Introduction: Theory and Thesis
Especially over the past fifteen years, the terms “liminal” or “liminality” and “interstitial” have become increasingly popular in discussion of the arts. Some of these discussions, such as the mission statement of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, seem to use the term primarily in terms of work that crosses the borders of, and/or exists in the interstices between, different genres and art forms (also see Gordon 9). The conference on “Liminality in the Humanities” at the University of Utah takes the term a bit further, presenting papers at the borderlands and interstices of various disciplines. However, that conference also uses the term as it will be used in this study. So, even more strongly, does The International Seminar on Liminality and the Text and its associated journal and books published by Gateway Press.
This use of the terms is based on their origins in anthropology, referring to the borders of and spaces between categories much more fundamental than genre or even different arts. Towards the beginning of the last century, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep stated that rites of passage generally have three stages: “preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation)” (11). In the 1960s and 1970s, Victor Turner expanded and somewhat adapted van Gennep’s work, concentrating on the liminal stage. As summarized by Richard E. Palmer:
Limen in Latin means threshold, and anthropologists like Turner have become interested in a certain state experienced by persons as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another. For instance, Turner notes that the rite of passage at puberty has three phases: separation from one’s status as a child . . . , then a liminal stage, and finally reintegration into society as a full and independent member with rites and responsibilities that the initiate did not have before. During the liminal stage, the between stage, one’s status becomes ambiguous, one is “neither here nor there”[;] one is “betwixt and between all fixed points of classification.” (1–2)
Two clear examples of a liminal state in modern Western culture are divorce and, even more so, marital separation. The couple isn’t joined anymore, but they aren’t separate. (Note even the switch from single to plural verb.) Rules from neither state apply; one is betwixt-and-between. Many people find that some others avoid them in such a liminal state, not knowing what to say or do. Another example is graduate school, an often arduous and curiously protracted liminal state. Graduate students aren’t professionals or students, yet they are both. They are expected to be bold as if the professors are colleagues but submissive as if they are only students; they are paid to teach but not paid much. Many of us would have preferred to be locked in a hut and fed only with implements that would be disposed of afterwards, a more common cultural response to such liminal states.
Places as well as times may be liminal. Crossroads are a meeting of two places and hence not fully either one; they are also, like the liminal stage of initiation, a place of possibilities and choices. Thus, it should not surprise us that the liminal figure of a vampire (neither alive nor dead, yet both) may be slain or buried there (see Clements, “Ogre” 39). Within a house, stairs, landings, and hallways are liminal areas—places we pass through, not generally places where people live. Unsurprisingly, landings, hallways, and stairs are among the most popular places for sightings of ghosts (us and not us, not alive or dead). Two even more popular places for ghost sightings are windows and doorways, which are quintessentially liminal, existing purely to separate yet join areas of room vs. room, room vs. hallway, inside vs. outside.
Here a distinction must be made between boundaries and thresholds, but a connection must be made as well. As stated by that quintessentially liminal figure, Hedwig of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Ain’t much difference/Between a bridge and a wall.” On the simplest level, that which separates is often also that which joins; one example is the semicolon.
More mythically, one of the goals of ritual is to turn boundaries into thresholds, as when a shaman crosses the barrier between our world and the other world and then personally forms a bridge between them or as a culture hero makes those boundaries less impermeable (Ellis). Roads and paths can be liminal also; they lead from one place to another, joining them, but also help define, for instance, what is safe versus what is not, as in the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” Finally, liminality is also connected to the idea of hybrids—that is, places, people, events, and things that take part in two categories that are thought of as being not only separate, but dichotomous, such as the ghost or vampire.
