing with drug smuggling from Fairyland. Early in the story, the entire class of the young ladies' finishing school is corrupted by the 'fairy fruit' and runs off to Fairyland. The town and the town government greets this with an upset but resigned shrug. But when the Mayor, Nat Chanticleer, feels that his only son may be in jeopardy from this source, he moves Heaven and Earth and changes his entire personality, sacrificing his role and his reputation to protect his boy. I'm really feelin' the love there. (I know, applying different standards to an older work. But *no one* goes running off after their vulnerable daughters? Really? OK.)
The transformation of Nat is a pretty dramatic one, and it's really the heart of the story. Most of the rest of the book is atmosphere and world-building as we learn about Lud, Fairyland and their historical relationship. There are also lots of satirical digs at English class relations. It's all pretty impressive, and I'm sure it was even more so for people reading it back in the 1920's. However, I found it to be easy to put down. Actually, I ended up putting it down for almost three weeks in the middle, which almost certainly didn't help me get a unified view of the book. Certainly being an American in the 21st century, the social commentary didn't really resonate with me.
One thing that stuck with me is that the people of Lud felt very much like Hobbits. I assume that Mirrlees and Tolkein were drawing off the same source material for their characters. In that, Nat's journey from inaction to action is a bit like Bilbo's at the beginning of The Hobbit. Another interesting bit is that Mirrlees' Fairy is rather more threatening than Elfland in Dunsany. Elfland was a place of dreamlike stasis, but Mirrlees' fairy is a bit more active and almost meanacing, with various denizens running around spreading mischief. It felt more alien, and in that way one can see echoes with Neil Gaiman's work (who of course provides an introduction for the volume I read).
Anyway, that wraps up my pre-Tolkein fantasy reading. What have I learned? Overall, there is a rich vein of Western fantasy that existed before Tolkein--he in no way sprang fully formed from the veins of the Norse eddas. (Not news to many of you, of course, but I had only known that in an academic way before.) You can definitely trace these early works through their influence on modern authors such as Gaiman and Kelly Link. Many of these early works are beautifully written (although some aren't: I'm looking at you, Worm Ouroboros!) and many are very psychologically and philosophically complex (I'm thinking of George MacDonald's Phantastes and David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus respectively). And of course, you've got the mix of satire, fluffy entertainment, and serious themes that we still find today. There's a lot of richness to be found in the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I'm very glad that I took this rather long tour through that history, I've found it to be entirely rewarding, even if I didn't uncritically love every work that I read.