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Some books grab you with the first sentence:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Each of these lines at the beginnings of their respective books grabbed me by the shirt-collar and pulled me into the story. If you dont recognize them, they come from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1938), C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), Rose Maculay’s The Towers Of Trebizond (1958), and Steven King’s The Gunslinger (1982). It is interesting that only Lewis’ made it into American Book Review‘s 100 Best Opening Lines Of Novels .
I heard a lot about John Crowley’s masterpiece Little, Big before I located a copy for reading. Written in the last year of the ante-penultimate reality, 1980, it had fallen out of print until very recently. I heard that Crowley was a writer’s writer, that his prose was difficult and opaque, and that Little, Big was a slow read. All of this turned out to be true, but it was the opening paragraph that convinced me that the book was worth whatever amount of time required.
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 Smoky 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.
Everything a careful reader needs to know about Little, Big is skillfully woven into that opening paragraph. Crowley’s is a world that contains no hidden surprises, where everything is at it seems, but the ordinary rules don’t apply, and the insides of things are larger and much more significant than their outsides. It is, although Crowley never comes right out and says it, the world in which we live and move and have our being.
The story that supports Little, Big is a love story, the story of a courtship, a wedding, and a marriage between Smoky Barnable, an anonymous Rorschach blot of a man, and the euphoniously named Daily Alice Drinkwater, the oldest daughter of a very eccentric New England family that may or may not have dealings with the Faerie folk.
The whole family lives in a house with a unique architecture which has been under both construction and analysis since its foundations were laid four generations previously. This house, Edgewood, which serves as a focal point for a certain district whose boundaries are kept fuzzy throughout the book, may or may not be a portal to the Fairie realms, where things get larger and more significant the further “in” you go.
There are both agnostics and believers among the large and unruly Mouse/Drinkwater clan into which this affable young man marries, and Smoky Barnable is unable to resolve a single crucial point; was he given to his wife in compliance with a pact with the Faeries, or is all of this just a complicated game his adopted family insists on playing? Alas, Smoky is no closer to a resolution by the end of the book than he is at the beginning.
For this is the most allusive book I have ever read. It implies everything, and says nothing clearly. Indeed, I don’t think it can be said to have a plot at all. Smoky marries, investigates his wife’s background, sires children upon her, and maybe her sister, but probably not. There are metamorphases, fairy godmothers, changelings, and other romances and heartbreaks. Appearances are made by Titania and Oberon, and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who rules over a spiritually exhausted, twilit America at the end of her tether, but whose political legitimacy is shown to proceed, albeit distantly, from the grandeur that was Rome.
All of this takes 800 pages to unwind, and the prose is like eating summer strawberries with cream, under a spreading maple tree, with the buzz of bees in your ears.
I think that if Little, Big is about anything at all, it is about something called, for lack of a better phrase, horizontal transcendence. The fairies here are not supernatural beings. In fact, they are so much a part of the natura naturans that nearly everybody overlooks them entirely. As Owen Barfield puts it; “The obvious is the hardest thing of all to point out to anyone who has genuinely lost sight of it.” Yet, the fairy influence pervades the environment, directing human generation and movement. Everything in Smoky Barnable’s life is as it is supposed to be, yet the disposer is not the Transcendent God of Jewish or Christian theology, but rather a college of elementals whose attitude towards us is neither benign nor malicious, but uninterested, quite as that of a sentient rock or thunderstorm would be.