Note that many processes have a pattern of departure, entry into other realms, and return—Joseph Campbell’s pattern of the hero, for instance, and shamanic initiations. The difference here is that when it is defined as liminal, the middle stage presents not only physical, mental, and/or spiritual danger but also social and epistemological danger, as its very nature challenges the concept of categories of behavior and thought as absolute. In fact, at their most radical, these liminal areas challenge the binary nature of dichotomies that are supposed to be all encompassing: man/woman, human/animal, human/divine, approved/prohibited, life/death. Because it challenges these dichotomies, liminality is a source of great potential, but also at best uncanny and at worst abject.1 Liminal phenomena are taboo, again in the more technical sense—taboo things and processes are hedged with prohibitions, regarded as excluded and dangerous but still having great magic, religious, and/or social power. When William Clements discusses the work that Mary Douglas and Edmund Leach have done in this area, he concludes that liminal things and processes often inspire dread, perhaps because they “invite chaos by revealing the inadequacies of the ordering system that cannot accommodate them” (“Legends” 83). Those who understand the ordering system as inherent in life rather than constructed feel a different fear because then the anomalies become examples in themselves, or at least omens, of catastrophic rupture in the world itself (see Purcell).
Critics have commented on the mixing of genres in Little, Big. Thomas Disch remarks upon its “incredible tightrope act” between realistic human events and magic (159). James Hynes wittily describes the novel as “a long, gorgeously written picaresque family saga, in the last fifty pages of which all the major characters, with one heartbreaking exception, turn into fairies” (1). (Actually, the hint of an abrupt change within the book is vastly unfair: early indications of the presence of fairies may often be baffling to the first-time reader, but they are undeniable.) However, Little, Big is also a liminal book in a deeper, more mythic sense. It is about transitions, which are repeated on multiple scales and on multiple occasions: the turnings of the seasons and of the history of the world, the personal changes of the many characters and the overarching Tale of their final crossing-over from the world of human beings to the world of the fairies. Much of the book is about the peril and potential of these turning points. Boundary-crossings and the interstitial time between the old and the new are reflected in the novel’s nigh-ubiquitous use of liminal places, times, and processes. Characters generally do well or poorly based on their ability to live in, or at least accept, various degrees of conjunction of our world with that of the fairies.
Note that the world of the fairies is not, in itself, liminal. In fantasy, there is the place one gets to by crossing a threshold: the world of fairy, or Oz, or Shangri-La. Then, there is the place or time or condition that is the threshold itself. In most fantasies, the emphasis is on the former, while in Little, Big most of the pages and most of the emotional energy of the novel goes to the latter.
Liminal Space, Liminal Time
Many reviewers note that Edgewood, the family estate built by John Drinkwater, is itself a portal to the fairy world. Brian Attebery adds that it “functions as a stand-in for the story itself,” a different kind of portal to a fairy world (43). As Violet Bramble in the novel writes, “the house is a door” (107). The name “Edgewood,” of course, shows its liminal nature. The most obvious liminal characteristic of the house is that it was built to have five faces, each a different architectural style. It is not only a combination, but somehow more and less, as ineffable as liminal experience usually is: Smoky Barnable reads in Upstate Houses and Their Histories that Edgewood is “quite literally impossible to describe” (32). Moreover, the various fronts with their various styles are not clearly separated but transform into one another (30–31, 50). Edgewood is also full of liminal spaces, microcosms to the house’s macrocosm: when Violet Bramble enters Edgewood for the first time, she sees “beyond the vestibule” a hallway with “a vision of doorways, long lists of arches and lintels,” light from “unseen windows” (50). Characters often are heard on the porch, go up and down stairs, stare out of windows, stand or walk in hallways.
Brian Attebery calls the opening scene of the novel, in which Smoky approaches Edgewood from the City by foot, “a classic fairy tale threshold crossing.” One has to read the full scene to realize just how fully Crowley has packed one descriptive passage with liminal imagery. Around noon, a temporal point of transition from morning to afternoon, Smoky crosses a bridge, “into the named but boundaryless towns on the north side of the river” where life seems “gloomily peripheral.” He passes the limits of town and residential areas, which first become “disordered, thinning like the extremes of a great forest” as buildings intermix with “weedy lots.” He thinks of the oxymoronic “industrial park,” which he thinks of “as between the desert and the sown.” To rest, “He stopped at a bench where people could catch buses from Somewhere to Elsewhere” (3).
