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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.
The tarot has always fascinated me. I bought a Waite-Smith deck when I was 16 and entertained people by giving a number of accurate “readings” . I would not now recommend this, even to non-Christians. There is too much power and too little certain knowledge for Tarot readings to be safe.
However, even at that time, I was puzzled by the amount of Christian imagery in the Waite-Smith deck. So much so, that non-Christians, ex-Christians, or anti-Christians prefer to use other decks with less overt Christian symbolism.
Now, I am not a Tarot scholar, and the only other tarot deck I have ever held in my hand resembled the Marseilles deck, which dates from the 17th Century. The imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is in the same tradition. This is important because, I believe, Charles Williams describes the Waite-Smith Tarot deck in his novel, The Greater Trumps.
“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”
“It is just that,” the other said.
The Greater Trumps is a the best example of William’s plundering of occult themes to make an overtly Christian point. Some of his other plot devices are too obscure, like his use of Neo-Platonic Ideal Eminations in The Place Of The Lion, or too downright weird, like whatever is the ascetic exercise used by Nigel Considine in Shadows Of Ecstasy. The Tarot, however mysterious it may have been in the 1930s when Williams wrote the novel, enjoys a high profile now.
I have to admit I stand in awe of Williams’ effortless use of occult themes in his novels. He never dismisses occult power out of hand, nor does he associate it strictly with the diabolical. You get the sense reading Williams that there is only One source of power, and all subsequent exercises of power through whatever mediation is either a discharge of rightful duty, or a theft.
The occultists in The Greater Trumps, Henry and his uncle Aaron, enter as thieves, attempting to obtain and exercise power that doesn’t rightly belong to them. Through the bequest of a distant relative, Lothair Coningsby has come into possession of the original deck of Tarot cards. These cards can be used not only to predict events, but to cause them; not just to interpret reality, but to generate reality. The occultists first try outright theft, but when this fails, as it must in Williams’ cosmos, they fall back on Henry’s legal and emotional relationship with Nancy, Lothair’s daughter, to effect a loan of the cards, and from this all the conflict in the novel ensues.
But it is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition. This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something apart from the lever that Henry (and Nancy) wished to make of it, and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love.
All of Williams’ novels portray the only story there is; the struggle between the Empire and the City, between those who would illegitimately place themselves at the center and beggar the periphery in order to glut themselves upon the surplus and those who receive from the true Center, add their poor, derivative contribution, awaiting the day when the fissures are repaired, and the whole fabric is awash with light and power.
Another barrier that exists between the average Christian and the works of Charles Williams is the indisputible influence that occult thinking had upon him. Both Christians and occultists seem to want to lay claim to him. The occultists discount his thoroughgoing Nicean Anglicanism, and place undue importance on occult ideas that make their way into his writings. A lot of Christians, on the other hand, wander onto Williams’ turf having heard that CS Lewis thought a great deal of him, and are baffled by the theological landscape they find defined in Williams’ works. They downplay his association with the Order Of The Golden Dawn, saying that his interest was desultory or superficial, a youthful enthusiasm that he later outgrew.
His membership in the Order Of The Golden Dawn lasted from 1917 to around 1938, and Williams never had a dilettantish interest in anything in his life. His interest in the occult was real and lively. Because of Williams’ interest in the occult and his use of occult themes in his work, many Conservative Christians consider him off-limits. Even JRR Tolkien lamented Williams’ influence over Lewis, and referred to him as “that witch-doctor”, although he admitted that Williams appeared to operate under an unusual degree of [Divine] protection, given the intellectual precincts he frequented.
But Williams had other, more salutatory, influences as well. He was a friend of Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican spiritual writer who had a Roman Catholic mystic as a spiritual guide. I don’t know whether to call Mrs. Underhill a mystic or more of a travel-writer of the mystical experience. Through Underwood, Williams gained a familiarity with the Western mystical tradition and the Christian Neo-Platonism of Pico Della Mirandola. Also, through his lifelong association with emigres Nicolas and Militza Zernov, he had more than a nodding acquiantance with the Eastern tradition.
I think the most important idea that Williams garnered from his occult involvement was the very ancient idea of man-as-microcosm, although this idea is found in Maximos the Confessor as much as in Hermes Trimegistus or the astrological tract Almagest of Ptolemy. The ancient idea of the Zodiac signs ruling over certain parts of the body fascinated him from a poetic point of view, and worked its way into the poem Taliessin’s Vision Of The Empire. All of this would be just counter-pieces in an academic game of chess if Williams’ thought on The Index Of The Body hadn’t preceded and foreshadowed Pope John Paul II’s Theology Of The Body:
Secondly, there is the human body, and the movements of the human body. Even know, when as a general rule, the human body is not supposed to mean anything, there are moments when it seems, even in spite of ourselves, packed with significance.
Magic is transmogrified by the Eucharist, because a cosmos in which bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ is a cosmos in which anything, literally, can happen. Thus, the dark transformations of occultism (and all of Williams’ villians are in some way occultists) make way for, and bend before, the miraculous emergence of the New Man in the center of the Web of Exchange.
NB: JRR Tolkien doesn’t seem to have resented Charles Williams’ influence over CS Lewis as much as I infer. That Tolkien called Williams a “witch doctor” I gleaned from Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent book on the Inklings, somewhere around pages 121-127. Tolkien’s view of the extraordinary level of divine protection Charles Williams enjoyed I believe came from Dick Plotz’ interview of Tolkien in 1967[?] that I vaguely remember hearing on the radio when I was in the first flush of Tolkien fanboy-dom. It may be apocryphal.