Reading Little, Big made me nostalgic for the Road Not Taken. Published in 1980, it is still redolent of hashish and patchouli. It has the feel of the last wave of New England Transcendentalism meandering through the sloughs of late 19th century Spiritualism into the shallow bay of the Hippie movement, finally breaking against the rocky shore of a triumphalistic, proudly know-nothing conservativism. Parts of the book are prophetic, such as this passage describing the Republic at endgame;
For the City, even more than the nation, lived on Change; rapid, ruthless, always for the better. Change was the lifeblood of the City, the animator of all dreams there. the power that coursed in the veins of the men of the Club, the fire that boiled up wealth and bustle and satisfaction. The City that Auberon came to, though, had slowed. The quick eddies of fashion had grown sluggish; the great waves of enterprise had become a still lagoon. The permanent depression that the Club struggled against but was unable to reverse began in this grinding-to-a-halt, this unwonted, cumbersome loginess of the greatest City, and spread outward from it in slow ripples of weary exhaustion to benumb the Republic.
In contrast to the entropic City, although not in clear opposition to it, is the House and its inhabitants. Moving to the quickening rhythms of another world that is just now awakening, those who dwell, or who have ever dwelt, in Edgewood find themselves drawn Further In and Higher Up. All the separated Drinkwaters, Mouses, Flowers, Woodses, Brambles, and Meadowses; human, animal, or fay as chance may have overtaken them, are drawn into a mysterious center, a re-enactment of Smoky’s and Daily Alice’s nuptials, where numerous transformations and coronations take place.
So there is eucatastrophe, albeit a sideways one. The way out of the World is not beyond it or above it, but into it. In one way, I can see the Oprah-ization of transcendence here. No God above, no Devil beneath, just the water sprites, the trees, and Brother North Wind beckoning us to be what we were always meant to be. Yet on the other hand, I am hesitant to assign this book to the Deepak Chopra discount bin. It is too good, too descriptive of the path we are meant to follow. The World has an inside. We are the inside. Actually, Christ is the Inside, Who is Everywhere and Filleth All Things in a way that the Augustinian demiurge never could. The narrative of the Bible is the icons hanging on the wall. And as we unite with Him, we penetrate further in. We find that although at first it appears smaller, things really are larger and more significant, and like Adam, we can name them.
We become the Fay.
Note: 10/3/2012 – I want to explain my “shoe-horning” of the founder of Christianity into a literary work where He doesn’t appear to belong. I’ll have to do so in a later post, hopefully after a re-read of this most excellent book, but it appears to me that Little, Big‘s “horizontal transcendence” could be a useful tool to move official Christianity in a direction that I, at least, want it to move in.
Note: 2/27/2013 – If you are coming here from Facebook, could you please leave a link to page you are coming from? I don’t have a FB account.
Marija Gimbutas (1921 – 1994) is a name all of you should know. Fleeing the Nazi occupation of her native Lithuania in 1944, she settled in Southern California, eventually becoming a full professor of anthropology at UCLA.
Dr. Gimbutas first attained prominence in the field of Indo-European studies by identifying a Neolithic culture of the Russian steppes, the Kurgan culture of appr. 4000 BC, as the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of the majority of European and Indian languages spoken today. The Kurgans were a militaristic, patriarchal, and technologically obsessed society which, in various waves, dominated and submerged what she called “Old Europe”, a uniform (!?!?) Neolthic culture which was pacific, aesthetic, matriarchal, and meticulous about ecological relations to the natural world.
Dr. Gimbutas’ theory of Indo-European procedence is not entirely accepted by scholars in archeology or linguistics. It remains a “fruitful” hypothesis, meaning, I suppose, one that can still be invoked to apply for grants and to lend legitimacy to articles published in scholarly journals. The jury is still out as to whether the Kurgans were indeed the linguistic great-grandfathers of Homer, the writers of the Vedas, Virgil, and the bards of the Cattle Raid on Cooley.
Nevertheless, outside the more rigorous climes of official academe, her ideas took fruit in a series of novels written by one of her ex-students, Jean Auel, who had a good run of success with her “Earth’s Children” series, beginning with “The Clan of the Cave Bear”, which was made into a decent film starring Darryl Hannah.
The Earth’s Children series degenerated swiftly from the original book, which was quite good from both a literary and imaginative perspective, into a predictable set of romances between the protaganist Ayla and a series of broad-chested, long-haired, sensitive Neolithic swains who followed her across Old Europe in obedience to the Great Goddess, whom they worshipped and who Ayla symbolized.