Later in the same journey, Smoky walks between farms on each side, “between guardian trees neither farm nor road” (19). At sunset, a time liminal between day and night, he arrives at the Junipers’ house, at which he rests along the way; there and at Edgewood, he encounters gates, vestibules, all kinds of places of entry (19–20, 25, 28). With simple emphasis, Crowley writes of Smoky’s arrival at Edgewood, “He stepped across the sill. He was inside” (28). The moment when he enters the property is another moment ripe with liminal symbols, not just for him:
When Daily Alice and Sophie were calling to each other through intersecting halls and the Doctor was looking out his window for inspiration, Smoky stood at a crossroads where four elder elms stood like grave old men conversing. (24)
He arrives at Edgewood, as he arrived at the Junipers’, just as the sun is setting; the sun in the Traveler, a card in the Least Trumps that represents him, is either “setting or rising”—but which one, Nora Cloud “had never decided” (19).
The other main setting of the novel, Old Law Farm, is equally liminal. Essentially, it is a farm in the center of Manhattan:
All the buildings, mostly empty, on the block his family owned in the City . . . combined and sealed up to make an enormous, impenetrable curtain-wall—like the hollow wall of a castle—around the center of the block, where the gardens were. The outbuildings and stuff inside the block . . . torn down and all the garden-space transformed into a single pasture or farm. (151)
The near-future decay of our world’s infrastructure makes this paradoxical construction both possible and desirable. Yet the bizarre conflation of inside and out, farm and abandoned but still furnished city dwellings, is still absurd, including the incredible image of a chicken nesting in an “exploded sofa” in “the goats’ apartment” (260). The jerry-built and jury-rigged architecture, too, is as confusing and confused as that of Edgewood; and it also is rife with thresholds. We first see it when George Mouse goes down to his hidden treasure, which is, as Brendan Foreman notes, not gold but hashish (2). He steps “out the window of what had been the third-floor library of his townhouse and through a small covered bridge, which connected his window with the window of what had once been a kitchen in a tenement that adjoined his building” (185). Like that at Edgewood, life at Old Law Farm abounds in stairways, hallways, doorways, windows, and other passages and thresholds. When we first see Sylvie, she is “going carefully up and down the wrought-iron fire escapes in and out of frameless windows” (205).
However, while Edgewood is a place of openings and passage, Old Law Farm is a place of locks and the required keys (185–186, 214, 314, 339), boarded-up windows and stopped doors (204, 260). There could be at least three reasons for this difference. On the level of plot, it emphasizes the contrast between the seclusion and safety of Edgewood and the danger of the city. Auberon Barnable muses that the City is the real dangerous woods of myth, with wolves and other menaces: “you barricaded your door against whatever fearful thing may be Out There” (333). Second, the images of Old Law Farm as a castle or fort suggest that it may be linked to the idea of a war among the fairies, which might or might not be happening, and which might or might not be the war that Russell Eigenblick constantly speaks about. Finally, Old Law Farm is certainly a place of liminal waiting for Auberon, a part of his transformation, but the locks may emphasize that it is a place of preparation only, and he does not progress in his initiation until he leaves. When all aspects of Auberon’s interim life are over, when Lilac comes to Old Law Farm to guide George Mouse and Auberon Barnable to Fairy, George is said to have left a door standing ajar (463).
