‘all the castles he had ever heard of in songs’

Dust Jacket of Flint and Mirror by John Crowley

— John Crowley. Flint and Mirror. Tor, [2022].

Stories are told again and again. It is the telling that haunts us, and which we remember in our ears and hearts. Flint and Mirror is unlike any of John Crowley’s earlier novels, for it is a closely constrained historical novel of the life and times of Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), who almost succeeded in overthrowing English rule in Ireland in the 1590s. If the legend of King Arthur is the Matter of Britain, the Tudor invasion of Ireland is the monstrous and chiefly unacknowledged truth that fixed the pattern of English adventurism around the world for centuries to come. The invasions continued under Queen Elizabeth I, and in Ireland as elsewhere, English policies fostered disunity among those who might have resisted the expansion of settlements. As one of the heirs to Gaelic lord of Tyrone, the young Hugh, Baron Dungannon, was fostered with the family of Sir Henry Sidney, Elizabeth’s deputy in Ireland (and father of the poet). Hugh was presented to the English court, and Elizabeth later referred to him as “a creature of our own”. Hugh O’Neill returned to Ireland and was appointed to various lieutenancies in Ulster. While his “position then resembled that of the many English captains serving in Ireland, he was more adept in advancing his interests because his Ulster origins allowed him to operate within two competing worlds” (ODNB). The English thought perhaps they had shaped a useful pawn, but having been “raised from nothing by her Majesty”, O’Neill soon put his own ideas into action.

The “two competing worlds” at the heart of Crowley’s novel are not, however, those of the historian, or not quite. To the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland is always added the fifth, the domain of those who live under the earth and in the lakes and rivers. The evening before Hugh is sent to England, the blind poet of his uncle’s castle takes him out to a tumulus at twilight, and the boy is presented to “a certain prince” who gives him tokens of a promise and a commandment. And later, one of his tutors is the wizard Doctor Dee, who also gives the boy a small secret object binding him to Queen Elizabeth.

This is not Pavane, Keith Roberts’ beautiful book which rewrites technology to articulate a backward-looking alternate history, for Flint and Mirror is an account of how the English victory rewrote the nature of Ireland. Three centuries would pass before Patrick Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic and invoked “the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood”.

And yet. The entire novel is closely entangled with all the notions Crowley has always written about: liminal places, objects of power, consequences, Shakespeare, Doctor Dee, the fearsomeness of the Shee, imaginary books, and the changes of the world.

Hugh O’Neill’s childhood visit to the Earl of Desmond in squalid exile in London moves to a rich, astonishing image as the chapter concludes. And John Dee’s vision of the powers leaving Ireland in “no ships men sail, ships made out of the time of another age, silvered like driftwood, with sails as of cobweb” recalls the insubstantial armies and inconclusive battles of the war in Little, Big. Flint and Mirror is a beautiful book, sometimes elegiac in tone, and full of surprises.

recent reading : september & october 2021

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [August 2021].

— John Crowley. Engine Summer [1979]. Illustrations by Michael Cope. Subterranean Press, 2021. One of 250 numbered copies signed by the author.

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— Joseph J. Felcone. New Jersey in Print 1693-1855. Selections from the Collection of Joseph J. Felcone. Princeton, New Jersey, 2021. Catalogue of a ghost exhibition [95 items]: Laws, scandals, novels, the first American card game, the origins of American drug culture, &c., &c. One of “a small number of copies for bookish friends”.

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— Robert Aickman. Compulsory Games and Other Stories. Edited by Victoria Nelson. New York Review Books, [2018]. Read this, even if you think you know Aickman’s work. “The Coffin House” goes somewhere utterly unexpected, all in 5 pages, remarkable. Also includes stories such as “The Fully-Conducted Tour” and “The Strangers” (not published in his lifetime).

— Margery Allingham. Crime and Mr. Campion [Death of a Ghost, 1934. Flowers for the Judge, 1936. Dancers in Mourning, 1937]. Doubleday, [n.d., ca. 1960].

That Left Turn at Albuquerque

— Scott Phillips. That Left Turn at Albuquerque. Soho Crime, [2020].

