I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for 35 years. What? You’re telling me blog posts hadn’t even been invented 35 years ago? No, of course not: back then this would have been an article or an essay. But you know what I mean…
In 1984 I was a young curate with a struggling wife and three young children, serving a tiny church in an industrial village in Bedfordshire. I had felt a strong call to take the post, but my ministry there turned out to be not what some might call ‘successful’ in terms of making converts and growing the church. I didn’t see much noticeable fruit of my ministry, and although the people of the church loved us and we had some good friends there, it often felt there was little to support or encourage my wife and me in our own spiritual life.
Then I read a book which I thought at the time, and have often thought since, ‘changed my life’. It wasn’t a book you might have expected to change the life of a minister in that kind of situation.
It was Little, Big by John Crowley.
How can I describe this book, or explain (or perhaps, even, remember) how and why it changed my life? It’s a complex fantasy novel – Ursula K. Le Guin called it ‘a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’. It’s a love story – or better, a whole collection of love stories. It’s a family saga spanning generations. It’s a nature book, with beautifully written descriptions of field and forest, river and lake, birds and animals. It’s about architecture and literature and ideas – over and over again you want to mark sentences and whole paragraphs you think you must remember and quote. It’s full of mysterious events that you don’t understand the significance of until much later in the Tale – if indeed you ever do. It’s about the nature of Story itself: how stories are told and if they ever can have an ending. It’s a political thriller about the End Of Civilization As We Know It, when the failing democratic republic is taken over by a charismatic populist leader, whom the elite powers of the Establishment, the bankers and the media think they will control for their own purposes – but they are mistaken. (Remembering that this book was published in 1981, you have to ask yourself: How did the author come to be so prescient? What could have greater contemporary relevance for us?)
But above all, it is a fairy story. And the secret of how and why this book changed my life is tied up with this, and the old question we all remember from our days of watching Peter Pan: Do you believe in fairies? As I read this book in 1984, a time of struggling with and trying to make sense of questions of faith, again and again it helped me to learn more about just what faith means.
The Drinkwater family, around whom the whole Tale revolves, are said from the outset to be ‘very religious’. But this is not Christian or any other kind of mainstream religion: it is about knowing and living and walking with ‘them’, the inhabitants of another world, the world of Faerie. Into this family marries a young man who doesn’t share their ‘faith’, who is introduced to us in the very first wonderful paragraph of the book:
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 about 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 upon his coming there at all.
Smoky is aware of and respects the beliefs of his bride and her family, but he cannot share them. He never sees or hears or speaks to ‘them’: so he simply cannot believe in them. Yet out of courtesy he keeps quiet about his lack of faith, never speaks of it, seems almost to pretend that he does share it. Suspects, sometimes, that many of the other members of the family are also ‘pretending’ because they also are too reticent to speak of it. One of the most moving moments in the book describes the conversation, many years later, between Smoky and his grown-up son Auberon, when Auberon finally asks him, “Do you believe in fairies?” And it transpires that each of them has thought that the other knew Something all along that remained a Mystery to him. What is the difference between believing, and pretending we believe, because we think that all the people around us believe something we cannot, and yet they expect us to share their faith, and imagine that we do?
In the end (SPOILER ALERT! – or maybe not?) They all withdraw into the smaller world within their one, which turns out to be far far bigger, while all the characters in our world journey into that inner world that They have vacated, and take Their places. (I think.) All of them except Smoky who cannot make that journey. But it doesn’t matter, because
how could he desire another world than this one?
He couldn’t go where all of them were going, but it didn’t matter, for he’d been there all along.
His life, and all their lives and the things that have happened to them, are part of the Tale. Which is now ended; and yet it’s a Tale that never ends.
I have always been most fully convinced of things not by reasons or proofs, but by imagination. It’s why the moment I came to believe was when I read the Gospels and realised that this was a Story that I could, and wanted to, inhabit. It’s why the stories of C. S. Lewis, Narnia and the were so helpful on my spiritual journey.
And Little, Big helped me too, because it taught me to imagine the truth that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”1 Some of the most important discoveries of my own spiritual journey have been deepening insights into this truth. The ‘other world’ that we believe or aspire to believe in is ‘in’ this world, or touches it at every point, or is separated from it by only the thinnest of veils. And we come to know that ‘other world’ most fully as we learn to love and know this world. If we hate this life, we will never enjoy the life of Heaven. Or whatever.
You may not like Little, Big at all, it may leave you completely cold. But I hope that, if you do read it, you catch a glimpse of the same mysterious, wonderful truths that so captivated me and continue to do so.
Variously attributed to W. B. Yeats, Paul Eluard, and even Rilke ↩︎