Auberon Barnable’s other place of waiting and transformation, a park in New York City built by “Mouse Drinkwater Stone 1900,” is also an enclosure, a far less haphazard one. Already homeless, Auberon stays in the park all day, learning and practicing the magical Art of Memory, which he learns from its last magus, Ariel Hawksquill. The park is privately owned by nearby buildings, and he needs a key to enter—a fact that he rages against until Hawksquill opens the lock for him and gives him her key (350–351, 356). When he leaves, guided out by the imaginary Lilac as he had been guided in by Ariel Hawksquill, he locks the gate behind him. “It was necessary to unlock the wrought-iron gate in order to leave, just as it was in order to enter” (386). The locks associate the park with Old Law Farm rather than Edgewood, which remains a liminal site but becomes his home.2
Aside from these three major settings, many of the novel’s most important events happen in liminal spaces, occasionally literal thresholds but more often passages between places, such as stairs and hallways. Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice’s first kiss is on the stairs, as he is coming down and she is going up (11). The conversation between John Drinkwater and Violet Bramble that defines their relationship is on the landing of a flight of stairs (44). Amy Flowers and Violet sit on the stairs, “halfway to the landing,” to discuss Amy’s pregnancy with August’s child (124). August’s tryst with Margaret Juniper, his final assignation, takes place in his car, at “the shuddering, shaded crossroads” (122). Coming to Old Law Farm for the second time, Auberon Barnable meets George Mouse on the building’s stoop (415). The inhabitants of Edgewood, especially Smoky, often cross or pause by bridges, and as we have seen, George Mouse takes the “covered bridge.” Lacking a bridge, on their wedding day Smoky and Daily Alice must cross water in an aging swan boat to reach the island where the ceremony is held (63). However, perhaps the strongest image of a bridge is a standard kitschy religious picture hung in both La Negra’s apartment and the kitchen of Old Law Farm: “the dangerous bridge, the two children, the potent angel watching to see that they crossed safely” (293). The danger and safety of crossing over to the world of the fairies is, of course, the main drive and basic matter of the novel.
Other places in the novel concretize the idea that liminal time is a hiatus outside the general flow of life. According to Naomi Hamer, James Clifford “discusses the liminal qualities of places ‘of transit, not residence,’” exemplified by “hotel, a station, airport terminal, hospital and so on, somewhere you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary” (Clifford 96; Hamer 2). Hamer adds to this list trains and the subway system, quintessentially places of transit (3). In Little, Big, Grand Central (always called “the Terminus”) and the subway are places for meetings both chance and planned, as well as for travels with strong mythic resonances (209–213, 300–302, 337–338). Ariel Hawksquill’s first meetings with Russell Eigenblick, as she pretends to be a journalist, are “on the road, in hotels, on planes” (200); their final confrontation is also on a train (506–510). Sitting in the room from which Winged Messenger Service messengers are dispatched, Sylvie thinks that it was like “too many places where she had spent too much of her childhood: the waiting rooms of public hospitals and asylums, welfare offices, police stations, places where a congress of faces and bodies in poor clothes gathered, dispersed, were replaced by others” (326).
Little, Big is as full of portentous and liminal times as it is replete with liminal spaces. George Mouse visits Edgewood—and plans Old Law Farm (151) and has his fateful tryst with Sophie (156)—on “the first day of winter,” the “seventh winter solstice of Smoky’s married life” (147). That married life, of course, began on the summer solstice (18). Sophie’s child Lilac is born “after the equinox came with a frost that left the woods dusty and gray but let summer linger” (175) and she is stolen by the fairies at midnight on the winter solstice (178). Auberon Barnable first finds the park in which he will live and learn the Art of Memory, at dawn on May first (349). The final passing-over into the lands of the fairies is on Midsummer Day (484). All of these days connect the events to the cycles of nature, another theme in the novel, but also serve to mark the boundaries of seasons and hence to mark the crossing of these boundaries.
The turning of the seasons is indicated by social holidays as well as the geophysical solstices and equinoxes. John Storm Drinkwater, writer and liminal figure who can communicate with the world of animals (192), significantly identifies Christmas as a spot out of time: “a kind of day, like no other in the year, that doesn’t seem to succeed the day it follows. . . . Every Christmas seemed to follow immediately after the last one; all the months between don’t figure in” (161). That is, the holiday is a liminal time in the technical sense, just as the period of transition in the ritual entry into adulthood has more in common with all other periods of transition, in such rituals back across the years, than to the initiate’s time before as a child and time after as an adult; and all of these out-of-time experiences are somehow the same time.
