Little, Big by John Crowley

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It’s the sort of book that once you turn the last page, you feel you ought to turn to the first and begin again. The themes are so big, the thoughts so anything but little, that I wonder what I’ve missed in the first time through.

There’s Destiny, for one thing.  War and death. Love. Ideas like that, any one of which could consume a whole novel all by itself. But Crowley has them crowded up together, banging against each other making them all Somehow related, and at the same time he strings us along at a carefully measured pace of his own. There is no hurry to get where he is going.

And even if we get there, wherever that may be, we find such an inter-connectedness that we may very well be back where we first started. It’s Brother North-Wind’s Secret: after Winter comes Spring, and after Spring comes Winter, in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

It turns out that Edgewood is the door, through which one must go, but it is also the way back. For one generation follows another; after Violet and John Drinkwater, come Daily Alice and Smoky Barnable, and their children behind them. They have tarot cards to guide them, and faeries to distract them, but still they must live the Tale as we all must do.

Poor Auberon leaves home for the City to find his fame and fortune. What he finds is beautiful Sylvie and a broken heart. He lives scandalously, and when he returns only his father is surprised to see him. There is mention of killing the fatted calf, and we’re instantly reminded of the Prodigal Son, whom rather than being turned away is received home with open arms.

Sophie’s daughter with George Mouse is a changeling; she has been stolen away by the faeries, but she, too, returns home to open arms. What healing takes place when the lost daughter is reunited with her mother after years of separation. Perhaps, in Crowley’s observations of family, it is not so faerie-like after all.

Daily Alice walks to the river first, and we’re never quite sure what becomes of her after she crosses over. Smoky, always left out no matter how well loved he is, follows. And so the family banquet becomes a wake first, to honor him. Each one of us has his own path. Ultimately, we walk it alone.

And so, before I go, a final question that Tom and I briefly touched on in the middle of the month. Do you think the Tale is just for the Drinkwaters? Or, are we all living it ourselves? I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this most magical book.

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21 thoughts on “Little, Big by John Crowley”

  1. This question is exactly the issue that gives me a bit of trouble with the Drinkwaters’ story. For it to matter more, the tale should be something that we are all living ourselves. And yet I don’t quite get that feeling. It seems more particular.

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    1. I think the Tale is universal in the portrayal of family, flawed but close, like most families I can think of. And of course, it is universal in the birth and death of one generation to another. For me, I liked the Truth of sons/brothers off exploring on their own, and more often than not getting into trouble.

      The elements of faeries and Tarot cards are unrealistic, of course, making up the fantasy. But they add a magical quality that thrills me.

      One of the things that I loved most of all about the book, besides the writing, was the mood. I found the slow and gentle pace, and the novel’s length, enticing rather than annoying. I found his description so perfectly clear I could envision the glades and the wardrobes and the corridors and the house quite well. I even felt I could be friends with Daily Alice.

      Does any of this hold true for you?

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      1. The description. That is the novel’s biggest strength, it’s true.
        What doesn’t hold true for me is the feeling I could know anyone (much less be friends with) who is like Daily Alice. She is bigger than life.
        I was initially intrigued by the description of her as a big woman, because I am really big. But her bigness seems to have none of the drawbacks of living in the ordinary world, I guess because the house and the woods are built for her, in some literal ways.

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  2. Oh dear, I must confess that I did not manage to get beyond the first book of Little, Big. On the one hand May was not a great month for reading due to other multiple distractions, but on the other I was not able to surrender to the characters or the tale. The writing is lovely. I am inclined to think that the problem is mine. I feel somewhat embarrassed in that I made a commitment, to myself at least, to read this book which has been on my shelves for so long.

    I do wonder, when you talk about the timelessness of the portrait of family underlying this tale holds more (or less) relevance for someone like myself who has a very fractured family experience? Nuclear families are more often isolated now than even a generation or two earlier.

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    1. I can certainly see why you would not manage to get beyond the first book, after the whirlwind of reading we did for the IFFP! Interestingly enough, the first time I started this book (several years ago) I did not get much past the middle myself. But, the writing is lovely as you said, and who knows? Perhaps some day you will get to it when the timing is better.

