This is a fairy tale. It is a rewrite of the clash between the Apollonian, here represented as the solid merchant-burghers of the town and the Dionysian wildness of fairy.
In particular, the stolid town of Lud is losing its children to fairy fruit: one mouthful and they are addicted, and it turns them into wild dreamers. The Lud yeomanry cannot stop the smuggling in of this banned and dreaded commodity.
This is so like the war on drugs that I thought the book was very modern; it was written in 1926 and the author was a friend of Virginia Woolf (author of The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs Dalloway) and and an influence on T S Eliot! I suppose that explains the lack of modern technology and the stuffy Englishness of so many of the characters: they reminded by of the Hobbits in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; when Luke travels as servant to and protector of young Ranulph it reminded me very much of Sam Gamgee with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Some of the plot is particularly daft and seems to have been made up on the spot. For example, Nat and Ambrose find a secret passage (thanks to Nat's wife having tapped on a bit of panelling and heard a hollow sound) and enter the cellars where fairy fruit is hidden only to find, when they return, that there is no evidence of fairy fruit ever having been there. This is a more or less pointless exercise.
On the other hand it has some remarkable observations and descriptions:
- Description of the town: “It had flat brick houses - not the mere carapace of human beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves with each generation under their changeless antique roofs. It had old arches, framing delicate landscapes that one could walk into, ... and little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens held levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children.” (C 1)
- “Let a thing be but a sort of punctual surprise ... let it be delicate, painted and gratuitous, hinting that the creator is solely preoccupied with aesthetic considerations, and combines disparate objects simply because they look so well together, and that thing will admirably fill the role of a flower.” (C 1)
- “You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is only giving you for a portrait - a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished.” (C 1)
- “Leisure, that fissure in the solid masonry of works and days in which take seed a myriad curious little flowers - good cookery, and shining mahogany, and a fashion in dress that, like the baroque bust, is fantastic through sheer wittiness, and porcelain shepherdesses, and the humours ,and endless jokes - in fact, the toys, material and spiritual, of civilisation.” (C 2)
- Spring: “Everywhere, steadily, invisibly, the trees’ winter foliage of white sky or amethyst grey dusk was turning to green and gold.” (C 3)
- “He looked upon him more as an heirloom than as a son.” (C 3)
- “That sense of emptiness, that drawing in of the senses ... so that the physical world vanishes, and you yourself at once swell out to fill its place, and at the same time shrink to a millionth part of your former bulk, turning into a mere organ of suffering without thought and without emotions.” (C 3)
- “We are not yet civilised enough for exogamy; and, when anything seriously goes wrong, married couples are apt to lay all the blame at its door.” (C 3)
- “This incorrigible optimist about facts was the same man who walked in daily terror of the unknown. But perhaps the one state of mind was the outcome of the other.” (C 4)
- “Have you ever noticed a little child of three or four walking hand in hand with its father through the streets? It is almost as if the two were walking in time to perfectly different tunes.” (C 4)
- “His own way to a sick man is what grass is to a sick dog.” (C 5)
- “The nymph whom all travellers pursue and none has ever yet caught - the white high-road.” (C 5)
- “Like a pair of gigantic golden compasses with which a demiurge is measuring chaos.” (C 6)
- “Professor Wisp, shouting directions the while, wound himself in and out among them, as if they were so many beads, and he the string on which they were threaded.” (C 6)
- “Restoring to what she was pleased to call her mind its normal condition, namely that of a kettle that contains just enough water to simmer comfortably over a low fire.” (C 8)
- “Nasty things have a way of not always staying at the bottom, you know - stir the pond and they rise to the top.” (C 8)
- “It was as if the future were a treacly adhesive fluid that had been spilt all over the present.” (C 9)
- “The red-roofed houses scattered about the side of the hill looked as if they were crowding helter-skelter to the harbour, eager to turn ships themselves and sail away - a flock of clumsy ducks on a lake of swans.” (C 10)
- “The belfries seemed to be standing on tiptoe behind the houses - like tall serving lads, who, unbeknown to their masters, have succeeded in squeezing themselves into the family group.” (C 10)
- “One day he himself would be a prisoner, confined between the walls of other people's memory.” (C 22)
- “Sea-dogs are like other dogs and bark at what they're not used to.” (C 29)
Well written fantasy. April 2019; 264 pages