The novel also abounds in social rites of passage; the first is Smoky Barnable’s marriage to Daily Alice Drinkwater, and the last is his funeral. In between there are births and deaths, beginning with Auberon Drinkwater’s funeral, so soon after Smoky and Daily Alice’s marriage that some of the attendees from town wear “the same clothes they had worn for the wedding since they hadn’t expected another Drinkwater occasion so soon” (92–93). Auberon Barnable’s three weird sisters—Tacey, Lily, and Lucy—are by nature attuned to “the mysteries, birth, marriage, love, and death.” These are stages of life but also life’s turning points, as the text makes clear: “As they grew older, all three seemed to develop an instinctive grasp of the scenes and acts of quotidian life, of the curtains rising and rung down on the lives around them” (194).
In a highly liminal, magical sense, “here time becomes space,” as the first act of Wagner’s Parzival says. Edgewood itself is the embodiment of the year: 365 stairs for the days in a year, seven chimneys for the days of the week, fifty-two doors for the weeks in a year, four floors for the seasons in a year, and for months in the year, Nora thinks, “twelve what? There must be twelve of something, he wouldn’t have left that out” (216). Perhaps it is the twelve windows in the Gothic bathroom (24), or perhaps not. Ariel Hawksquill gives an intriguing lesson on the mutable, almost interchangeable, symbols or systems of space and time (308–309).
Characters, Liminal and Other
Smoky is, as he is named by a card in the Least Trumps, The Traveler. He wandered as a child with his father after his mother left them (5–6), and his quirky education by his father makes Smoky an outsider wherever he is (see Attebery 138)—until he comes to Edgewood. Daily Alice frees him from his congenital state of anonymity, and, in a very strict parallel to the stages of initiation, at Edgewood he must leave that liminal state and decide what he will be now that he is emerging: “But now, anonymous no more, he must make a decision. . . . Anonymous, he had been as well everything and nothing; now he could grow qualities, a character, likes and dislikes” (95). He makes some wrong turns along the way, considers leaving Daily Alice (142), and instead develops a ménage à trois with her sister (159–160, 165–173, 177), but after confessing to his wife he is healed (165–173).3
Smoky’s attitude towards the fairies is interstitial between skepticism and belief. He has had no direct experiences with them himself and can never cross the boundary into full acceptance like his wife’s. However, he passes out of full skepticism by two means: his own act of will, likened to make-believe; and his acceptance of Daily Alice’s childhood, which does include such experiences (16–17, 75; 69–70). This liminal state, between belief and doubt, is enough that he can actually visit the fairies, but not enough to remember it afterwards, or to keep his fairy gold from turning to forest detritus (86–91). However, his ability to believe in this conditional way increases: his conviction that having entered Edgewood “he had never again left” is something of which “he had grown increasingly certain (not because it was sensible or even possible)” (136; see also 290).
When Auberon has returned home from the city and asks Smoky if he believes fairies exist, Smoky states flatly that he does not. Yet he is driven to it by Auberon and still qualifies it. First, he tries his usual conditional strategy, audible doubt-quotes: “Well, . . . ‘believe,’ I don’t know; ‘believe,’ that’s a word. . . .” Smoky says “no” only when Auberon says he wants a straight answer and says, “I never wanted to spoil anything by not—not joining in.” Then, paradoxically, he concludes, “And it didn’t seem that they minded, that I didn’t believe in them” (403–404). Unless pushed, then, Smoky is, in his bemused way, often baffled but happy enough in this permanent Todorovian hesitation.
However, when the state of liminality ends, there must be a resolution—and as Smoky realizes about developing a presence, choices are limiting and may not be for the best. As the time approaches, Daily Alice realizes that the new life in the world of the fairies will be very hard on Smoky (489); he realizes he doesn’t want to go. Finally, Lilac appears and Smoky packs to go, taking the gifts the fairies had given him long ago, and goes to his wife (528–530). However, he neither crosses over nor turns back. Dying of a heart attack, he also feels his heart open, encompassing everything he has loved: Edgewood, the people, the Tale. He seems to find an eternal spot of time, outside the gate of Edgewood but on the “borders” of his wife’s landscape of the new fairyland, able to look back and see the whole unfolding of the now-finished Tale (532). His fate includes a tragic death, a permanently frustrated arrival, and a severed marriage. It also leaves him in a moment of constant presence as liminal and as sanguine about that state as his life has been. His body is buried in the realms of fairy land (533, 536), while he impossibly lives on the edges of our natural world (see Attebery 64, 140).
