I’ve been meaning to read Little, Big for a very long time. The only reason I hadn’t gotten around to it sooner was a misguided foreboding of immense depth and complexity that made me feel like I needed to be prepared for a challenge of such magnitude or I’d run out of steam halfway through. Because it’s Crowley, and I’ve read Crowley and heard him speak (even performed at a reading with him once!), and because everything I’ve heard about Little, Big makes it out to be such a towering monument among the literature of the fantastic, I was expecting to have to psych myself up to read it in the same way I would do for ye densest of literary classics, The Brothers Karamazov or Don Quixote.
Not so at all, it turns out. The prose is inviting rather than forbidding, yet none the less challenging or beautiful because of it—much more like, oh, I don’t know, Great Expectations set in that house where the Pevensie children discover the wardrobe, or Dunsany as written by John Steinbeck. It’s an intensely human story, using the influence of faerie on a little American town as a metaphor to explain the cause of all the heartbreaking flaws and limitations of human nature and the human condition.
There were no answers, none. All that was within the power of mind and speech was to become more precise in how the questions were put. John had asked her: Do fairies really exist? And there wasn’t any answer to that. So he tried harder, and the question got more circumstantial and tentative, and at the same time more precise and exact; and still there were no answers, only the fuller and fuller form of the question, evolving as Auberon had described to her all life evolving, reaching out to limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex yet more and more individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness. And then there was an end to that. The last edition, and John died still waiting for an answer.
Yes! Yes. These massive semicolon-linked behemoths of sentences are exactly the kind of thing I want and strive for, the kind I get scolded for attempting all the time—not because such sentences are in any way inherently wrong, no matter that a certain kind of reader, lacking in the self-psyching-up skills, would argue that’s the case—but rather just because I don’t know how to do them right. Or so I tell myself.
How does Crowley make them work? How can he fill page after page with these forbidding monster riddle-sentences and somehow manage to end up with a prose style that is both lyrical and inviting? Maybe it has to do with the subject matter. Is it possible to write about love and existential sadness set against idyllic summer countryside in a way such that reading it doesn’t feel like coming home? Maybe not.
Because then I come to Book Two, titled “Brother North Wind’s Secret”, and a bunch of schoolchildren passing around a book of woodland stories written by their town’s patriarch, John Drinkwater. And around page 135 or so I begin to realize I am reading an homage to Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess was a naturalist children’s author from Cape Cod whom I read far too much of between the ages of eight and twelve: sort of a warmer, fuzzier Aesop, with talking animals learning wise life-lessons in the course of their daily efforts at survival, and teaching us something about the natural world as they go. I suppose he was very formative for me. I remember particularly my third grade reading teacher once scolding me for showing up with about the twentieth Burgess collection I’d read as a proposed subject for a book report. She wouldn’t let me do it, and so I left that phase behind and moved on to more grown-up books. And probably haven’t thought about Burgess since.
What Crowley does with Burgess is use him as a sort of secret passage to the reader’s childhood sense of magic. Little, Big is very much about lost childhood, about the slow compromises we make to replace the pieces of our childish understanding of the world as they fall away. Here’s a little bit of a Burgess story featuring Brother North Wind (from this online archive of his collected works:
The leaves of the trees turned yellow and red and brown and then began to drop, a few at first, then more and more every day until all but the spruce-trees and the pine-trees and the hemlock-trees and the fir-trees and the cedar-trees were bare. By this time most of Peter [Rabbit]’s feathered friends of the summer had departed, and there were days when Peter had oh, such a lonely feeling. The fur of his coat was growing thicker. The grass of the Green Meadows had turned brown. All these things were signs which Peter knew well. He knew that rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were on their way down from the Far North.
Peter had few friends to visit now. Johnny Chuck had gone to sleep for the winter ‘way down in his little bedroom under ground. Grandfather Frog had also gone to sleep. So had Old Mr. Toad. Peter spent a great deal of time in the dear Old Briar-patch just sitting still and listening. What he was listening for he didn’t know. It just seemed to him that there was something he ought to hear at this time of year, and so he sat listening and listening and wondering what he was listening for. Then, late one afternoon, there came floating down to him from high up in the sky, faintly at first but growing louder, a sound unlike any Peter had heard all the long summer through. The sound was a voice. Rather it was many voices mingled “Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk!” Peter gave a little jump.
Endings and sadness and onrushing death—but with a cozy sense of as-it-should-be. Now, here’s Crowley reinterpreting the same sort of story:
‘Good Morning, Mr. Crow,’ the Meadow Mouse called out, feeling quite safe in his snuggery in the wall.
‘Is it a good morning?’ said the Black Crow. ‘Not many more days you’ll be saying that.’
‘Now that’s just what I wanted to ask you about,’ the Meadow Mouse said. ‘It seems that a great change is coming over the world. Do you feel it? Do you know what it is?’
‘Ah, foolish Youth!’ said the Black Crow. ‘There is indeed a change coming. It is called Winter, and you’d better be prepared for it.’
‘What will it be like? How shall I prepare for it?’
With a glint in his eye, as though he enjoyed the Meadow Mouse’s discomfort, the Black Crow told him about Winter: how cruel Brother North-wind would come sweeping over the Green Meadow and the Old Pasture, turning the leaves gold and brown and blowing them from the trees; how the grasses would die and the animals that lived on them grow thin with hunger. He told how the cold rains would fall and flood the houses of small creatures like the Meadow Mouse. He described the snow, which sounded rather wonderful to the Meadow Mouse; but then he learned of the terrible cold that would bite him to the bone, and how the small birds would grow weak with cold and tumble frozen from their perches, and the fish would stop swimming and the Laughing Brook laugh no more because its mouth was stopped with ice.
‘But it’s the End of the World,’ cried the Meadow Mouse in despair.
‘So it would seem,’ said the Black Crow gaily.
I just love the contrast between these two passages. Even looking back at the first Crowley passage, you can see how his prose is informed by Burgess, the simplicity and repetition, the narrative voice, even the mood. But even when he’s playing the children’s storyteller, those monster sentences don’t go away. I would argue they work here to convey a sense of breathlessness, of urgency, both in the story itself and the lesson it’s meant to convey. But the difference that strikes me most between the two is that in Crowley’s version, the inherent wisdom of the animals has been taken away. Peter Rabbit knows that winter’s coming; he knows what to do, because that knowledge was born in him. Not so for the Meadow Mouse–because he isn’t an animal, not really. He’s us. A captive audience. He needs the story, because without it he’ll never know how to survive.
Crowley never finishes this story. The mouse goes looking for the secret of Winter, asking every animal he meets. They all have their own answers, but none of them will work for him. And before we can find out if he survives, the schoolchildren stop reading.
If I could make that kind of point with that much grace, well, maybe I could write long-ass sentences too.