      As for the portrait of the family and timelessness and fractured family experience…I can hardly think of a family that doesn’t have at least a fissure, if not a fracture. And for the generations of this family we find the same woes: Alice’s sister has slept with her husband, Alice’s sister has a baby with her cousin, that baby is adopted (even if by faeries), Alice’s son goes off to live in squalor for quite some time…you name it, it’s here. There is no such thing, in my opinion as a perfect family. The most we can hope for is that we love each other through it all. Which I think is one of Crowley’s underlying messages.

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  3. I definitely think we’re all living it ourselves! As I remember it, in the earlier part of the book it seemed to be only for the Drinkwaters, even if had to be “enabled” by Smoky Barnable. But once the focus shifted to Auberon, and then to Sylvie, I started to think it was much more about the world. Not just the fact of Sylvie herself, but how much the city seemed to be involved–all the people, many individually and many more as a mass.

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    1. The Tale is synonymous with Life for me; we each have one to live. How we choose to live it, who we include within it, is up to us, but I see universal themes throughout this story and ours. And, I agree, we especially see it shift when the story expands to include the City.

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  4. How often am I living the Tale of the characters in the fiction I read? Never! Who needs it? I am living my own Tale. Everyone is. Thank goodness for the particular in fiction, in art.

    More abstractly, everyone wonders about the purpose of their life in some way, feeling that they are, or are not, part of some larger story, yet without more than a vague sense of what that story is or might be. In aesthetic terms, this is an aspect of the sublime.

    Part of the genius of the fairy subject is the tension in the concept between the picturesque and the sublime, the cute and the scary.

    I never surrender to characters or tales. They surrender to me. Then I put them in fictional POW camps until the end of the conflict. Don’t worry, the fictional Red Cross makes regular visits.

    Speaking of particular: when Daily Alice crosses over, she becomes the place. That’s why she has to go first, to create the place where everyone else is going.

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    1. No, no, no. I never meant are we living the Drinkwaters’ Tale. I mean, is there a Tale we’re living which has been planned and meant for us? I think that Crowley was implying a Tale created specifically for the Drinkwaters, and I wonder if we have a Tale created specifically for us or we make it up as we go along. That’s what I was getting at in the question ending my post.
      The whole destiny/fate kind of thing…

      I like how you point out the tension that the faeries bring, between the cute and the scary.

      POW camps…hmmmm, is that where I would put Alice? Or, for that matter, Anna Karenina? I think I absorb the part of them that connects to me all too readily. I want to learn from their mistakes. I want to rejoice in their celebrations.

      The part of Daily Alice crossing over bothered me. She just landed nowhere to me, neither heaven nor hell. The place is too ill defined for me, and here I’m addressing John Crowley. Bellezza, who wants things to be absolute.

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  5. Oh, I was responding to Jeanne, to “should.” And then later to roughghost’s “surrender.” I do not actually house characters in camps; rather I dismantle them and examine their gears and circuits, much like Smoky does with the orrery. None of them are, after all, people. They are all dream-clockwork.

    I wonder if one of the tarot cards matches up with Alice, one of the Lesser Trumps.

    Another way to think of the place is that it is the old fairy-land, but refurnished or recreated (by Alice, now a nature goddess) for its new tenants. Presumably one of the 52 fairies had to go inward to create / remake their new, bigger place. We do not see that, just Mrs. Underwood closing up the old fairy-land.

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    1. I can see you like Smoky and his orrery (a word I had to look up, then realized we used a model of the solar system such as that when I began teaching) dismantling and sorting all the pieces. But, it’s interesting how you say none of them are people. I saw the characters as people, even though everyone but Smoky was dreamlike, too.

      So, Alice made a new fairy heaven? Maybe, right? It certainly didn’t seem like it would be a scary, dark place. And now you’ve made sense for me of Mrs. Underwood closing up the old fairy land.

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      1. Oh, not just in this fiction but in all fiction. Fictional characters are representations of people, their lifelikeness an illusion created by ingenious magicians. Smoky, in his semi-existent initial condition, exaggerates the metaphor, which is a big part of what fantasy literature does – make the metaphor more explicit or more literal. The big one in this book is the sense by many characters that they are in a story, a real phenomenon experienced by real people, made literal in this highly meta-fictional novel.

