Now Reading “Little, Big,” by John Crowley

If you know the name Smoky Barnable, it’s because you’ve read all or part of John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament. Or—less likely—you’ve only read about it. I suggest this is unlikely because you probably haven’t read about the novel unless you are a reader, like fantasy fiction, and can’t resist when the accolades for a book are in the order of:

The greatest fantasy ever written by an American (by Michael Dirda);

or this by Harold Bloom,

. . . my favorite book for these last several years;

or this by famed SF novelist Ursula K. Le Guin,

This book is indescribable: a splendid madness, or a delightful sanity, or both. Persons who enter this book are advised that they will leave it a different size than when they came in.

Of these, Le Guin’s intriguing remark most obviously reveals an acquaintance with the book. The reader does “enter” the book, and thereby another world . . . or worlds (it’s hard to say which after the first hundred pages). Paradoxes of size appear throughout the story.

I’m not a great reader of fantasy fiction. In a way, I’d like to be. Most every genre of literature interests me. This explains why there are so many comments about books in my posts. But fantasy is unfamiliar, if not unexplored, territory for me.

My first real encounter with fantasy fiction was in 7th grade. The English teacher at our little school took great pleasure in reading aloud to us The Hobbit. I always suspected that the pleasure taken by students could be explained by the fact that there was no work involved. A few seemed genuinely fascinated. I may have underestimated the rest.

Whether I thought so in 7th grade, it did occur to me some years later that I might find The Hobbit more personally engaging if I dipped into it myself, with more literary maturity to boast of. I started, but I couldn’t finish. I could barely make any progress. I had reckoned that if the first few dozen pages didn’t hook me, there was little chance that I could see my way to the end. Gollum, I recalled, had interested me. But I simply couldn’t relate to Bilbo Baggins. Of course, film adaptations of Tolkien’s fantasies have cured me of my indifference; but they have not compelled me to re-try the books.

C. S. Lewis was another matter. During a week of sickness as a teenager, I breezed through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. To me it was okay, but over-rated. Maybe it was the penicillin; who can say? But during my first semester in college, I read with complete interest Lewis’s “space trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. This was the closest thing to fantasy fiction that captured my imagination. But it wasn’t a proper bridge into anything else at the time.

Eventually, I met Dune enthusiasts. But something in the manner of their enthusiasm left me doubting that I would be as moved.

So fantasy fiction and science fiction remained terra more-or-less incognita. This is reflected by the comparatively little space taken on my shelves by novels in these genres.

In graduate school, while studying philosophy and theology, Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories improved my impression . . . and reading experience. (I still like reading his short story “The Star” as a private Christmas tradition.) I liked Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, and quoted it in my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God. I enjoy Robert Heinlein, but I’m overwhelmed by his output. Ray Bradbury often works for me. I occasionally re-visit the stories of Philip K. Dick. I’ve probably read more by Connie Willis than by any other SF novelist. I’ve recommended John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at this website. I owe Orson Scott Card a look.

For reasons I wouldn’t take the time to recount, when reading Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I considered it to be a natural substitute for The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (though I still have Douglas Adams on my reading list).

Notice, over time I’ve given science fiction a fairer hearing than I have traditional fantasy. I once read George McDonald’s fantasy novel Lilith, but I can’t remember a great deal about it. (His sermons and essays, however, have influenced my thinking considerably. I especially recommend Knowing the Heart of God, a compendium of spiritually edifying excerpts from his fiction, essays, and sermons, nicely edited by Michael Phillips.)

If we cast the net more broadly to include the virtually boundless category of “speculative fiction,” I can recite other authors and titles with varying degrees of relish:

Getting back to Little, Big. This is 538 pages of pure fantasy. The story is told in packets of narrative. There are six “books”: (1) Edgewood, (2) Brother North-Wind’s Secret, (3) Old Law Farm, (4) The Wild Wood, (5) The Art of Memory, and (6) The Fairies’ Parliament. Each book divides into chapters. Books 1 and 6 have five chapters. The middle books each have four chapters. Whether this is deliberate symmetry I cannot tell. Chapters have sections, each labeled in phrases.

I began reading the book on account of its impressive reputation, despite the fact that—or possibly because—it’s not as well known as the stuff everybody reads in this genre. John Crowley is rightly regarded as a powerful wordsmith. The images he evokes are wonder-full. Making sense of the complete narrative will require effort. There are allusions to other creative works, some known to me, some not. I’m only three chapters into the novel, and I’m prepared to go the distance.

It would be easy for me to loiter among the phrases crafted by Crowley. But this might prevent me from following the story as well as I would if I kept up a good pace along the main path. I might then go back, with the story’s structure in mind, and meander a little. This is not my usual method of reading fiction. But it seems best in this case. (I think something like this is recommended by Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book.)

To illustrate the creative allure of Crowley’s writing, here’s a passage that describes the road map that Smoky Barnable must follow if he is to catch up to and marry Daily Alice:

Now. This blue line was apparently the cracked macadam lined with untenanted brick factories he had been walking along. He turned the map so that this line ran parallel to his bench, as the road did (he wasn’t much of a map reader) and found, far off to his left, the place he walked toward. The name Edgewood didn’t appear, actually, but it was here somewhere, in this group of five towns marked with the legend’s most insignificant bullets. So. There was a mighty red line that went near there, proud with exits and entrances; he couldn’t walk along that. A thick blue line (on the model of the vascular system, Smoky imagined all the traffic flowing south to the city on the blue lines, away on the red) ran somewhat nearer, extending corpuscular access to towns and townlets along the way. The much thinner sclerotic blue line he sat beside was tributary to this; probably commerce had moved there, Tool Town, Food City, Furniture World, Carpet Village. Well . . . But there was also, almost indistinguishable, a narrow black line he could take soon instead. He thought at first that it led nowhere, but no, it went on, faltering, seeming at first almost forgotten by the mapmaker in the ganglia, but then growing clearer in the northward emptiness, and coming very near a town Smoky knew to be near Edgewood.