I never finished the second book, although I have been meaning to. Whatever made the first book special is definitely lacking in the second. At any rate, Ms. Auel made Dr. Gimbutas’ speculations plausible to a host of moderns looking for a reason why their lives weren’t working so well.
Gimbutean fiction is quite a lively sub-genre these days, with plucky, Goddess-honoring heroines standing shoulder to shoulder with brave, shining-eyed, long-locked heroes against the awful Horse People and their ferocious, oppressive Sky-God (Guess Who?).
The mythology is quite potent, which is why its not going to go away because it doesn’t have any basis in verifiable history. Christians, as usual, had their seismic triggers posted elsewhere and didn’t see Dr. Gimbutas coming up behind them.
Waiting in line for Isabel Allende to sign my son’s copy of La Isla Bajo Del Mar, I struck up a conversation with a fellow lit-fan who was clutching a copy of a Russian grammar. She was planning to visit Russia shortly with her husband and wanted at least to learn the alphabet and a few elementary phrases. It turned out she was widely traveled, and had spent the cusp of the millennium in Arequipa, Peru with a group of curanderos on the summit of the Misti volcano.
We discussed the ephemera of the event; the rituals performed, the incantations spoken, and the atmosphere generated. However, I completely missed the opportunity to ask her what the experience meant to her. It would have been very interesting to hear why a pagan would find it significant to celebrate an event calibrated according to a Christian calendar. I remain highly interested in non-Christians’ appraisals of Jesus Christ, and of His significance to them.
I have been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and it is good beyond hope. Over and over again, I found myself saying to myself, “This is a comic book, how can this possibly be as good as it is?” It was the first time in a long time when something surpassed the expectations that I had of it, or the rumours of its quality.
The Sandman is the best Gaiman I have read to date. The narratives related in the comics have a non-Euclidean, surreal quality to them that is unlike anything outside actual dreams. Uncannily, dreams have been propelled into the forefront of my attention lately due to some striking dreams that have occurred [and been fulfilled] in my wife’s family, and to a reading of Pavel Florovsky’s Iconostasis, which deals extensively with dreams, non-waking states of consciousness, and iconography.
More on all of this much later, but I would like to take the time to especially recommend Sandman issues #15, #19, and #50. They are as good as any imaginative literature I have ever read. Interestingly, first editions of the magazines are still available on Ebay for very reasonable prices. I have always daydreamed about a collection of first editions of the works of the Inklings. Uncirculated first editions of Tolkien and Lewis are now running into the four digits, but if I ever had such a collection, I would not be at all hesitant to add the Sandman comics to it. Even in that mighty company, they would not be ashamed.
His art was very, very sexy, but I was virginally unaware of that. When I heard of his repose, I thought back on all of the covers he drew for the Ace editions of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books, the Pellucidar books, the Carson of Venus books, and the Tarzan books. His men were creatures of high testosterone, brandishing swords and exploding with muscular virility. His women were feminine, curvy, and jaw-droppingly beautiful without ever appearing weak or dependent. One look at Duare facing off against the tharban on the cover of Escape On Venus, and you knew this woman meant business.
He also illustrated the covers for the Robert E. Howard Conan books, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collections, and a number of heavy metal album covers, where his beefy aesthetics were widely appreciated.
Although he was never tapped to illustrate anything from the Tolkien mythos, I believe he would have drawn a marvelous Beren, Boromir, or Aragorn. When I got older, and began to appreciate fantastic art for its own sake, I found I preferred Boris Vallejo. Nevertheless, it was very sad to hear about the passing of this great artist yesterday.
May you rest in peace, Frank Frazetta.
Update – Frazetta did draw some Tolkien illustrations. Now that I see them, I remember having seen them back in the 70s. I must have thought they were Bakshi’s.
Thank you Mr. Herron