I have a peculiar obsession with the story within a story. Part of it comes with the discovery of “The Grand Inquisitor,” my favourite nested story and an integral part of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). I’ve blogged the story of Cosmo in George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), my favourite part of this influential book. It’s also fun to read The Horse and His Boy (1954) as a sort of Pevensie court tale.
I am now reading Little, Big by John Crowley (1981). This World Fantasy Award winner is both highly literary and grandly disorienting. The reader slips through a 20th century version of Alice’s rabbit hole—indeed there are a number of obvious references back to Alice–but we descend slowly, tumbling further and further down the imaginative rabbit hole. We discover that the grand descent lands us not in Alice’s dreamland, but to faërie, with all its dangers and intrigues and intricacies. Crowley’s wonderland warns of the danger of rooting oneself too much in fairyland rather than the real world. But, like Alice, the reader struggles to get a grip on the reality within the story. It’s a book that I am fighting with, but a battle I intend to win. Eventually.
Unlike our early fairy tales, Little, Big is about character development and psychological complexity. It doesn’t help that some of the characters have the same name. The narrative slides from the past to a chronologically unravelling present without much help from the author. So it takes the context of the story to know whether we are talking about Auberon Barnable or Auberon Drinkwater—both are merely “Auberon” in the story. Sometimes “Lilac” is Auberon Barnable’s sister who is also or really acousin, and sometimes it is his imaginary friend, also named Lilac. And it is uncertain whether the real Lilac is really the real Lilac. And there is Lily, another sister. And it might be that the imaginary friend is not exactly imaginary.
Add to that the complexity of the context. We have some technological hints in the story, like cars, cameras, electric lights, and the like. But these hints don’t always give us the context we need. The Drinkwater family hold on to old technologies for a long time in some ways (like education or architecture), but adapt early to other technologies (like photography or travel). The result is that there is little in the Drinkwater world centred around the Edgewood mansion to tell us what generation we are in: the house never changes. Indeed, there is too much confusing and unusual about the 5-sided mansion to know what change would even mean. There is no baseline of geography and time, except a single date: 1900.
And when you think you have a grip on the chronology, others in the novel turn expectations on their heads. George Mouse, for example, descends from riches and high estates into vagrancy and legal squatting. So his world devolves from electric lights to lamplight, from grand drives in cars to taking the clattertrap subway in the city, from great teams of servants to a handful of cold figures gathering eggs from the garden at dawn.
What makes this a postmodern story is not just that the story is told in a number of different voices—an elegant technique, I think. More than that: the story does not end in its telling. The class is interrupted, and we are left to listen to the schoolmaster’s thoughts as he lives out the story. “Winter” is his life. He is trapped at Edgewood, though not involuntarily or even ingloriously. For Smoky, he is not certain that the Meadow Mouse’s learned lesson is true. The whole fable turns on its head in the reading.
It’s won’t be the last time the story is referenced. Many of the characters reflect on this Meadow Mouse as they work out their own tales. And each is all too aware that their stories are part of a grand metanarrative that they cannot control, and yet is not completely out of their control.
“Meadow Mouse” is a fairy tale—a There and Back Again story. But it is also a retelling of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a retelling for the late 20th century, however. In the context of Little, Big, the story is inversive, turning expectations upside down and splintering the ending into many pieces. While Pilgrim in Bunyan’s tale finds truth and sets his eye to a single destination, finding help and meeting foes along the way, the Meadow Mouse has no such conversion. He hears all the stories of the forest, and even discovers that Brother North-wind’s secret is no help. The secret may be untrue.
It is a brilliant, disorienting tale, Bunyan for a dispersive, pluralistic age.
The Meadow Mouse Story from Little, Big (1981)
“Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun lifted his cloudy head over the purple mountains and cast long, long rays down into the Green Meadow.” Robin Bird read it out in a proud, piping voice; he knew this book almost by heart. “Not far from the Stone Fence that separates the Green Meadow from the Old Pasture, a family of Meadow Mice awoke in their tiny house in the grass, Mother, Father, and six pink, blind babies.
Robin Bird’s Lesson
“The head of the household rolled over, opened his eyes, twitched his whiskers, and went out to the doorstep to wash his face in the dew caught in a fallen leaf. As he stood there looking out at the Green Meadow and the morning, Old Mother West-wind hurried by, tickling his nose and bringing him news of the Wild Wood, the Laughing Brook, the Old Pasture and the Great World all around him, confused and clamorous news, better than any Times at breakfast.
