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Literature / Little, Big: or, The Fairies' Parliament

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Little, Big: or, The Fairies' Parliament is a 1981 epic World Fantasy Award-winning novel by John Crowley.

It tells the multigenerational tale of an eccentric family and its compact with the world of fairies. A lengthy, bittersweet story of familial love, double-edged inheritances, and loss, the book is a celebrated touchstone of the modern-fantasy genre.

Contains examples of:

  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: At the end, Alice inherits Mrs. Underhill's position. The latter's exact nature is never outright explained, but depending on how one chooses to interpret certain details, it's entirely possible this means becoming a god.
  • Ambiguous Ending: To Smoky's story. Yes, he dies of a heart attack before he can see the faerie realm, but he didn't actually want to go there. It's possible he'd be OK with what he got instead.
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  • Animate Inanimate Object: It's hinted that the tarot cards possess some kind of intelligence.
  • Another Dimension: Faerie, which seems uniquely semi-accessible around the Edgewood mansion and its inhabitants. In the end, the surviving Drinkwater family becomes full residents.
  • Arc Words: "The further in you go, the bigger it gets."
    • "In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Do you believe in fairies?"
  • Badass Bookworm: Ariel Hawksquill is a one-woman brain trust for a cabal of the country's most powerful men ... and a redoubtable wizard.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Grandfather Trout/August Drinkwater. Subverted in that when he gets a chance to change back, he isn't sure he wants to.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • August makes a deal in exchange for true love ... only to learn that the emotions the fairies will manipulate to bring this about are his own.
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    • Ariel casts a spell that will transfer her soul to a different host after her body dies. however, she fails to follow due diligence in ensuring the suitability (or species) of the body.
  • Big Applesauce: Crowley only calls it "the City," but he's not fooling anybody. By the end, when Fred Savage starts listing off all the rivers in New York, the book has given up all pretense.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The family is brought back together in Faerie, but Smoky does not live to see it, Ariel is eternally trapped in a stork's body, and America will take generations to recover from Eigenblick's misrule.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The fairies are not malicious, but their priorities are only mildly parallel to anything that humans are about. As in many traditional fairy tales, kidnapping, mind control, and destructive insistence on the letter of a deal fall well within their notions of "fair play."
  • Blue Blood: The Drinkwaters are the American version of a noble landlord family. They live in the biggest house, collect rents on the surrounding land, and feel a certain amount of noblesse oblige toward their tenants.
  • Brick Joke: At the very beginning of the book, Smoky's working as a clerk in the City, and notes that the computer can't tell which meaning of "St" to use, throwing up the Seventh Saint Bar and the Church of All Streets. Later, Auberon goes to the City, and it turns out the computer was actually right about the names.
  • Call-Back: The guests at Smoky's wedding to Daily Alice tell him "thank you" when they give him their gifts, confusing Smoky. At the moment of his death, hundreds of pages later, he realizes why: they were thanking him for taking on the burden of being the Token Everyman in a family with access to magic. He decides that Alice's genuine love made it all worthwhile.
  • Cards of Power: Aunt Nora Cloud's mysterious Tarot deck, with its unique "Greater Trumps," are an infallible (though often ambiguous) guide to the future. Tellingly, they're most reliable when foretelling events in the lives of the Drinkwater family and their associates.
  • Changeling Tale: Sophie's baby Lilac is switched soon after birth, with a duplicate whose creepifying nature soon becomes clear.
  • Chekhov's Gun: At first, it seems as though Auberon becoming showrunner of a Soap Opera is just a subplot to explain how he makes a living. Later, his work on "A World Elsewhere" helps to reunite the people after Eigenblick's eternal winter, and keep the myth of Edgewood alive after its inhabitants relocate to the Feywild.
  • Country Mouse: What happened to Timothea Wilhelmina, Nora Cloud's sister, is never explicitly described, but there was some kind of tragedy; she married Alex Mouse and moved to the City, and soon seemed to waste away. It's also pretty clear that she was George's mother and may have died giving birth to him. Her nickname, Timmie Willie, is the name of the Country Mouse in Beatrix Potter 's The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse.
