October 2014

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Law in the Mist

The law is a kind of insanity, redefining reality according to its own rules and expectations. For example, divorce law in some countries, and in recent history within the U.S., restricted the grounds for divorce, requiring one party to be at fault for reasons of adultery, cruelty, or abandonment. One can imagine a couple reshaping their history to fit the requirements of the court. They dredge deep for anger, emphasizing rage over sadness in accusation after accusation, until the ruse becomes real. They see only what the law tells them to see. They are trapped in hate and recrimination, like the mortals who pluck a piece of fruit from a fairy's table or sip from a fairy's cup and are forced to remain in the land of fairy forever. As Hope Mirrlees writes in her 1926 novel Lud-in-the-Mist, "[F]airy was delusion, so was the law."

The examples of fairy as delusion -- as unreality -- are legion in the literatures of fantasy and the fantastic; to my knowledge, explicit explorations of the law as delusion are less common. In Mirrlees's novel, the delusions of fairy and the delusions of the law are set at odds. The merchant middle-class of the land of Dorimare rose up generations before and overthrew the Duke, his cronies, and their fairy influences. Instead, they devoted themselves to the law, which by the beginning of the novel denies the existence and influence of fairy entirely. Fairy fruit is referred to in law as smuggled lace and the words of fairy have become obscenities that shouldn't be spoken in mixed company, though sprigs of fennel are still used by the less refined as protection against fairy.

At the beginning of the story, Master Nathaniel Chanticleer is mayor of Dorimare's capital, Lud-in-the-Mist, and a thoroughly respectable member of the ruling class. But his surface is as much an illusion as the law which calls a brightly colored fruit "lace." He is haunted by a note he once strummed on an old fairy instrument, a note that terrifies him with thoughts of being cold and alone, his comfortable life and world long gone. He thinks he is the only one in all Dorimare who feels this way, until his son begins to act strangely, seeing what is not there, yelling out from strange fears, and wishing fervently that he could stop things from happening. What things, asks Master Nathaniel. "'All the things,' moaned Ranulph, 'summer and winter, and days and nights. All the things!'" He is as terrified of the passing of time as is his father. The implications are doubled, then, when it turns out that eating illegal fairy fruit may have caused Ranulph's symptoms.

Both the law and fairy are delusions, Mirrlees says, but are delusions of distinct colors. Fairy, and especially fairy fruit, leads to wild dancing, cruel and even sadistic tricks, and a disregard for the practicalities of living, while the law leads to self-satisfaction, denial of self, and denial of others. Master Nathaniel Chanticleer's father, who made the long ago association between fairy and the law, insisted that the law was made to serve the people while fairy robbed from them, but by the beginning of the novel, the once-revolutionary middle class have relaxed so far into being rulers that they no longer see beyond their own noses. Neither the law nor fairy appears to be truly better than the other.

When I first read Lud-in-the-Mist, the characters felt melodramatic to me and the magic flat, with the exception of the moody descriptions of landscape. One of the joys of rereading, though, is in being able to call your past self an idiot. The characters' fears are melodramatic, a mix of the absurd and very real, but this is true of any ruling class whose laws and way of life are threatened. And the magic is thick with complication as illusions and delusions spread through the characters' lives in layers that pool together into new colors. My more radical side -- which demands revolution -- is bothered by the novel's middle-class satisfaction, but Mirrlees's novel is far from simplistic or flat.

The most interesting of the novel's complications, to me, is the relationship between fairy and death. In Dorimare, fairies are known as the Silent People, which is also the name for the dead. When the law of the middle class denies the very existence of fairy, it is also denying the existence of death. The fairy note that haunts Master Nathaniel reminds him of mortality, hinting at his end. To counter his fear of death, he reads tombstone epitaphs, which provide a carefully packaged and reassuring version of death.

As individuals, we can deny our own mortality and like Master Nathaniel be woken from nightmares in which everything we love is gone and we are alone, cold, hungry, and empty. In fearing death, we can long for it, because at least then our anxieties will come to an end. Or we can grapple with our own mortality, taking joy in fleeting experience. What, asks Lud-in-the-Mist, does this look like for a society? What does it mean for the law? How does the law coddle us into self-satisfaction, denying ourselves and others? More and more, these are questions worth asking.