“The news was the same as it had been for many days now: the world is changing! Soon things will be very different than you smell them today! Prepare yourself, Meadow Mouse!
“The Meadow Mouse, when he had learned as much as he could from the coy Little Breezes that travel in Mother West-wind’s company, scampered along one of his many paths through the long grass to the Stone Fence, where he knew of a place he could sit and see but not be seen. When he had come to this secret place, he settled back, thrust a grass-spear between his teeth, and chewed thoughtfully.
“What was the great change in the world that Mother West-wind and all her Little Breezes talked of these days? What did it mean, and how was he to prepare himself?
“To the Meadow Mouse, the Green Meadow could not have been a better place to live than it was just then. All the grasses of the meadow were pouring forth their seed for him to eat. Many plants that he had thought were nasty had suddenly unfolded dry pods of sweet nuts for him to gnaw on with his strong teeth. The Meadow Mouse was happy and well-fed.
“And now was all that to change? He wondered and puzzled and thought, but he could make no sense of it.
“You see, children, the Meadow Mouse had been born in the Springtime. He had grown up in the Summer when Mr. Sun smiles his broadest and takes his time to cross the blue, blue sky. All in the space of that single Summer, he had grown to his full size (which wasn’t very great), and had married, and had babies born to him; soon they too would be grown.
“Now can you guess what the great change was, that the Meadow Mouse couldn’t possibly know about?”
All the younger children called out and waved their hands, because unlike the older children they thought they were actually supposed to guess.
“Okay,” Smoky said, “everybody knows. Thank you, Robin. Now let’s see. Can you read for a while, Billy?” Billy Bush stood up, less confident than Robin, and took the battered book from him.
The End of the World
“Well,” he read, “the Meadow Mouse decided he had better ask someone older and wiser than himself. The wisest creature he knew was the Black Crow, who came to the Green Meadow sometimes in search of grain or grubs, and always had a remark to make to anyone who would listen. The Meadow Mouse always listened to what the Black Crow had to say, though he stayed well away from the Black Crow’s glittering eye and long, sharp beak. The Crow family was not known for eating mice, but on the other hand they were known to eat almost anything that came to hand, or to beak you might say.
“The Meadow Mouse had not been sitting and thinking for very long when out of the blue sky came a heavy flapping of wings and a raucous call, and the Black Crow himself landed in the Green Meadow not far from where the Meadow Mouse sat!
“‘Good Morning, Mr. Crow,’ the Meadow Mouse called out, feeling quite safe in his snuggery in the wall.
“‘Is it a good morning?’ said the Black Crow. ‘Not many more days you’ll be saying that.’
“‘Now that’s just what I wanted to ask you about,’ the Meadow Mouse said. ‘It seems that a great change is coming over the world. Do you feel it? Do you know what it is?’
“‘Ah, foolish Youth!’ said the Black Crow. ‘There is indeed a change coming. It is called Winter, and you’d better prepare for it.
‘What will it be like? How shall I prepare for it?’
“With a glint in his eye, as though he enjoyed the Meadow Mouse’s discomfort, the Black Crow told him about Winter: how cruel Brother North-wind would come sweeping over the Green Meadow and the Old Pasture, turning the leaves gold and brown and blowing them from the trees; how the grasses would die and the animals that lived on them grow thin with hunger. He told how the cold rains would fall and flood the houses of small creatures like the Meadow Mouse. He described the snow, which sounded rather wonderful to the Meadow Mouse; but then he learned of the terrible cold that would bite him to the bone, and how the small birds would grow weak with cold and tumble frozen from their perches, and the fish would stop swimming and the Laughing Brook laugh no more because its mouth was stopped with ice.
“‘But it’s the End of the World,’ cried the Meadow Mouse in despair.
“‘So it would seem,’ said the Black Crow gaily. “For some folks. Not for me. I’ll get by. But you had better prepare yourself, Meadow Mouse, if you expect to stay among the living!’
“And with that the Black Crow flapped his heavy wings and took to the air, leaving the Meadow Mouse more puzzled and much more afraid than he had been before.
“But as he sat there chewing his grass-blade in the warmth of the kindly Sun, he saw how he might learn to survive the awful cold that Brother North-wind was bringing to the world.”
“Okay, Billy. You know,” Smoky said, “you don’t have to say ‘thee’ every time you say ‘the,’ t-h-e. Just say ‘the,’ like you do when you’re talking.”