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— Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential. Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly [2000]. Harper Perennial [2007]. Revised edition, with a new afterword. A fun, gritty account. Your correspondent worked variously as a line cook, waiter, and catering jack of all trades in mid-1980s, and the absurd swagger and mania rings true. Don’t know why I didn’t see this when it first appeared.

 

Little, Big by John Crowley

special issue on re-reading : part one
Little, Big

When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. [. . .] In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life.

— On Reading Old Books, from the Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778 : 1830. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Nonesuch, 1930.

John Crowley’s Little, Big is a book which I have read more times than I can count. It is also in that rare category of books which I give away (sometimes even the copy in my hand). Readers of the Endless Bookshelf will have seen allusions to my readings over the years (Appraisal at Edgewood, the summer of 2007, or Chapter XIV in A Conversation larger than the Universe or  “Strange Enough to Be Remembered Forever”). Everything which Hazlitt enumerates applies to re-readings of Little, Big. This year, when I picked up the novel, I paid attention to recurrences of words and parallels. I don’t say repetitions or doublings because the words often function — that is to say, carry meaning — in a new way when they return to the surface later in the book.
Contradictions across scale run through the book: rooms which seem larger than they are, or are smaller than they look — when Smoky is visiting the Woods (88), and Room 001 to which Sylvie delivers the package (331) — and the resonant phrase, the further in you go, the bigger it gets, is recited by Doctor Bramble in his lecture (43), by Hannah Noon at the wedding of Smoky and Alice (63), and by Auberon in the city park (351), with many echoes. “Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head” (178).
John Drinkwater told Violet, “I proved that every room needed more than two doors, but couldn’t ever prove than any could get along with only three” (50), which is a succinct an organizing principle of periodic recurrence as one could ask for. Take three examples. First: Smoky writes Alice that he has discovered a plaque reading Mouse Drinkwater Stone 1900 on a pillar at the entrance to a park (13) and a generation later Auberon begins brushing new leaving ivy and obscuring dirt from the plaque as Ariel Hawksquill holds a key to the gate (350). And second: the word constellation, invoked when Smoky is on his way to Edgewood (21), in the beautiful passage when Smoky and Alice and Sophie are looking at the stars on the last night of summer (177-8), and as Ariel Hawskquill contemplates the night-time paradox of the Cosmo-Opticon, when “the blackish Zodiac and the constellations could not be read” (343). And in between “Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun” who rises as a schoolboy reads from one of Doc’s fables of the Green Meadow in Smoky’s classroom (128) and the “ghastly red round sun” as it sinks late one afternoon when Mrs. Underhill takes Lilac on a tour of New York and Old Law Farm (312) are the lives of individual characters and the fate of afflicted nation under the Tyrant. In George Mouse’s successive awakenings from the effects of a “new drug he was experimenting with, of astonishing, just unheard-of potency” (500), familiar objects reassemble themselves into another fabric of reality. These recurrences in Little, Big are the Tale itself, inseparable now from the experience of the reader.

Little, Big is a source of great pleasure each time I read it. This pleasure is only increased by reading about the novel, in, for example, John Clute’s review in  the Washington Post Book World for 4 October 1981, or Snake’s Hands, edited by Michael Andre-Driussi and Alice Turner (which prints, twenty years later, Tom Disch’s contemporary review of Crowley’s “masterpiece”).

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detail from an invitation, 1981

Little, Big was published on 16 September 1981. Above, detail from an invitation to Little, Big Day in August 1981. And below, the author’s inscriptions to Thomas M. Disch in copies of the novel :

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bantam trade edition (1981) and the Gollancz hardcover edition (1982) :

Little, Big (1981)

and the recent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (2015) with a fine, concise introduction by Graham Sleight :

 

In truth, with certain books, there are any number of reasons to have more than one copy. Little, Big is one of those personal “land-marks” (as Hazlitt calls them). To quote Tom Disch :

It’s readers who make a book a classic by reading it and getting their friend to read it, by treasuring it and making its wisdom part of their own. Little, Big deserves to be that kind of book.
So read it.

[HWW]