  • Court Mage: Ariel Hawksquill uses her unique arts of memory and divination to advise the "Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club," a group of the country's most powerful politicians and financiers.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: To Harvey Cloud's story specifically. He was a brilliant engineer whose life's work was the Perpetual Motion Machine at the top of Edgewood. The day he was about to turn it on, he fell four stories from it and died, leaving nobody alive who knew how it worked.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Smoky himself, appropriately enough for a character whose defining trait is a lack of traits. The true main character is either his son Auberon, Auberon's girlfriend Sylvie, or possibly even Russel Eigenblick, who from the reader's perspective is actually the villain.
  • Despair Event Horizon: After Sylvie's disappearance, young Auberon collapses into ruined, half-mad vagrancy.
  • Door Stopper: The story's epic scope is fully matched by its page count.
  • Dream Weaver: Sophie is this. She's capable of lucid dreaming, Recursive Reality, Recurring Dreams, Dream Within a Dream and several other interesting Dream Tropes. These are enhanced by a mysterious fever which she causes in herself, in order to have even better dreams. She worries that it's hooking her like dope.
  • Drugs Are Good: George Mouse's huge crumbling old townhouse in (what used to be) New York used to be a Middle Eastern shopping center back in the 19th century. Hashish was not only legal, but candy shops used to sell bars of it for a nickel. George still has a basement full of old and by now extremely good stock.note  George also takes a drug called Pellucidar, probably a street drug like Ecstasy named after the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, which seems to be a mild stimulant enhancing perception, but has nasty after-effects.
  • Emergency Transformation: Ariel Hawksquill has put in place occult measures to make sure she will survive her physical death. Unfortunately for her, that proves to involve being permanently transformed into a stork.
  • Empathic Environment: The state of the Edgewood house parallels the condition of both the human and fairy worlds.
  • Engagement Challenge: Smoky's journey to Edgewood. People who don't come to the house the proper way — on foot, wearing an old suit, and without paying for food or lodging — tend to have problems later on.
  • The Fair Folk: The little folk live in a world parallel with our own, but are only "little" from exterior perspectives.
  • Fairy Godmother: Mrs. Underhill. Maybe. See Mother Nature below.
  • Fairy Tale Free-for-All: In this book, practically every incarnation and belief about fairies proves true, from Irish mythology to Shakespeare to Victorian spiritualism.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Hawksquill believes that Eigenblick is the Hero of the Tale. She's wrong.
  • Foil: Ariel Hawksquill and La Negra represent two opposed subversions of the witch archetype. La Negra is a Creepy Good 'bruja' whose power comes from folk traditions, while Hawksquill is a modern, educated mage who prefers not to use spells and charms unless it's absolutely necessary.
  • Foreshadowing: All over the place. For example, when Auberon meets Sylvie's family, the narrative notes she has so many nicknames that he often doesn't realize an amusing childhood story is about her. In the end it turns out the much-storied Oberon and Titania are him and Sylvie.
    • There's also Auberon's two childhood obsessions, the Edgewood orrery and Frederick Barbarossa.
  • Friendless Background: Smoky Barnable has grown up following his ne'er-do-well father from town to town, from one anonymous hotel to other. Having grown to young manhood, he is virtually a social blank slate at the beginning.
  • Genre-Busting: This book has a Genre Shift every 100 pages or so. Broadly, the first two books are a Generational Saga, the second two are a Coming-of-Age Story, and the final two are full-on Urban Fantasy.
  • King in the Mountain: The crusading Emperor Frederick Barbarossa has somehow been waiting centuries to return from death and rule over a new kingdom. Enter the mysterious Russell Eigenblick.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Eigenblick/Barbarossa. All he wants is to get his hands on the Drinkwater-Barnable clan's tarot cards. The moment he does, he's zapped right back to where he started, sleeping under a mountain and waiting for his time to come.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Smoky, Alice, Sophie, George, Sylvie, Auberon, and possibly Sylvie's mother get caught up.
  • I Have Many Names: Sylvie's family has a wide array of nicknames for her, the most significant of which is Tita, as it eventually turns into Titania, as in, Queen of the Fairies.
  • Land of Faerie: More of a dimension than a clear-cut kingdom, Faerie becomes bigger the deeper in one goes.
  • Leaf Boat: Sylvie fashions herself a wooden boat with a leaf for a sail.
  • Magic Realism: Until Eigenblick's wintry despotism begins, the non-Faerie Earth of the novel is essentially our present-day world.
  • Meaningful Name: Auberon is a variant of Oberon. Who he turns out to be.