Smoky’s attitude towards the possible reality of the fairies is contrasted to that of Auberon Drinkwater, whose driven need to resolve the issue—to come down on one side or the other on the question of the reality of fairies—haunts his whole life, making him miserable. When we first see him, he is “stalking across the lawn with his camera as though seeking something to strike with it” (55–56). At Edgewood, he is in some ways a liminal figure. He thinks to himself that he is “outside in every way,” an illegitimate child of Violet’s raised as a Drinkwater, “almost” a virgin but not even that (32–83). As an old man he lives separately in the summer house, which his careful maintenance delimits from the wilder vegetation around it (61). He is also isolated by his sexuality, his photos of naked children more dangerous and precious to him than those that may show fairies. Yet his mind insists on structure: order (77), reason, and common sense (79). His goal is to finally set the fairies into one simple category, either truth or falsehood, using photography as “not an entertainment but a tool, a surgical instrument that would slice out the heart of the secret and bring it before his scrutiny” (81). Perhaps, as Auberon Drinkwater imagines as he crosses over into death, his doubt was somehow required by the fairies for their unknowable agenda as a counterbalance to the belief of others (86). Or perhaps his two-valued mind kept him in a liminal state but unable to transform himself into someone who could indeed travel between two worlds, one natural and one that of the fairies. In any event, much later, Nora thinks of “the times when Auberon could photograph them” as a “close connection, or easy access to” the fairies (257), although Auberon never could conceive of the photography sessions that way.
When young, Auberon Barnable, Smoky’s son, recapitulates Auberon Drinkwater’s mixture of distinction-making reason and liminality, but in a more productive way. In one scene from his youth, he goes to the summer house, where “his namesake had lived and died”; as Auberon Drinkwater has his photographs, Auberon Barnable has a diary in which he records evidence that some secret is being kept from him (276–277), and later he searches those equivocal photographs with no more luck than their maker’s (280). As with the other Auberon, the more evidence Auberon Barnable accumulates, the less sure he is.
He is saved from his namesake’s sad and sterile fate in three main ways. First, he leaves Edgewood, whose mysteries can only frustrate him. (In a trope basic to the novel, he must go away to come closer.) Second, he had his cousin/sister Lilac as an imaginary playmate when he was young (228, 230–241, 262). Perhaps more importantly, he was her imaginary playmate as she grew up among the fairies (275). That is, he has not only lived with an experience that was interstitial between fantasy and reality, but he also has existed, in a way, on both sides of that dichotomy at once. Finally, he falls genuinely and totally in love with Sylvie. Like his father’s and his grandfather’s, Auberon’s opening to acceptance of the fairies is by marriage (of heart if not by law)—a rite of passage through which we pass and come out in some senses remade. However, while John Drinkwater processes the acceptance intellectually and Smoky Barnable by an act of imagination and will, Auberon is simply swept to a state of distraction from everything else by attraction to Sylvie. While they are in bed together, Auberon tells Sylvie about the real Lilac’s disappearance; when he realizes the gaps in the story, “If he had been capable just then of any emotion other than that directed towards Sylvie and his plans for her in the next moments, he would have felt anger at his ignorance.” As it is, it genuinely ceases to matter to him (262–263). Of course his love for Sylvie leads him to learn the magical Art of Memory (365–367); and when Lilac returns to Old Law Farm to gather him and George Mouse for the crossing-over to the lands of the fairies, Auberon refuses until Lilac tells him that Sylvie will be there (465).
