Little, Big - or, The Fairies' Parliment (1981)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
John Crowley
Publication Date 1997
Format Leather-bound (240 x 160 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 538
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 9
No. of Reviews 72
Frontispiece/Illustrator Alan Clark
Original Details
Original Publication Year 1981
Edgewood is many houses, all put inside each other, or across each other. It’s filled with and surrounded by mystery and enchantment: the further in you go, the bigger it gets. Smoky Barnable, who has fallen in love with Daily Alice Drinkwater, comes to Edgewood, her family home, where he finds himself drawn into a world of magical strangeness.

Crowley’s work has a special alchemy - mixing the world we know with an imagined world which seems more true and real. Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Little, Big is eloquent, sensual, funny and unforgettable, a truly Fantasy Masterwork.

One familiar fantasy concerns the knight who goes off to rescue maidens and slay the dragons who hold them prisoner. But a colleague of mine has a cartoon in his office window that shows a reclining dragon, surrounded by shattered pieces of armor; the dragon is picking his teeth with a lance. The caption reads: "Sometimes the dragon wins." That's realism, and it's funny. The reason it is funny is that realism comes as a comic surprise in a romantic environment; for generations fantasy writers such as L. Sprague de Camp and Gordon R. Dickson have used such contrasts for humor.

Across the centuries realism and romanticism have battled for sway over the popular mind. Sometimes realism prevails; sometimes romanticism; but usually individuals alternate between them as the situation demands. Realism tells us that the universe pays no attention to the way people feel about it, and no amount of complaints about injustice will improve the human condition. Romanticism says that reality is only skin deep, and that underneath is a world that can be shaped by human desires, or, at least, that may reflect human moods.

We live in a skeptical, realistic age, but romanticism keeps trying to soften our hard-headed pragmatism. Literature imitates life: science fiction, the fan literature of a pragmatic age, is romanticism harnessed by realism; fantasy, the literature of humanistic rebellion against an uncaring universe, is romanticism unleashed. In a collection of his SF stories, George R. R. Martin commented that his all-time champion theme "has got to be reality's search and destroy mission against romance. . .

A considerable amount of fantasy is devoted to what Edgar L. Chapman in The St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers has called "the magic lying beneath the surface of existence." Such fantasy stories suggest that the fantasy world is not restricted to the other side of the mirror but permeates the real world if we only could perceive it. The very young see the world that way, as a place of wonder. The dean of romantic poets, William Wordsworth, described the experience in the opening lines of "Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood":

"There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
The Earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream...

Fantasies based on the concept that reality is an illusion, some times deeply disturbing, sometimes comforting, can shock us awake with vicious attacks from unleashed demons, or can lull us into a state of reverie in which we give credence to their tales of hidden truths. The latter must work with the greatest delicacy - a wrong word, a too-close inspection, the forcible entry of skepticism, may break the spell. Everything must be just beyond one's reach, a glimpse out of the corner of one's eye, a furtive movement that turns into the commonplace when one looks at it straight on.

Such a novel is John Crowley's Little, Big, which Thomas M. Disch called "the greatest fantasy novel ever" and Ursula K. Le Gum, "a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy." It is a novel that convinces by implication rather than by argument, that develops through contrasts and inconsistencies, as its title suggests. At one point Dr. Bramble explains the existence of fairy folk and the nebulous realm they occupy:

"The explanation is that the world inhabited by these beings is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this one, with a peculiar geography I can only describe as infundibular." He paused for effect. "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. The further in you go, the bigger it gets."

Other contrasts are at work in the Little and the Big, as David Pringle has pointed out in Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels: "the country and the city, the inside and the outside, the private and the public, the faerie and the human." The story of Little, Big deals with a city-dweller named Smoky Barnable who leaves his dull job to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater. She lives in a rambling house built by her great-grandfather next to a wood that may be inhabited by fairies of various kinds. Alice's father writes children's books based on the stories told him by the fairies. Other members of the family are blessed or cursed by fairy gifts.

While Smoky and Alice consummate their marriage and raise a son, Auberon, and while Smoky continues his long effort to enter the world of Faerie, the world outside gets uglier. A fascist president is elected who attempts to destroy everyone who cherishes nature and the imagination - a personification, perhaps, of "reality's search and destroy mission against romance." It is a time of personal sacrifice and discovery and renewal, all as indirect as a dreamscape. "The reader," Pringle says, "trembles on the brink of successive revelations, as the author plays with masterly skill on the emotional nerves of awe, rapture, mystery and enchantment."

Crowley, born in Maine in 1942, earned a B.A. from Indiana University and worked as a photographer and commercial artist for two years before turning to writing and since has worked in documentary films and television. His first SF novel, The Deep, was published in 1975 to considerable acclaim. It is a novel about a mysterious Being who has brought humans from their own dying planet to an artificial disk world and now engages them in interminable warfare.

Beasts (1976) describes a post-collapse world in which Crowley's persistent theme gets stated for the first time: the conflict between rational organizers who want to control nature as well as the people who want to live within it, and the romantics and lovers of nature who resist the government's dehumanizing effects. The "beasts" are hybrids, created from humans and animals.

Engine Summer (1979) is another post-holocaust world in which Rush That Speaks relives his youthful search for meaning and under standing. He also learns of the vanished 20th century science and technology that finally is revealed as excessive rationalism which has brought an end to its own world. And Rush discovers that he is a personality recorded within a memory cube.

Little, Big, which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel of 1981, was followed by new breakthroughs in fantastic concepts. Aegypt (1987) weaves together, as Edgar L. Chapman points out in The St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, "the Grail legend, the quests of Giordano Bruno, the adventures of the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee, a fanciful life of Shakespeare, and the quest of a modern Parsifal, Pierce Moffett." The Aegypt of the title refers not to Egypt but to the Renaissance myth of the magical world of Platonism and neo-Platonism symbolized by the figure of Hermes Trismegestus. In this novel Crowley perfected his technique of stories within stories, of myths restated and relived, of lives revisited and re-imagined in later times, all to achieve a depth of focus that suggests the palimpsests that history and literature write on the present and the wisdom that allows perceptive and sensitive people to read between the lines. Aegypt, Chapman concludes, "consolidates [Crowley's] claim to be not merely a major fantasy writer, but a writer who deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standards." Crowley followed Aegypt with another novel set in the same fantasy world and using the same characters, Love and Sleep (1994). He also published a collection of stories in 1989 titled Novelties (also known as Great Works of Time), which includes the much-praised novella "In Blue."

But Little, Big was the novel that first made Crowley's readers aware of the fact that he not only was a skillful writer but one who was going to establish new standards for the fantasy novel. Crowley himself has commented that the novel was important to his development because he discovered for the first time "the extent of my own powers as a writer." John Clute wrote in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "Little, Big has permeated the field... and his fantasies have established him as a figure whose work markedly stretches the boundaries of genre literature." Chapman concludes, "This humorous, whimsical, inventive, and richly allusive fantasy deserves many readings and is likely to become a classic of the genre. Here, as in the rest of his world, Crowley defines his vision as that of a sophisticated romantic, suspicious of technology, committed to the cause of his imagination, and possessing prodigious literary gifts of humor, characterization, and lyrical description."

Open the door of the fabulous Drinkwater residence and find "a compound illustration of the plates of [Alice's grandfather's] famous book - several different houses of different sizes and styles collapsed together." It is a metaphor for Little, Big itself, a novel, like the Fairy woods, that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas