The Fantasy Man

The Strange Brilliance of John Crowley

When I was nineteen, I bought a paperback copy of John Crowley’s Little, Big in an English bookstore. I had been reading a lot of the Victorian fantasist George MacDonald, and was searching for copies of his fairy tales in the science fiction and fantasy aisle. Though I’d read science fiction and fantasy steadily through childhood, at nineteen I believed (wrongly) that I’d outgrown it. I suffered from the English major’s sense that such genres were best left behind for more sophisticated fare. But here was a promisingly thick book by a writer unknown to me, with an endorsement from Ursula LeGuin, the acclaimed American author of the Earthsea Trilogy, on the front cover.

Despite the microscopic print of the English paperback edition, I found Little, Big (1981) immediately engrossing. Start with the marvelous names of the characters-Daily Alice Drinkwater, Smoky Barnable, and the oracular Grandfather Trout. Add the rattling big house, an architectural sample in multiple styles. Finally, top it off with the fairies, Arthur Rackham-inspired creatures, familiar from the illustrations to old editions of Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows. The fairies had escaped from Kensington Gardens into Crowley’s America. Having grown up on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and on the great British writers for children, I couldn’t help being Anglophilic in my taste for fiction. Little, Big was unique in my reading experience, a...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Suzanne Keen is the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.