Little, Big by John Crowley


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.

Little, Big (Book 3: Old Law Farm)

Photo credit here
Photo credit here

…they were led down concave weed-spined lanes in an endless land, down the twists and turns of a long, long story, a boundless and-then, toward a place something like the place Sophie at Edgewood contemplated in the dark-etched trump called the Banquet: a long table clothed in just-folded linen, it’s claw feet absurd in the flowers beneath twisted and knotty trees, the tall compote overflowing, the symmetrical candelabra, the many places set, all empty. (p. 263)

I want to be there. Even if I don’t know for what, or whom, we’re waiting.

Little, Big (Book 2: Brother North-Wind’s Secret)

photo credit here
photo credit here

I have grown so fond of these characters, felt such an affinity for Daily Alice and Smoky and Sophie, that I was a little shocked to read that Smoky had been unfaithful with Sophie. “Only three and a half times,” to be sure, but still he was unfaithful with his wife’s sister.

I guess I was even more surprised that this seemed to bother Daily Alice not at all. It seems that she and her sister have a closeness that not even a husband can come between.

Meanwhile, there is a chapter in this book entitled “Little, Big” such as the entire novel itself is called. We find the three (Daily Alice, Smoky and Sophie) holding hands all under the night sky. As Sophie watches the falling stars, Daily Alice contemplates her size within the world. Are we little? Are we big?

Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.

So they lay a long time, not caring to talk any more, each dwelling on that odd, physical sensation of ephemeral eternity–a paradox but undeniably felt, and if the stars had been as near and full of faces as they seemed, they would have looked down and seen those three as a single asterism, a linked wheel against the wheeling dark sky of the meadow. (p. 178)

And another thing; I understand how it was that Smoky thought of himself as a whole crowd of people, for I’ve felt that way myself. Maybe not exactly as he does, but I’ve balanced my persons of woman, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and listened to their voices clamor in my ear each vying for undivided attention. How interesting that Smoky would feel that, too.

“Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”–Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all– “looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” (p. 165)

If Santa can fix that for you, Smoky, as you burn your Christmas Eve letter in the fireplace and watch the smoke go up the chimney into the night sky, you let me know.

As for Brother North-Wind’s Secret, it is as “simple” as the fact that after Winter, Spring comes. I think this is one of the first times that Crowley brings up the cyclical nature of the world, of its inhabitants. One generation follows another, passing down its sins and its secrets, while hope lies ever ahead.

Tomorrow, thoughts on Book 3: Old Law Farm. Please feel free to leave links to your thoughts, or comments, below.

Little, Big (Book 1: Edgewood)

photo credit here
photo credit here

I live on a street called Edgewater. It has trees all the way down a gently curving path lying parallel to the river. I’m sure it has tunnels harboring unseen creatures who live hidden in the bramble. But, it doesn’t have quite the same aura which Crowley has created for Edgewood, the first book of Little, Big. I don’t have quite the same home that his characters live in, try as I might to establish one.

Take for example, the domicile of the Junipers:

“It was a white bungalow snuggled within bushy evergreens. Roses just blown grew up trellises beside the green dutch door. White-painted stones marked the path from the door; on the darkling lawn a young deer looked up at him immobile in surprise, and dwarves sat cross-legged on toadstools or snuck away holding treasure. On the gate was a rustic board with the legend burned on it: The Junipers. Smoky unlatched the gate and opened it, and a small bell tinkled in the silence…

The house was tiny and tidy and stuffed with stuff. An old, old dog of the dust-mop kind sniffed at his feet, laughing breathlessly; he bumped into a bamboo telephone table, shouldered a knickknack shelf, stepped on a sliding scatter rug and fell through a narrow archway into a parlor that smelled of roses, bay rum and last winter’s fires. Jeff put down his newspaper and lifted his slippered feet from their hassock. “Edgewood?” he asked around his pipe.

“Edgewood. I was given directions, sort of.” p. 20

I’d practically like to stay there, with Smoky, with the Junipers. But Smoky is on his way to Daily Alice’s house, named Edgewood, being careful to follow her great-aunt Cloud’s directions. He is to arrive on Midsummer Day, walking not riding, with a wedding-suit in his pack old not new, and food made not bought. If he needs a place to spend the night he must beg for it, or find it, but not pay for it. This is what Nora Cloud has read in the cards.

And why might Smoky follow such an odd order? Because he loves Alice, to be sure. But also because he has been invisible and anonymous until he met her. And then he became solid.

It all seems very serious and fulfilling, until we come to the marriage ceremony which I had to read over several times, smiling for the way it turned a typically solemn occasion upside down:

Doctor Word fluttered the pages of his book and began to speak quickly, his words shot through with champagne and tremblings and the harmonium’s unceasing melody; it sounded like “Do you Barble take this Daily Alice to be your awful wedded life for bed or for worse insidious in stealth for which or for poor or to have unto whole until death you do part?”

“I do,” Smokey said.

“I do too,” Daily Alice said.’Wring,” Doctor Word said, “And now you pounce you man on wife.”

Aaaah, said all the wedding guests, who then began to drift away, talking in low voices. (p. 64)

There’s only one nagging question in the back of my mind. When Smoky follows Alice out of the wood, after their marriage, he loses her for a moment. He comes to a house in the Woods, where Mr. Woods welcomes him and Mrs. Underhill takes out a single hot-cross bun on which is drawn a five-pointed star in white icing sugar. Five pointed stars have appeared before, but what is also curious is that Smokey sees the wet woods he had come through with Alice, and far off, Alice herself, within the doors of a tall wardrobe. How strange that a wardrobe should appear here as well as in C. S. Lewis’ works, a magical wardrobe through which one leaves to follow one’s dream. Or, to find one’s Destiny.

Find thoughts on Book Two: Brother North-Wind’s Secret, tomorrow. If you wish to leave links to your posts, or thoughts on any part of Little, Big please feel free to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing the parts you highlight.

A Little, Big Read-Along; Care To Join In?


Peter Milton’s title page artwork for the upcoming 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big.
Peter Milton’s title page artwork for the 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big.

On a certain day in June, 19__, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.  His name was Smokey Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

So begins John Crowley’s book Little, Big. It is a book which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982 and celebrated its 25th anniversary this past February. The illustrations for that special edition were done by Peter Milton, the title page of which you can see at the top of this post.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travel by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood–not found on any map–to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder. (back cover)

Little BigTom of Wuthering Expectations and Helen of a gallimaufry and I are planning on reading Little, Big by John Crowley this May.  With six “Books” inside, we could discuss Books 1-3 on May 16, and Books 4-6 on May 30. But, please don’t feel tied to that schedule. You could post as you read, or post not at all, whatever works for you. Everyone is so welcome to join us! Just leave a comment below if you wish to make it official, or simply dabble your toes in with us as we read along.