Billy Bush looked at him as though for the first time understanding that the word on paper and the word he said all day were the same. “The,” he said.
“Right. Now who’s next?”
Brother North-wind’s Secret
“What he thought he would do,” Terry Ocean read (too old really for this, Smoky thought), “was to go around the Great World as far as he could go and ask every creature how he intended to prepare himself for the coming Winter. He was so pleased with this plan that he filled himself full of the seeds and nuts that were so sadly plentiful all around, said goodbye to his wife and children, and set off that very noon.
“The first creature he came to was a fuzzy caterpillar on a twig. Though caterpillars are not known for being clever, the Meadow Mouse put the question to him anyway: What would he do to prepare himself for the Winter that’s coming?
“‘I don’t know about Winter, whatever that may be,’ the caterpillar said in his tiny voice. ‘A change is certainly coming over me, though. I intend to wrap myself up in this lovely white silken thread I seem to have just learned how to spin, don’t ask me how; and when I’m all wrapped up and stuck well on to this comfortable twig, I’ll spend a long time there. Maybe forever. I don’t know.’
“Well, that didn’t seem like much of a solution to the Meadow Mouse, and with pity in his heart for the foolish caterpillar, he went on with his journey.
“Down at the Lily Pond, he met creatures he had never seen there before: great gray-brown birds with long graceful necks and black beaks. There were many of them, and they sailed across the Lily Pond dipping their long heads beneath the water and eating what they found there. ‘Birds!’ said the Meadow Mouse. ‘Winter’s coming! How do you intend to prepare yourselves?’
“‘Winter’s coming indeed,’ said an old bird in a solemn voice. ‘Brother North-wind has chased us from our homes. There the cold is already sharp. He’s at out backs now, hurrying us on. We’ll outfly him, though, fast as he is! We’ll fly to the South, farther South than he’s allowed to go; and there we’ll be safe from Winter.’
“‘How far?’ the Meadow Mouse asked, hoping perhaps he could outrun Brother North-wind too.
“‘Days and days and days, flying as fast as we can,’ said the old one. ‘We’re late already.’ And with a great beating of his wings he arose from the pond, tucking his black feet neatly against his white stomach. The others rose up after him, and together they flew off honking toward the warm South.
“The Meadow Mouse went on sadly, knowing he couldn’t outrun the winter on broad strong wings like theirs. So absorbed was he in these thoughts that he nearly stumbled over a brown Mud Turtle at the Lily Pond’s edge. The Meadow Mouse asked him what he would do when the Winter came.
“’Sleep,’ said the Mud Turtle sleepily, wrinkled like an old brown man. ‘I’ll wrap myself in the warm mud deeper than Winter can reach, and sleep. In fact I’m getting sleepy now.’
“Sleep! That didn’t sound like much of an answer to the Meadow Mouse. But as he continued on his way, he was to hear the same answer from many different creatures.
“‘Sleep!’ said the Grass Snake, the Meadow Mouse’s enemy. ‘You’ll have nothing to fear from me, Meadow Mouse.’
“‘Sleep!’ said the Brown Bear. ‘In a cave or a strong house of branches. Sleep for good.’
“‘Sleep,’ squeaked his cousin the Bat when evening came. ‘Sleep upside down, hanging by my toes.’
“Well! Half the world was simply going to go to sleep when Winter came. This was the oddest answer the Meadow Mouse heard, but there were many others too.
“‘I’ll store nuts and seeds in secret places,’ said the Red Squirrel. ‘That’s how I’ll get by.’
“‘I’ll trust the People to feed me when there’s nothing left,’ said the Chickadee.
“‘I’ll build,’ said the Beaver. ‘I’ll build a house to live in with my wife and children, down beneath the frozen stream. Now may I get on with it? I’m very busy.’
“‘I’ll steal,’ the Raccoon with his burglar mask said. ‘Eggs from the People’s barns, garbage from their cans.’
“I’ll eat you,’ said the Red Fox. ‘See if I don’t!’ And he chased the poor Meadow Mouse and nearly caught him before the Meadow Mouse reached his private hole in the old Stone Fence.
“As he lay there panting, he could see that during his travels the great change called Winter had grown more evident in the Green Meadow. It was not so green now. It had grown brown and yellow and white. Many seeds had ripened and fallen or flown away on little wings. Overhead the Sun’s face was hidden by grim gray clouds. And still the Meadow Mouse had no plan to protect himself from cruel Brother North-wind.