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        1. See? When I said that you make reading interesting and you “laughed” at me this is just what I meant: pointing out the meta fiction qualities which I hadn’t clearly looked at before.

          Still, characters are always alive for me to some extent. They live and breathe even though they’re fake. (I can’t look at a spider without thinking of Charlotte, for example.)

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  6. One thing I noticed on this read was that the fairies barely appear. They’re hinted at, a felt presence in the background, a sense of the precious magic of the world, but rarely characters in the foreground. It’s the human stories that ground and carry our experience of the Tale, and when the fairy element intrudes, bringing loss or change or the thrill of beauty, it enlarges our experience of those qualities in everyday life. I find that the lasting attraction in this novel.

    I’m glad (and a little astonished) that I did make it through this month! Thank you, I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and those of others. I know I will need to read the book again, hopefully sooner rather than later, to ponder more of the layers.

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    1. The faeries seem obscure to me, too, although Tom mentioned that they only appeared to the women in the story. I’m afraid I need my faeries to be a little more obvious than stealing a daughter for a changeling. No, I’m teasing, but they weren’t a very bold presence in the novel.

      Thank you, Lory, for reading such a thick book so stuffed with ideas. It has been wonderful to exchange ideas with you and the others. Even though a few dropped halfway through, or still aren’t finished, I think it was worthwhile to at least dip one’s toes into. And for those of us who finished, we have a lovely piece of fantasy to mark our Springtime.

      Like you, I will need to revisit this book some day to “ponder more of the layers”. (Beautifully said!)

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  7. I haven’t finished Book 3 yet! I shall sit in the Readalong Corner in the cap of my Shame. 🙂

    Not having reached the end, I don’t feel I have much to say about it, especially as it’s a while since I last picked it up and I’m rather disconnected from it. I like what Lory writes. I think it’s true too that even if the fairies aren’t often in the foreground, they’re in the characters’ minds and indirectly influencing the action.

    Everything that Tom writes about character and fiction is true true true, they are only assemblages of words, and yet I find myself slightly appalled at his metaphors! I incline more towards Bellezza’s belief in them as real people. I want to find out what makes them tick, yes; but I’d rather sit them down and psycho-analyse them than dismantle the poor things.

    Thank you for hosting this; sorry to be such a poor participant!

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    1. Helen, there is no Reading Cap of Shame for you! You pointed out marvelous things in your posts, things which totally eluded me. I have been enriched by reading what you have written.

      It’s very easy to become disconnected with the book. That is why I plowed on ahead and finished it halfway through May. I knew that if I didn’t, all would be lost. It’s too complicated to keep all the layers/characters together.

      I’m glad that you see my point about the characters living and breathing for me. They are so much more than just a symbol, or something flat in my mind.

      Thank you for all you’ve read and contributed! xo

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    2. If it is the POW metaphor that is appalling, roughghosts invoked that, not me. If it is the puppets and clockwork, those are metaphors I use frequently. I am not as bad as Vladimir Nabokov: “My characters are galley slaves” (Strong Opinions, 95). I am about as bad as John Crowley, though:

      “Writers of fiction often do care less about the characters and story in the fiction they read – they find it harder to suspend disbelief and be touched by made-up troubles and triumphs – but they notice a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction.”

      One of those skilled uses of the tools of fiction is to create plump, round, lifelike characters. What a wonderful thing to be able to do. Knowing that they are made up does not make them “flat,” any more than Rodin’s Balzac is flat.

      As for a character being “just a symbol,” Wuthering Expectations is almost symbol-free. Symbols are for third-rate writers, the kind I try to avoid reading.

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      1. Bellezza, thank you! But I was joking really. I am shameless. I plan to absorb myself back in Little, Big once the exams are over. This has been a fascinating readalong and both your and Tom’s posts have been very useful to me.

        Tom, yes, I was responding to the puppets and clockwork! And I agree with all you say. When I’m reading a novel (or some poems) I do respond to characters that are plump and imagine them as real people, as Bellezza does. I think it takes tremendous talent to be able to combine characters who do ‘live’ and about whom one cares (neither of which is a prerequisite for a novel) with all the meta-fictional jokes and weirdness, and Crowley does it all so well in this book.

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