John Crowley’s Little, Big: A Fantasy Masterpiece Turns Forty

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

 This August marked the 40th anniversary of the release of John Crowley’s fantasy masterpiece Little, Big (1981). Upon its release, no less an authority than Ursula Le Guin called it “a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.” Little, Big was widely recognised as a significant work at the time—it won the World Fantasy Award, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and BSFA Awards. Crowley had already published three remarkable novels—The Deep (1975), Beast (1976) and Engine Summer (1979)—which established him as an exciting author unafraid to bring both beautifully crafted prose and highly original ideas to his own peculiar mix of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. However Little, Big would eclipse them all.

Crowley’s novel of multiple generations of the Drinkwater family and their connection to the realm of faerie is told in exquisite prose. It is full of memorable characters, mind-expanding ideas, and hauntingly beautiful encounters with the numinous. Four decades after it was written, Little, Big has lost none of its special magic. It remains the kind of book that quietly changes people’s lives. Readers tend to return to it again and again. Like the house of Edgewood itself, Little, Big’s eccentric architecture acts as a portal to Fairyland; like many of the novel’s characters you may have difficulty deciding if you ever really left it.

Little, Big opens with the character of Smoky Barnable, who is making his way from the City to the country house of Edgewood, the ancestral home of his fiancé Daily Alice Drinkwater. He has been given a peculiar set of rules and instructions that he must follow as part of the conditions of his visit. This is the first of many strange things we learn about the Drinkwater family. For Edgewood, constructed by Daily Alice’s eccentric architect great-grandfather John Drinkwater, is not one house but many houses folded into one, and acts as a portal between our world and the world of faerie. For generations, the Drinkwaters have had a special relationship with the fairies, and the knowledge that they are part of a Tale, a multigenerational saga of myth, legend, and folklore that encompasses all the ups and downs, the loves and losses, the triumphs and tragedies, of their individual lives.

The central conceit of the novel, as laid out by the theosophist Theodore Burne Bramble, father of Violet Bramble, Daily Alice’s great-grandmother, is that the realm of fairies is a separate world that is geometrically folded into our world:

I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger […] We men, you see, inhabit what is in fact the vastest outermost circle of the converse infundibulum which is the outer world. Paracelsus is right: our every movement is accompanied by these beings, but we fail to perceive them not because they are intangible but because, out here, they are too small! [43]

This, you see, explains the inconsistencies in size between fairies across various myths, legends, and anecdotal encounters. Edgewood, with its many houses folded into each other, acts as a gateway by which one can pass into the other world, and so on and so on through the concentric rings until one gets to the infinitely large fairyland itself, where the possibilities are as vast as its size. Little, Big operates in this way too—its architecture is eccentric, it draws on everything from Alice Adventures in Wonderland to fables of talking animals, its various stories and subplots told in a seemingly meandering, rambling way, hopping back and forth across generations of the Drinkwater family. By the end, however, the reader looks back at the meticulous internal logic of the story, told in the only way it can be, through which Crowley transports the reader to a place of pure fantasy and imagination.

The genius of Crowley’s novel is in how the mundane and the mythic coincide; to pull them apart would be to destroy the fabric of the text. For all its high-concept conceit and complicated plot—which, for the outside world, involves the reawakening of Frederick Barbarossa and the descent of the US into some kind of civil war—Little, Big is focused intensely on the lives of its characters, as all family sagas must be in order to work. For many of the Drinkwaters, such as Daily Alice and her sister Sophie, fairies and magic are simply a part of their everyday surroundings, such an integral part of their world that they accept them with child-like wonder. For every character who accepts the magic without question, however, there is another character, like Theodore Bramble, who struggles to square the strangeness of their experiences with the rational outside world—their desire to understand on a rational level clouding their ability to simply see.

This is the case for our main viewpoint characters: Smoky Barnable in the first half of the book, and his son Auberon in the second half. Smoky and Auberon’s struggles with the magical world that has such an impact on their lives (but which they still can’t quite believe in enough to see) form the heart of their characters’ journeys. Smoky, as the outsider who travels into Edgewood, is the perfect character to bring the reader into Crowley’s magical world. Like Smoky, the reader is likely to be disoriented by how Crowley seamlessly moves from realist depictions of everyday life to encounters with the uncanny and the fantastical. Smoky is drawn onward by his love of Daily Alice, and if he is to marry her and be a part of her family, he must accept that which he is unable to understand.

In the second half of the book, Auberon takes the reverse journey, traveling from Edgewood to the city to seek his fortune. Auberon inherits his father’s scepticism, unlike his sisters Tacey, Lily, and Lucy, who are able to accept the strange things they see and their strange place in the world. His journey out of Edgewood is one of disenchantment, and his rejection of the world of magic and faerie leads him to sorrow, heartbreak, and alcoholism as his life collapses around him. The real world, it turns out, can be as harsh and as capricious as fairies.

Little, Big is often praised for the quality of Crowley’s writing, and rightly so. Crowley’s previous novels had established him as a writer of fine, literary prose sometimes seen as unusual in genre fiction, with an individual style that can cause readers to fall head over heels for his work on first read. This reaches its apotheosis in Little, Big. Crowley effortlessly moves through a variety of tones and registers, appropriate to the manifold nested stories contained within, with some sections reading like fables or ancient myths, others like prose poems. The text is full of wry allusions, playful puns, and clever jokes that often only become apparent upon rereading.

Yet Crowley manages to avoid the book ever becoming precious or twee. This is partially down to his deep understanding of fairy mythology and lore: Crowley’s fairies, frequently glimpsed out of the corner of the eye or encountered when least expected, inspire awe and fear as much they do wonder. While the Drinkwaters are given some dubious protections because of their role in the Tale, this does not mean that things will work out for the best for them, or that they will understand their encounters with the fairies or their repercussions. The wisest of them know not to ask anything of the fairies, for every bargain and deal comes with a price, sometimes more than they can bear to pay. But I also feel that a large part of why the book never feels trivial is that Crowley’s characters are so well drawn. Crowley as a writer, and we as the readers, are utterly invested in every character’s story, their happiness and their sadness, their victories and their losses, because they feel so very much like real people. And like real people, they do not get tidy endings, but instead face their many individual joys and sorrows over the course of the novel, as the Tale unfolds around them, too large to be comprehended or altered.

Forty years later, Little, Big looms large over the genre of Fantasy. It helped to open up a space in which subsequent literary explorations of faerie and the fantastic, from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) to Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book (2019), could flourish and thrive. Although Crowley has gone on to write a wealth of wondrous and surprising works, Little, Big remains the keystone of his career. In terms of the elaborate construction of its form and prose, its quietly enormous scope, and sheer magical beauty, it is still unsurpassed. Like Edgewood itself at the end of the book, though all the characters may have left a long time ago, Little, Big still endures, mysterious and alluring, waiting for unwary travellers to transport into fairyland. It is a journey worth taking again and again.

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.

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