During the merry merry month of May, Dolce Bellezza invited bloggers to join her in a read-along of John Crowley’s Little, Big; one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors. I rashly said I wanted in, even though May is a very busy month for me, and then I never read a word of it or wrote a word about it. But now I’m in the midst of it, and so I’m still in, just limping behind with a stone in my shoe, telling everyone not to wait, I’ll just be a moment.
I’ve already written about this book, and so has Teresa, so I’m not going to sum it up (and anyway, how could you; it’s about a family that has blossomed because it’s been protected, and a house that is a door, and yearning for something bigger — or smaller — or anyway more — or possibly less — but it’s about longing, anyway — and it takes place in the Wild Wood — and the Great City — and it has fairies in it.)
What I’d like to write about this time is the rich tapestry of allusions that Crowley weaves in Little, Big. Other authors peep out at you as you read, much like the fairies in Auberon’s pictures:
Nora and Timmie Willie had caught, by accident or design, creatures that seemed on the point of metamorphosis from natural to outlandish. A bird’s face here and yet that claw which gripped the branch was a hand, a hand in a sleeve. There wasn’t any doubt about it when you studied it long enough. This cobweb was no cobweb but the trailing skirt of a lady whose pale face was collared in these dark leaves.
In just this way, you can see the traces of other authors who’ve seen pieces of the interaction between the human and the fairy world that Crowley describes. There’s this:
Auberon had a name for all this: Glory. If it wasn’t what was meant by Glory, he didn’t care. His plot — who was to be master, that’s all — didn’t really much interest him; he was never able to grasp just what the Pope and Barbarossa were arguing about anyway.
or this, after a wedding picnic:
Mother tied up the basket, and then saw a plate staring up at her from the grass; when the job had all been redone, Smoke with a sense of déjà vu pointed out a fork she hadn’t seen.
or this, just a tiny hand curling around a vine, about the father who writes children’s nature stories straight from the mouths of the animals themselves:
“He writes under the name of Saunders,” Daily Alice said.
There are several hints at George MacDonald, from Brother North-Wind (only in MacDonald this wind is a huge, beautiful woman), to the daughters of Sophie and Alice: Tacey, Lily, Lucy, Lilac (almost Lilith, almost there), to the stars as flowers and jewels:
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 the 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.
Speaking of things being little and big, and being bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, and bigger the farther you go in, C.S. Lewis does a good number in this — but so do a lot of people, from the Bible to the Tardis. And I scarcely need mention authors like Giordano Bruno and his Art of Memory, or Plato, or Heraclitus: when Daily Alice crosses the river, it will never be the same river again.
The allusiveness of this novel — the richness, the fullness — but also the purely enchanting originality, give you the sensation that, as with any fairy tale, you’re not reading this for the first time. There are patterns. There are motifs. You know the pale face of that lady, and the gripping hand of that bird. There is a Destiny waiting for you, and a Tale. Yet for all that, you have no idea what waits around the next corner.
p.s. Oh dagnabbit, Tom at Wuthering Expectations said just this, but better and denser and more widely-read, a week ago. Go read what he said, instead.