Little, Big by John Crowley - Review by Lee A. Bursten

This book is back in print! If you would like to purchase it, click here.

This novel, first published in 1981, has become a cult classic. It won the World Fantasy Award, and its author, who had written several well-regarded science fiction novels, went on to write the well-regarded "mainstream" novel Aegypt and an excellent science fiction novella, Great Work of Time. Little, Big, however, is his most famous work.

This book went in and out of print for a while and is unfortunately currently out of print, so if you see a copy for sale, grab it. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

The novel tells a multi-generational story focusing on the Drinkwater family, who reside with their cousins in an isolated section of upstate New York. All of the members of the family who live in the Drinkwater house are convinced that the events of their lives, both the momentous and the mundane, are all part of a Tale which is the design of entities completely beyond their control. Although they are aware that these entities bear them no particular love, they are dedicated to seeing the Tale through to the end.

The story begins in the present and follows Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who comes to the City (unidentified but obviously New York) and meets, through his friend George Mouse, George’s cousin Alice Dale Drinkwater (called Daily Alice), who recognizes Smoky as the man who has been promised her by the above-mentioned entities. They marry and he moves into the large Drinkwater house, an architectural folly comprising many fronts and styles, which was built by Daily Alice’s grandfather, John Drinkwater. The story stretches backward, to tell how John, who haunts theosophist meetings, meets and marries Violet Bramble, an English girl who can see fairies, and brings her back to his house; and forward, to a near-future national upheaval in which the reborn Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa leads a revolution and assumes the Presidency, all part of a complex scheme, with the Drinkwaters at the center, whose true purpose is revealed at the conclusion, along with the identities of the entities who are the authors of the plan.

No synopsis could do this novel justice, as the magic of the book depends as much on the characters and settings as on the plot, not to mention the luminous writing. Those interested can go to amazon.com and look up the book, where there are several readers’ reviews which describe the book much better than I can.

What makes this book a must for those interested in the Tarot is the fact that a Tarot deck plays quite a large part in the plot, and is practically a character in itself. The deck is hundreds of years old and comes into Violet’s hands, who brings it to America, where John’s mystical friends instruct her in the traditional methods of laying out the cards. She later discovers (although at a great price) that the cards have been given the power to accurately predict the everyday comings and goings of her family. The cards are handed down to two successive generations of Drinkwaters and become a sort of guide by which they can know how they are to fulfill their destiny.

The deck is identical to the standard Tarot deck except for the Major Arcana, which in this deck is an altogether different set of 22 cards, and is called the "lesser trumps" by Violet, after Charles Williams’ novel The Greater Trumps. They illustrate persons, places, things and notions. For those interested, here is a list of the 16 cards which are mentioned by title (the actual card titles are in Latin; these titles are how the Drinkwaters refer to them):

The Journey

The Traveler (similar to the Fool, with a pack and stick)

The Sun

The Host

The Bundle

The Secret

The Sportsman ("Piscator" in Latin)

Convenience

Multiplicity

The Cousin

The Vista (a hallway with many doors leading to further doors)

The Gift

The Stranger

The Knot

The Fool

The Banquet

Only a few of these cards are described. "The Fool card ... showed a full-bearded man in armor crossing a brook. Like the White Knight he was in the act of pitching head-first and straight-legged from his brawny horse. His expression was mild, and he looked not into the shallow stream he fell toward, but outward at the viewer, as though what he was doing were intentional, a trick, or possibly an example of something: gravity? In one hand he held a scallop-shell; in the other, some links of sausage." And The Banquet: "A long table clothed in just-unfolded linen, its claw-feet absurd in the flowers beneath twisted and knotty trees, the tall compote overflowing, the symmetrical candelabra, the many places set, all empty."

It might be an interesting exercise for someone to draw these cards, and make up the missing ones, and try reading with them and see how it goes.

Crowley betrays some ignorance of the Tarot, such as one passage where he speaks of the trumps as containing 21 cards numbered 0 to 20. He is also sometimes internally inconsistent, as when in one passage he mentions the Sun, while in another passage he specifically states that the deck does not contain such cards and the Sun and the Moon, or when he refers to some of the Minor cards in a spread as being reversed but never mentions a Major card being reversed. It is also somewhat difficult to imagine how concepts like "Convenience" or "Multiplicity" would be illustrated on a card drawn hundreds of years ago.

I’m sure there will be many who will be entranced, as I was, with the notion of a deck which can actually predict concrete events and things in quite the way described in this book (although I suppose some psychic readers may already possess that enviable confidence). There are many passages in the book which capture remarkably well what it actually feels like to give a reading. Here is one passage which is not specifically about Tarot reading but which perfectly reflects an experience I’m sure many of us have had: "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 limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex yet more and more compact and individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness."

Or this passage: "Sophie with her long soft hand over her eyes thought of no question. She thought of the cards, dark in their bag in their box. She didn’t think of them as units, as individual pieces of paper, could no longer think of them that way even if she chose to. She didn’t think of them either as notions, as persons, places, things. She thought of them as one thing, like a story or an interior, something made of space and time, lengthy and vast but compact; jointed, dimensional, ever-unfolding."

Although I had been interested in Tarot before I read this book, after I read it I was so entranced that I feel as if a spell had been cast over me from which I have never entirely emerged, and my attitude toward the Tarot, regardless of which deck I use, has never lost a certain magical fascination as a result. Reading this book may also awaken in the reader an interest in Marseilles-type decks, which contain a charm of their own despite the prevalence of the Waite-Smith, illustrated-pips type of deck.

This novel is a must for anyone interested in Tarot, if you can find it.

This book is back in print! If you would like to purchase it, click here.

Little, Big by John Crowley
Bantam Books
ISBN: 0-553-26586-5 (currently out of print)

Review Copyright (c) 1999 Lee A. Bursten



This page is Copyright 1997 by Michele Jackson