Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Crowley, John

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(1942-    ) US writer who began publishing work of genre interest with his first sf novel, The Deep (1975). His reputation as an sf writer was soon eclipsed by the considerable fame he achieved with his first fantasy novel, Little, Big (1981). The Deep, Beasts (1976) and in particular Engine Summer (1979) are important sf texts of the 1970s, but it is for Little, Big that JC is now recognized as one of the shaping minds of the late-20th-century literature of the fantastic.

The title itself has been appropriated in this encyclopedia (see Little Big) as a shorthand to describe a relationship between an outer world and an inner world in which the latter is larger than the former. It is a phenomenon found very frequently in fantasy tales, sometimes as a simple literal description; but in Little, Big the term applies not only literally but to the whole complex metaphysics which structures the text. The further one penetrates that text, the larger it becomes, the huger the vistas on the other side of Crosshatch. An early member of the central Bramble family gives a lecture to the Theosophical Society (see Theosophy) called "Smaller Worlds Within the Large" in which he proposes that "the world [i.e., Faerie] inhabited by these beings [i.e., Fairies and their kin] is not the world we inhabit. It is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this one; it is in a sense a universal retreating Mirror image of this one, which as one penetrates deeper ... [grows] larger. The further in you go, the bigger it gets."

As with Faerie, so with Little, Big, which can be read as a kind of summae theologica of modern Fantasy, not solely because of its encircling complexities but because it arguably represents an attempt at marrying UK/European and US ways of apprehending the relationship between the Otherworld and mundane Reality. The UK mode may be described as centripetal, in that UK fantasies tend to find the otherworld inside the mundane, even though that otherworld may well turn out to be bigger than that which "contains" it. The US mode is, perhaps, more geographical: the fantastic tends to be contiguous with the mundane, rather than hidden within a Secret Garden. The Faerie at the heart of the inner world of Little, Big is discovered by travelling further inwards, an Into the Woods journey that typically, in European Fairytales, leads to Faerie; the near-future world into which the narrative eventually moves, and the reawakened Frederick Barbarossa (see Sleeper Under the Hill), who becomes US President, are reached by travel across the fields we know. The novel closes in a joint manoeuvre, a complexity of Recognitions unfolding into a Healing terminus: the central characters accomplish what, most ambivalently, can be understood as a transcendent retreat into Faerie, while the world they leave continues to experience a profound but similarly ambiguous renewal (see Instauration Fantasy).

Little, Big is seminal also because its basic structure replicates a basic structure of fantasy itself: Smoky Barnable, and all of the Bramble clan, know or learn that the intertwining lives they are leading constitute parts of a deep Story which – when told, or understood, or discovered – will tell them who they have been and who they are. They have been actors, or characters; and there is a script.

The initial setting is one familiar to Contemporary Fantasy. Smoky Barnable has spent his early years in New York, and falls in love with Daily Alice Drinkwater, the relative of a friend of his; they agree to marry. He leaves the City and passes through a complex Threshold into rural New England to arrive at Edgewood, where she and her extensive family live. Edgewood, a classic Edifice – larger inside than out, with façades facing seemingly into different Realities, as if Portals, with the Orrery at its heart being turned by the Universe and, by analogy, turning the story – is the main venue of the tale. Years pass, during which a large number of fantasy motifs are invoked, quoted and examined. It seems that the kinfolk around Edgewood were shaped by paterfamilias John Storm Drinkwater's stories; this is just as likely as to assume that he simply based his stories on them. Woven into the texture of the tale are references to, and parodies of, the work of Lewis Carroll, both as teller of tales and in his real person. There are Changelings and norns (see Fates); and there is the figure of Mrs Underhill, who may be a fairy – indeed, the Fairie Queene – or perhaps simply Mother Goose, or who may combine all these aspects of the ongoing story.

Out beyond Edgewood life goes on in New York, where Auberon (see Oberon), a son of Smoky and Daily Alice, holes up in another relative's urban Polder, a circle of tenements called Old Law Farm in the heart of the city (Old Law tenements actually exist in New York, and are legally protected, polder-like, from landlords), and suffers an excruciating love-affair with a girl whose nickname is Titania. Some of his time is spent in a mysterious park which has resemblances to Edgewood, and (consequently) to the Story of the world; there are also direct similarities to the garden in the later phases of Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In the meantime, the Secret Masters who run the world – the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club – have discovered that Barbarossa has been reawoken to deal with the crisis of the millennium. But the instauration Barbarossa imposes turns out to be profoundly skewed, and has an obscure (but deeply felt) effect on the crisis of radical Thinning which has been desiccating Fairie as well as our Reality; and the story ends in the ambivalently redemptive moves towards closure mentioned earlier. Given the orrery at the heart of the home, it may be that where they go (where they are already) is a world in which Seasons return and tales can begin again (and already have). But this is left unfully spoken by JC.

Many of the themes and motifs of Little, Big receive extended treatment in JC's next work of fantasy interest, the ongoing Aegypt Quartet, of which so far Aegypt (1987) and Love & Sleep (1994) have been published. Though we cannot yet (1996) assess the final shape of this vast story, we can note that Aegypt comprises a huge expansion of hints in Little, Big, and that the secret history of the world it tells – Aegypt being a massively intricate Fantasy of History – is a story similar to that inside the world of (and bigger than the outside world of) the earlier book. Rather like Smoky Barnable, the protagonist of the new tale, Pierce Moffett, is an exile full of longing for the real world, a world which has been locked away from him, but which surely abides, for "There is more than one history of the world" – a phrase used many times over the course of the first two volumes.

As the tale progresses, Hermetic motifs begin to coalesce around Moffett's search for happiness and tranquillity in the small country town of Blackbury Jambs. Here he becomes involved (as did Barnable) in an interlinked family, and here (again similarly) his search is governed in part by children's books written by a member of that family, Fellowes Kraft. But many of Kraft's stories concern themselves with far more visibly grave issues. A number of these fictional Books are referred to by name in the text; it turns out that Kraft was supremely interested in two historical figures, John Dee and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), both important 16th-century philosophers who understood Reality as perceivable through a visible mundane story which overlays the true, Hermetic Story, which rings like a clarion through the realms of sleep where we mortals live in Bondage and awakens those (like Moffett) who know themselves to be exiles in this mundane world of matter. He is a historian, and he has had an intuition that the secret history of the world hinges somehow upon an alternate Egypt, which he calls Aegypt; the plot of the first two volumes carries him into a love affair and implicates him deeply in lives which may (or may not) themselves connect directly to the real Story. The relationship between Aegypt and Kraft's fictional books about Dee and Bruno has not yet been made clear; but the progress of the quartet has a momentum to it which hints that we will eventually be told.

JC's short fiction has been assembled in Novelty (coll 1989) and Antiquities: Seven Stories (coll 1993). The only fantasy in the first collection, "The Nightingale Sings at Night", retells the story of Adam and Eve in Revisionist-Fantasy terms. Antiquities includes: "The Green Child", a fairly straightforward rendering of the Green Child tale; "Missolonghi 1824", in which Lord Byron recounts an encounter with a Satyr; "Her Bounty to the Dead", in which it is argued that mortals get not the Heaven or the Immortality they deserve but the one they believe in; and "The Reason for the Visit", whose narrator engages in a kind of Timeslip interview with Virginia Woolf. [JC]

other works: Great Work of Time (1991), an sf novella from Novelty; Beasts/Engine Summer/Little, Big (omni 1991; vt Three Novels: The Deep, Beasts, Engine Summer 1994).

John Crowley


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.