    • George Mouse is a city mouse.
    • Smoky is evanescent and forgettable, dissipating from the memory like smoke. A Justified Trope, as it's a nickname, though his real name—Evan Barnable—is only used once.
    • Sylvie is sylvan. She and her brother Bruno are also a Shout-Out to Lewis Carroll's lesser-known work.
    • Ariel is destined to become the captive servant to a greater power.
    • Almost everyone important to the Tale has a nature-themed first or last name (Violet, Sylvie, Mouse, Flower, etc).
  • Mother Nature: Mrs. Underhill. Maybe. It's not clear whether she is one of The Fair Folk, or another entity altogether manipulating the fates of both human and faerie.
  • Mysterious Past: Russell Eigenblick seems to come out of nowhere, and his powerful sponsors are too struck by his usefulness to question more deeply before cultivating him.
  • Oh Look, More Rooms!: This is true of the Edgewood house. Due to the building's already-large size and complex layout, it takes a while for people to realise this, which helps with The Masquerade.
  • Once Upon a Time: The 'last' words of the book. In this case, it's more like And the Adventure Continues.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Smoky's real name is mentioned approximately once. (It's Evan.) Daily Alice is also properly Alice Dale, but nobody ever calls her that either. And Sylvie, once she disappears into Faerie, is only ever called Titania.
  • Perpetual Motion Machine: The orrery in Edgewood, which is powerful enough to power the entire house when necessary. This is because it's powered by the actual movement of the planets via sympathetic magic.
  • Questionable Consent: August's trade (see below). It's not exactly mind control, but it effectively destroys any choice in romance for both the girls in question and August himself. In Marge Juniper's case it takes over her entire life. This eventually makes August so miserable he runs back to the fairies begging them to undo it and gets turned into a fish.
  • Really Gets Around: August Drinkwater. After asking for power over women, he finds that what makes women attracted to him is him being attracted to them, and ends up sleeping with every girl of appropriate age in the towns surrounding Edgewood, leading to a great many illegitimate cousins.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Ariel realizes how badly she's messed up by hitching herself to Eigenblick, just in time to be gunned down by his guards. Fortunately (maybe) she gets a second chance at life in the body of a stork.
  • Rip Van Winkle: Lilac sleeps for over ten years without aging.
  • Santa Claus: The whole family engages in the traditional practice of writing their Santa lists and burning them in the fireplace. Santa is real and a bit chagrined by some of their wishes, not the material things but the intangible ones. Nonetheless, he tries.
  • Screw Destiny: Sylvie is not always very happy about having a Destiny.
  • Shout-Out: To Little Nemo. Very early in their courtship, Alice writes to Smoky about finding a huge pile of old newspapers with "comic strips about a boy who dreams." She is clearly describing Little Nemo in Slumberland, although she never names it and says the author's name was Stone (Little Nemo was done by McKay).
  • Show Within a Show: "A World Elsewhere." Also, John Storm Drinkwater's popular children's stories.
  • Statuesque Stunner: The sisters Drinkwater, Daily Alice and Sophie, both tower over the respective fathers of their children. Smoky's initial impression of the pair is "delicate giantesses."
  • Talking Animal: Several, as befits a fairy tale.
  • The Lost Woods: Auberon, George, and Fred travel through a tricky woodland.
  • The Quest: Smoky is only allowed to marry into the family if he comes to Edgewood on foot, all the way from the City. His wedding suit must also be old, and he can't pay for food or lodging, only make, find, or be gifted it.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The stork who works for Mrs. Underhill believes she is a woman who was transformed into a stork for some offense and will eventually regain her human shape at the end of the Tale. However, when she receives Hawksquill's soul upon the wizard's murder, she realizes she was always a stork—being turned into a Soul Jar gave her human intelligence, and the resulting confusion convinced her she was born human.
  • Treacherous Spirit Chase: Auberon chases after Sylvie while each of them are in their own overlapping versions of the Wild Wood. She doesn't turn around when he calls her, because "Sylvie" isn't her name anymore.
  • The Weird Sisters: Smoky and Daily Alice's three oldest children, Tacey, Lily, and Lucy, tend to speak like a single character that shares three separate voices. In the only scene that depicts them in any detail, they offer disconcertingly oracular advice to their little brother Auberon before he goes out into the world.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The Tale must be told, and everybody has their part to play.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Of Smoky and Alice's four children, baby brother Auberon gets by far the most focus.

Alternative Title(s): Little Big