That one, then. It seemed a walker’s road.

Smoky’s initial reference point is “the cracked madam line” . . . a road of compacted layers of broken stone. Only in the second full sentence do we find that Smoky is studying a map, and that the blue line mentioned in the previous sentence is drawn on the map and is the first object of his attention—presumably because it was here that he thought he had been walking.

The parenthetical remark that “he wasn’t much of a map reader” implies that Smokey has laid the map, not with north at the top, but in a position that makes sense to him. He improvises. We are subtly introduced to his destination, Edgewood. But a puzzle is introduced, as well, since this destination does not appear by name on the map he must use. We are cleverly led to surmise that the Edgewood (whatever it may be) is insignificant, not because it’s not named on the map, but because there is a cluster of “insignificant bullets” representing several towns and townlets, and Edgewood may be in the vicinity of the five indicated by the dots. “So.” This sounds like a conclusion reached in Smoky’s mind. He’ll suppose this is the general location of his destination.

Naturally, he next considers how he should get to Edgewood from where he is positioned on the blue line of the map. There is a “mighty red line” that is “too proud with exits and entrances” to serve his mode of transportation, namely, walking. The picture is of some large freeway system or toll-road. Another way, suited to walking, is required.

One major reference point is “the city.” It’s the hub of all roads on the map. Smokey regards the many elements of the map by means of a metaphor. He seems to understand something of the cardiovascular system in the human body, and takes this metaphor of the map to be a helpful deciphering device.

Finally, Smoky notices “a narrow black line.” This line is more clearly visible as it moves further from the ganglia surrounding the city and toward a town he knows to be near his destination. This, he decides, is the path he’ll follow.

We can easily imagine this fellow, sitting on a bench in the confusion of his surroundings, focused on the map he must use to reach his destination. He seems unperturbed, though we’re told by the narrator that his map-deciphering skills are sub-par. He sets the map in a position that serves his point of view or perspective. (Perspective is a motif in the novel.) After a time, he is able to make sense of his world and settle on the proper way to navigate his journey. The map is a representation of the world around him, and he can find his way. Smoky’s confidence seems grounded in what else he knows.

This one paragraph, on page four of the novel, establishes certain things about its main character. It establishes that he’s on a journey, that he’s bound for a destination never before visited by him, that his destination is distant and remote, that he’s walking (though there are other modes of transportation in the world we’re to imagine), that he’s intelligent and determined, though apparently not an experienced traveler.

The passage continues:

After measuring with his thumb and finger the distance on the map he had come, and how far he had to go (much farther), he slung on his pack, tilted his hat against the sun, and went on.

Our picture of Smoky is filled out.

This is readable stuff. And there’s more of it as the pages turn.

And yet, I’m unsure that I’ll find my way with Smoky’s confidence. I can be patient with myself. A few more chapters, and the pieces may seem to fit together more meaningfully. I welcome the challenge.

What about you?

  • Have you read Little, Big? If so, what is your brief evaluation?
  • Are you a serious reader of fantasy fiction? If so, do you stick to the path most traveled, with such companions as Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling? Or do you have narrower interests, too? What are they?
  • Why are some readers so able to read fantasy with pleasure, while others are mystified by the enthusiasm?
  • Do you have any inclination to read John Crowley’s novel Little, Big after reading this post?

Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to Now Reading “Little, Big,” by John Crowley

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting on this post! I hope to see you here again soon.

    -Doug

    Like

  2. Daniel Smith says:

    I’m currently re-reading “Little, Big” by John Crowley. I think this is my fourth or fifth re-reading. As I’m writing this in May 2011, I’m wondering if you finished the book and what you thought of it. After my first reading I was slightly disappointed with the plot’s conclusion but I enjoyed the writing and the journey. As is common with me, subsequent re-readings allowed me to notice more. Now, I think “Little, Big” is a great book. It deserves to be called a classic.

    I am a serious reader of fantasy, but I haven’t read hugely in the subject. I like to read fantasy novels that stretch the genre, rather than play safe. So, Tolkien I’ve read many many times. He did it first and his style of fantasy is ‘pseudo-mythology’ for want of a better term, but I’ve never really enjoyed those who follow in his foot-steps. Tanith Lee’s “The Flat Earth” series is wonderful. She writes beautifully, and for me the five books in the series tackle big topics like religion and whether gods make man, or man made gods. It’s clever stuff, well to me. Another original and clever author is Robert Holdstock. To my shame I’ve only read ‘Mythago Wood’ but it is well worth seeking out. It’s fantasy but there are none of the usual suspects. A ‘mythago’ is a stereotype from myth, for example the Green Man or Robin Hood type figure. His novel explores these ideas as well as having an exciting plot.

    I’ve rambled a bit, but the other author I’d recommend is Kij Johnson and her novel ‘The Fox Woman’. Again this is fantasy and again I’d say it is original. In Japan and China foxes appear in folk lore and myths and are shape-shifters. This novel deals with that, with a skilful node towards Japanese literary forms.

    Finally, I enjoyed this post, hence the long and enthusiastic reply.

    Best Regards,

    Daniel Smith

    Like

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