“‘What will I do?’ he cried aloud. ‘Shall I go live with my cousin in Farmer Brown’s barn, and take my chances with Tom the cat and Fury the dog and the mousetraps and the poisons? I wouldn’t last long. Shall I start off to the South and hope I outrun Brother North-wind? Surely he’ll catch me unprotected and freeze me with his cold breath far from home. Shall I lie down with my wife and children and pull the grasses over my head and try to sleep? Before long I’d wake up hungry, and so would they. Whatever will I do?’
“Just then a glittering black eye looked in at him where he sat, so suddenly that he jumped up with a cry. It was the Black Crow.
“‘Meadow Mouse,’ he said, as gaily as ever, ‘whatever you do to protect yourself, there’s one thing you should know which you do not.’
“‘What is it?’ asked the Meadow Mouse.
“’It’s Brother North-wind’s secret.’
“‘His secret! What is it? Do you know it? Will you tell it to me?’
“‘It is,’ the Black Crow answered, ‘the one good thing about Winter, which Brother North-wind wants no living creature to know. And yes, I know it; And no, I will not tell it to you.’ For the Black Crow guards his secrets as closely as he guards the shiny bits of metal and glass he finds and saves. And so the ungenerous creature went laughing off to join his brothers and sisters in the Old Pasture.
“The one good thing about Winter! What could it be? Not the cold or the snow or the ice or the flooding rains.
“Not the hiding and scavenging and deathlike sleep, and the running away from enemies desperate with hunger.
“Not the short days and long nights and pale, absentminded Sun, all of which the Meadow Mouse didn’t even know about yet.
“What could it be?
“That night, while the Meadow Mouse lay huddled for warmth with his wife and children in their house in the grass, Brother North-wind himself came sweeping across the Green Meadow. Oh, what great strides he took! Oh, how the brown, thin house of the Meadow Mouse rattled and shook! Oh, how the grim gray clouds were ripped and torn and flung from the face of the frightened Moon!
Brother North-wind!’ the Meadow Mouse cried out. ‘I’m cold and frightened! Won’t you tell me the one good thing about Winter?’
“‘That’s my secret,’ Brother North-wind said in a great icy voice. And to show his strength he squeezed a tall maple tree till all its green leaves turned orange and red, and then he blew them all away. Which done, he strode away across the Green Meadow leaving the Meadow Mouse to tuck his cold nose into his paws and wonder what his secret was.
“Do you know what Brother North-wind’s secret is?
“Of course you do.”
“Oh. Oh.” Smoky came to himself. “I’m sorry, Terry, I didn’t mean to make you go on and on. Thank you very much.” He suppressed a yawn, and the children watched him do so with interest. “Um, now could everybody take out pens and paper and ink, please? Come on, no groaning. It’s too nice a day.”
The Only Game Going
Mornings it was reading and penmanship, the penmanship taking more time since Smoky taught them (could only teach them) his own Italic hand, which if done right is supremely lovely, and if done even a little wrong is illegible. “Ligature,” he would say sternly, tapping a paper, and its frowning maker would begin again. “Ligature,” he said to Patty Flowers, who through the whole of that year thought he was saying “Look at you,” an accusation she couldn’t reply to but couldn’t avoid; once in a fit of frustration at this she drove her pen-point through the paper, so fiercely it stuck in the desk like a knife.
Reading was a pickup affair with books from the Drinkwater library, Brother North-wind’s Secret and the rest of Doc’s tales for the younger and whatever Smoky thought appropriate and informative for the older. Sometimes, bored to tears with their halting voices, he simply read to them himself. He enjoyed that, and enjoyed explicating the hard parts and imagining aloud why the author had said what he had. Most of the kids thought these glosses were part of the text, and when they were grown, the few who read to themselves the books Smoky had read to them sometimes found them lean, allusive and tightlipped, as though parts were missing.
Afternoons was math, which often enough became an extension of penmanship, since the elegant shapes of Italic numbers interested Smoky as much as their relations. There were two or three of his students who were good at figures, perhaps prodigies Smoky thought because they were in fact quicker at fractions and other hard stuff than he was; he would get them to help teach the others. On the ancient principle that music and mathematics are sisters, he sometimes used the anyway somnolent and useless butt-end of the day to play to them on his violin; and its mild, not always certain songs, and the stove’s smell, and the winter foregathering outside, were what Billy Bush later remembered of arithmetic.
