Little, Big, by John Crowley

Bantam 1981.

[This is a very old review and "gushes" way too much. I hope to rework it entirely after my next reading of the book].

Without a doubt one of my favorite books. Little, Big transcends the fantasy genre; it is not about magic, but Life, which of course has magic in it. I have read it twice now, and I think that in the intervening years it affected me in ways that I did not suspect. It is important, profound, subtle. I cannot summarize the content or message. Much of its power is still a mystery to me, but I am beginning to see...

You cannot browse this book. During the second reading I realized that every paragraph has significance and contributes to the whole in a way that is very rare. It is the sort of text that you want to cross-reference and research; but this would be a dry, academic exercise. The important thing is to read carefully and remember the details.

It is not perfect. The episodes dealing with "Barbarossa" and political forces don't fit well and could have been omitted.

The final 50 pages build to an intense, undefinable poignancy that Tolkien would call a "eucatastrophe"; a happy ending that seems like tragedy.

The book is not a philosophical facade. It can be enjoyed on many levels; a 20th-century fairy story, a romance of many generations, a study of life in the city and the country, an intricate play of symbol and metaphor. At the deepest level that I can see, Crowley is getting at something that is difficult (or impossible?) to express directly: the structure of symbol systems in our minds, and their effect on the World and our Inner Life.

(After another reading).

I see more in the book each time I go through it. Many literary quotes, many internal correspondences. I know I'm still missing a lot.

The ending breaks my heart, largely because of Smoky's death, Alice's transformation and their apparent separation.

It would be pointless to record every interesting thing I found this time through, but here are notes I made while reading:

Alice's destiny is clearly described in the story. She is aware of it but does not seem to have it in mind until midway through the book.

I noticed the occluded importance of several men: John Drinkwater never visited the fairies as Violet was able to do, but he did build Edgewood which is the centerpiece of the whole story. How was he able to create something of such mystic import? The text says he was inspired by watching young Violet coming in from milking. Also: Henry and Harvey Cloud do not even appear in the book, yet they were able to build the perpetual motion orrery capable of powering the house.

Alice gives Smoky her childhood as a wedding gift. But remember: her childhood (until the time she married) included physical intimacy with Sophie. Perhaps this is the source of Smoky's desire for his wife's sister.

The family tree printed at the front is very important. In many cases the text refers to a "cousin" or a "grandfather"; this is sometimes very important once you realize who are the actual people involved. For example: Alice's father, John Storm ("the Doctor") is the son of August ("Grandfather Trout") and Amy Meadows. She later married Chris Woods and is living at "the Woods" through much of the story.

Lilac is qualified to be a magical child because she is the reunification of the two lines of the family (through Sophie and George), both descending from Violet and John. Same for any issue of Auberon and Sylvie, presuming George's suspicion regarding her parentage to be true.

I have come to believe that the following is in some sense profoundly true. It is from Violet's section "Some Notes About Them":

There were no answers, none. All that was within the power of mind and speech was to become more precise in how the questions were put. John had asked her: Do fairies really exist? And there wasn't any answer to that. So he tried harder, and the question got more circumstantial and tentative, and at the same time more precise and exact; and still there were no answers, only the fuller and fuller form of the question, evolving as Auberon had described to her all life evolving, reaching out limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex and yet more and more compact and individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness. And then there was an end to that. The last edition, and John died still waiting for his answer.
I notice a constant confusion between "inside" and "outside" running through all of Crowley's books. Example from this one: Edgewood itself, the various orreries, the House of Memory.

I think Smoky is somehow produced by Them to fulfil their bargain with Alice. This is why he is vague and anonymous until he meets her, and why he is not at the Banquet at the end. He is in some sense less "real" than the others, although he certainly is an individual with his own inner life. (This gem from S. Peck: Smoky's real name is given at one point: "Evan S." = "evanesce", which is a good description of his character before his marriage).

I still find the whole Barbarossa subplot to be uninteresting. He is, after all, the Fool in the cards. The "War" and the "Parliament" seem to be red herrings and I don't see what they contribute to the story.

Puzzles: What is Ariel's "Maid of Stone"? Why is the Thorn & Oak an emblem of Mrs. Underhill? (and later of Alice). What is the relationship between the real Lilac and Auberon's imaginary Lilac? (They dress alike, are the same ages and can do the same trick with the fireflies). The following images seem to be a rebus for "Sylvie" (or perhaps "Titania") but I can't discern the meaning: "wet leaves, staghorn, snails' shells, fauns' feet".

Back to The Fiction of John Crowley
Back to the Home Page
Bill McClain (