Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insomnia & Fairy Tales

Image from the film, Photographing Fairies, courtesy of
I used to be the most luxurious sleeper. I was like the character, Sophie, in my favorite book, Little, Big (John Crowley)/ (Read Chapter One here, if you're interested.)

Sophie was a dreamy person who luxuriated in sleep, spent more time asleep than awake, was forever falling asleep or catnapping, and dreaming interesting dreams.
"Ophelia" by John William Waterhouse, image courtesy of
I was like that. I had a rich dream life. I loved to sleep.

Sophie slept so hard that faeries were able to sneak into her room one night and steal her baby, Lilac, leaving a changeling in its place. After that, of course, Sophie's sleep was stolen also.

I feel my sleep has been stolen as well.

I write this to you at 2 o'clock in the morning, after unsuccessful tries at falling asleep. My bed is comfortable and welcoming, but all the down comforters and feather pillows in the world will not quiet my mind.

So instead I will tell you about Little, Big, a book I judged by its cover, which in 1987 looked like this, green and sort of psychedelic and intriguing:
I reread Little, Big more than once during a magical part of my own life. It's impossible now to sort out the impressions of my Bohemian life in Santa Cruz from the things I read in Little, Big, impossible to tell which came first.

If you buy it from bookstores now, it looks like this:
It's about this family that lives on the threshold between worlds. Quite by accident, their house is a doorway between faerieland and our ordinary world.
The book follows several generations of family members who interact with the faeries in different ways. The children play with them, the teenagers seek their advice, the young adults strike treacherous bargains with them.

One man writes children's stories about them, another spends his time trying to capture them on film, while an old woman reads messages from them in a deck of special cards.

I am not a particular fan of faeries, or Elementals as they are obliquely called in the book. What entranced me about Little, Big are the images Crowley paints with his artful language.

Image courtesy of
The images in Little, Big are both familiar and mythical at the same time. The author describes a marbled-cover notebook, a roadmap ("confetti-colored"), a peacock wicker chair, a brown cigarette and a swan-shaped boat--as if everything is an archetype. The City, for example. The Tale, for another.

Great-aunt Cloud's peacock chair, image courtesy of
Image courtesy of
Unexpected words pop up in descriptions of ordinary things:
"The gregarious weeds that frequent roadsides, dusty, thick and blowsy, friend to man and traffic, nodded from fence and ditch by the way."

"The kitchen was papered with baskets of impossibly luscious fruit, blue grapes and russet apples and cleft peaches that protruded like bottoms from the harvest."

The house the family lives in, Edgewood, is intriguing to say the least. There is, for example, an Imaginary Bedroom and a Back Front.
"Hidden Cities" by Peter Milton who illustrated a fancy recent edition of Little, Big. Image courtesy of

The Cathedral Bathroom always captured my imagination: a bathroom with great stained glass windows, where rays of colored sunlight would cast themselves on steam rising from a hot bath.
This guy Ricky Boscarino has a similar idea with his Luna Parc bathrooms, image courtesy of

I love the way Crowley writes, although I never have found the same satisfaction in any of his other books, which are a little vague and indistinct (except Engine Summer, out of print now, is pretty damn wonderful. I'll tell you all about it sometime).
Crowley, as a writer, infuses ordinariness with richness in a way I don't know how to describe or emulate. Now that I have studied language analysis, I need to read Little, Big again, so I can read it like a writer and discover exactly what it is he does to produce this effect.
In one section of the book, the whole household of Edgewood is asleep and we, the readers, get to peek into their dreams:
"While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers.

"Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart.

"Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.' This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might.

"Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years.'"
If there were ever a book I wish to see turned to film it's this one. I want to see these things, these characters, these places, come to life.

But now that I've talk about them, envisioned them in my imagination, and now that it's coming on 3 in the morning, maybe I can go to sleep and dream of Daily Alice and Smoky, Auberon and Sylvie, Lilac, Violet and Cloud.
"A Fairy Tale" by Arthur Wardle , image courtesy of

Other covers
Little, Big has had over the years. Which one would draw you in?


steviewren said...

This is the true magic of books isn't it? The ability to touch us so deeply with the written word that we are never able to forget the magic of reading those pages. I have books that I remember with the same fondness, the same power of imagination ignited.

Hope your insomnia vanishes soon.

Anonymous said...

Go to bed K.! *yawn* I figure you just might have caught one more side effect of MS... which is bad sleeping habits, no matter if taking in medicine or not. In my case the steroids keep me running around like the energizer bunny... last day tomorrow. Quit thinking. Start snoring! Love ya girlfriend, R. ;-P

Indie said...

Stevie, wouldn't it be something to write those kinds of books? But I just read an interview with this author where he says it took 10 year to write this one. Who has that kind of time?

I'd love to know the titles of some of your faves (besides Trixie Belden! :) ) In a couple of months, this miraculous thing called guilt-free reading for pleasure will enter my life!

R, I wish my insomnia included running around like the energizer bunny! At least I'd get things done. Instead I am a lump of worry. You're done with the steroids now, right? I hope you get some relief from the side-effects soon. Love you too. Such a nice friend. :)

Anonymous said...

Take good care of your friends.

Kato said...

I'm always looking for good titles for my daughter (and me!); this looks like a definite must-have. Thanks for the in-depth review, Indie.

Indie said...

You're welcome! Please let me know what you think, Kato. I would love to hear what you make of it.

Scarlet said...

Hi. I just stumbled across your blog while looking for a beautiful fairy tale picture to inspire me. I loved reading your review of little big so much that I just bought the book so I can read it. I had never heard of it before. I just love reading novels about fairyland. :)
Thanks for sharing.