He had one great virtue as a teacher; he didn’t really understand children, didn’t enjoy their childishness, was baffled and shy before their mad energy. He treated them like grown-ups, because it was the only way he knew of treating anyone; when they didn’t respond like grown-ups, he ignored it and tried again. What he cared about was what he taught, the black ribbon of meaning that was writing, the bundles of words and the boxes of grammar it tied up, the notions of writers and the neat regularity of number. And so that was what he talked about. It was the only game going during school hours—even the cleverest kids found it hard to get him to play any other—and so when they had all stopped listening at last (it happened soonest on fine days, as when snow came tumbling hypnotically out of the sky or when sun and mud came together) he just let them go, unable to think of any way to amuse them further.
And went home himself then through the front gate of Edgewood (the schoolhouse was the old gatehouse, a gray Doric temple with for some reason a grand rack of antlers over the door) wondering whether Sophie had got up from her nap yet.
The One Good Thing About Winter
He lingered on this day to clean out the smaller stove; it would need lighting tomorrow, if the cold kept up. When he had locked the door he turned from the tiny temple and stood in the leaf-littered road that ran between it and the front gate of Edgewood. This road hadn’t been the one he had taken to reach Edgewood at first, nor this the gate he had gone in at. In fact no one ever used the front gate any more, and the sedge-drowned drive that led for half a mile through the Park was now only kept a path by his diurnal journeys, as though it were the habitual trail of a large and heavyfooted wild beast.
The tall entrance gates before him, green wrought-iron in a ’90’s lily pattern, stood or leaned eternally open, lashed to earth by weed and undergrowth. Only a rusted chain across the drive now suggested that this was still the entrance to somewhere, and not to be entered upon by the uninvited. To his left and his right the road ran away down an avenue of horse-chestnuts heartbreakingly golden; the wind tore fortunes from them and scattered them spendthrift. The road wasn’t used much either, except by the kids walking or biking from here and there to school, and Smoky wasn’t sure exactly where it led. But he thought that day, standing ankle-deep in leaves and for some reason unable to pass through the gates, that one branch of it must lead to the cracked macadam from Meadowbrook, which joined the tarred road that went past the Junipers’, which eventually joined the traffic-loud fugue of feeder roads and expressways roaring into the City.
What if he were now to turn right (left?) and start off back that way, empty-handed and on foot as he had come, going backwards as in a film run the wrong way (leaves leaping to the trees) until he was where he had started from?
Well, for one thing he was not empty-handed.
And he had grown increasingly certain (not because it was sensible or even possible) that once on a summer afternoon having entered through the screen door into Edgewood, he had never again left: that the various doors by which he had afterwards seemed to go out had led only to further parts of the house, cleverly by some architectural enfoldment or trompe-l’oeil (which he didn’t doubt John Drinkwater was capable of) made to look and behave like woods, lakes, farms, and distant hills. The road taken might lead only back around to some other porch at Edgewood, one he had never seen before, with wide worn steps and a door for him to go in by.
He uprooted himself from the spot, and from these autumnal notions. The circularity of roads and seasons: he had been here before. October was the cause.
Yet he stopped again as he crossed the stained white bridge that arched the sheet of water (stucco had been broken here, showing the plain brickwork beneath, that should be fixed, winter was the cause). Down in the water, drowned leaves turned and flew in the current, as the same leaves turned and flew in the busy sea of air, only half as fast or slower; sharp orange claws of maple, broad blades of elm and hickory, torn oak inelegant brown. In the air they were too fast to follow, but down in the mirror-box of the stream they did their dance with elegiac slowness for the current’s sake.
What on earth was he to do?
When long ago he had seen that he would grow a character in the place of his lost anonymity, he had supposed that it would be like a suit of clothes bought too large for a child, that the child must grow into. He expected a certain discomfort at first, an illfittingness, that would go away as his self filled up the spaces, took the shape of his character, until at last it would be creased for good in the places where he bent and worn smooth where it chafed him. He expected, that is, for it to be singular. He didn’t expect to have to suffer more than one; or, worse, to find himself done up in the wrong one at the wrong time, or in parts of several all at once, bound and struggling.
He looked toward the inscrutable edge of Edgewood which pointed toward him, windows lit already in the fleeting day; a mask that covered many faces, or a single face that wore many masks, he didn’t know which, nor did he know it about himself.
What was the one good thing about Winter? Well, he knew the answer to that; he’d read the book before. If Winter comes, Spring can’t be far behind. But oh yes, he thought; yes it can; far behind.