Fantasy Masterworks: Little, Big

16 Jun

Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliamentis a modern fantasy novel by John Crowley, published in 1981, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982. An extraordinary, sweeping and strange novel, it can perhaps be best described through the metaphor of its central setting: Edgewood, the house in which many generations (and permutations) of the Drinkwater family live. Edgewood is designed by the patriarch, a renowned architect, to be many houses within a single structure. It unfolds, as the viewer circles around it, to reveal many different facades — Victorian, modern, gothic — like a complex piece of origami. Little, Big is one of those sprawling, dream-like fantasy novels, much like Mark Helprin’s fantastical history of a mythical early 20th-century New York, Winter’s Tale. Like another counterpart, One Hundred Years of Solitude, but this time set in New England, Little, Big spans several generations of the Drinkwater family and their relationship with the world of faerie. The concept is rescued from tweeness by author Crowley’s dazzling feats of aerobatics with the English language, which at first take a bit of getting used to but, ultimately, draw you in and trap you with their beauty, not unlike the fabled world of faery itself. The esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom called Little, Big “a neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll”, and the vast novel does have an almost soporific, Wonderland quality to it – best read on lazy days in dappled sunshine.

Little, Big is a brilliant, complex, perplexing paradox of a book. It’s deeply serious and yet utterly evanescent: a sophisticated, moving adult novel about fairyland. I first came across it on the recommendation of a very well-read friend, and I fell hard for it within the first few pages. The moment I want to shout about here is the one that first prompted this headlong topple. So, some background: the novel is that rare and old-fashioned thing, a family saga. The Drinkwaters are an American family whose home, Edgewood, is a many-faced, labyrinthine, Beaux Arts country pile, not too distant from an unnamed city that is clearly New York. Yet the Drinkwaters are special, and what makes them special is that they’re related (by marriage) to fairies. Their family history, at diverse and unpredictable points, is implicated in “the Tale”—a longstanding fairy narrative that unfolds in a rhythm too slow, too magical, for human comprehension. One of the mysteries of the novel, and of Crowley’s brilliance, is the way he continually shifts our understanding of how the fairy Tale, and the tale of the novel, intersect. This is not a simple fantasy set-up. Some characters have direct access to the fairy world; others hunger for it and are continually, even tragically, denied; some characters live in ignorance of fairies; others dwell in disbelief. And yet, somehow, each of these perspectives are given equal weight and validity—they all hum within the novel’s grand omniscience.

And interpretation of events is a constant source of  consternation in these pages. Almost everyone in the Drinkwater family has a premonition of strange matters afoot, but without much clarity on the particulars.  Some of the characters are granted elusive glimpses of different realms—where animals can talk, and fairy tale creatures populate the earth. Others simply buy into the quasi-Wiccan belief system on the basis of faith. Women are more attuned to the magical realm than men, and young girls are even more privileged, living in an enchanted atmosphere where the dividing line between natural and supernatural blurs and sometimes disappears.  Even after they grow up and lose this special insight, the ladies of the clan retain a conviction that they are all part of a grand Tale—with a capital T—and that their fates are inextricably intertwined with this hidden universe. Crowley’s characters share a anguished conviction that their individual and familial destinies are intertwined with a quasi-mythic narrative.  They fret about their roles, and worry whether the conclusion of the Tale is tantamount to their own demise, or merely the beginning of another, perhaps even grander narrative.  In place of the familiar postmodern concerns, Crowley wrestles with the more venerable issues of faith, fate and free will.  Yet the strangest aspect of Crowley’s book is the awkward stance of the reader, who is neither invited to witness the magic, nor wholly excluded from it.  Little, Big thus conveys a unusual, quasi-scriptural tone, in which a more magnificent story seems hidden between the lines, never really articulated, yet all the more provoking for this very ambiguity.

Little, Big is that very rare book that manages to be both immensely imaginative and completely sincere. Despite the sprawling nature of its storyline and themes, it feels surprisingly intimate. It’s about what we believe and what we think we believe; how we love, how we fail ourselves and how we are redeemed. Reading Crowley reminds me why I like reading in the first place: the sense of falling out of yourself and into a whole new world, a twin sense of freedom and exploration and also safety and containment. Yet, although the recipient of a World Fantasy award for best novel, Little, Big has never been trumpeted by the publishing mainstream (even the mainstream of the fantasy genre, to which its connection is admittedly somewhat tenuous). But from Little, Big we can trace a path all the way to the current-day urban mysticism of China Miéville and Neil Gaiman. It would be nice therefore if Little, Big could get a wider audience so many years down the line, and I’m sure its otherworldly feel and journey from indistinct past to potential, dystopian future would find a ready market today. But, perhaps, like the world of faerie which Crowley so expertly unveils, Little, Big is at its best when only half-glimpsed by the busy waking world.

2 Responses to “Fantasy Masterworks: Little, Big”

  1. Calmgrove June 16, 2019 at 2:11 pm #

    Well, what an apparent triumph you’ve described here, Gormenghast but with added faery and who knows what else. I’ve got to look this out now, thanks.

  2. Vivek Sharma June 16, 2019 at 4:21 pm #

    good one. Checkout my new post https://barfanibaba.com/2019/06/16/ewb/

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