In fact, Auberon Barnable’s travails and tensions do not ruin him, as they ruin Auberon Drinkwater, but test and reconfigure him for his role of prince in the Tale. Like his father, he must travel in order to come home; unlike Smoky, he does not discover a new home but returns home once he has changed appropriately. Smoky is right that he himself is a minor character in the story (96); his son Auberon is, if anyone is, the protagonist. Auberon’s time at Old Law Farm involves the initiatory withdrawal from society that defines the liminal state, and so does his time as a homeless man. Upon meeting him, Ariel Hawksquill thinks, “people like this who live on the street are differently composed from people who live in houses”; they have “a loss of engagement with the ordinary world and how it goes on, often unwilled” (353). Auberon feels that his “long drunk” has increased his perception of things that others take for granted. As he actually crosses over into the land of fairy, at the end of the story, guided by Fred Savage, he realizes,
the skills he had learned in that long binge—how to yield up control, how to ignore shame and make a spectacle of himself, how not to question circumstances or at least not be surprised when no answers to questions could be found—these skills were all he had now, all the gear he could bring to this expedition. (494)4
As in any initiation, during this liminal time Auberon Barnable has changed and acquired new skills he will need for his future role.
Besides being willing to live without definitive answers, he also acquires a more obviously magical set of skills, the Art of Memory, taught to him by Ariel Hawksquill. When Auberon arrives in the other world, “it was a deserted kingdom.” His job is to construct a new world through his trained memory and imagination: “He would have to start all over again, that’s all,” Auberon thinks. “He must make order here where there was none” (520). In fact, Ariel Hawksquill had taught him, ordering experience is what the Art of Memory is for (353). Within the new world—in fact, as the substance of the new world—Auberon sets up the park in which he learned the Art of Memory, which also includes the earthly passages and markers of the seasons and compass directions (520). His mother can see two stigmata of Auberon’s transformation. His eyebrows have grown into one single line (395), a trait of Violet’s that was inherited by those able to contact the world of the fairies. She also sees the price of that initiation: “that he had crossed in his absence some threshold beyond which life is consumed faster than it increases; she could see the marks of it in his face and the back of his hands” (395).
In contrast to the men in Little, Big, the women are usually capable of a worldview in which our world and fairy can coexist, a worldview that comes naturally and can somewhat be shared with those they are joined to in marriage. This double consciousness, in which the boundary between worlds is permeable because it doesn’t really matter, characterizes at least some boys as well as the girls (judging from August Drinkwater) but exists as a stable state only in the women.
While Smoky is The Traveler, Daily Alice is a stationary goal: she does not need to travel to cross thresholds because she is and always has been comfortable with both our world and the world of fairy. In fact, she and the other girls—Nora, Timmie Willie, maybe others (84)—are, if not doors to the other realm, at least windows in that Auberon Drinkwater finds he can only photograph fairies (if he could only be sure those images are fairies) with them around. As Daily Alice grows older, she feels she has lost the connection to the fairies that she had in childhood: “Come hither, come hither, they had sung in her childhood. Now she was stationary” (137). However, she then realizes, “perhaps they had stopped teasing her to follow them only because she had long since arrived wherever it was they had been teasing her to come. She hadn’t lost them, and yet needn’t follow any more because here she was” (171). Permanently liminal, she does not need to cross boundaries to visit the fairies, as Violet Bramble did (51–53), as Smoky did once and then forgot (87–91), as she used to walk away in order to catch the rainbow (15–16). In the other world, she becomes Mother Earth, the most static yet changing figure possible (532, 536).
This dual experience without apparent conflict also characterizes Nora Cloud, whose work reading the Least Trumps is often done on the porch (19, 26, 91, 75), an architectural space that is neither inside a house nor outside but both. Nora does not live in both worlds, but she is a messenger between them through her reading of the fairy-transformed (126) Least Trumps and calm acceptance of what they say. When she is younger, she is satisfied with the limits of what she knows and accepts them (26); when she is over a hundred years old, she sees great events, the end of the Tale, her own death—and accepts those also:
How that could be . . . why behind a fall that showed a grand Geography—empires, frontiers, a final battle—there should appear one old woman’s death, she couldn’t tell; perhaps, probably, it couldn’t be told. (257)
Her cards reveal events in the lives around her, and she receives that information and disseminates it to others. At the end, she can share her awareness of the end of the Tale only with Sophie.
Sophie, Daily Alice’s sister, is marked as liminal in two main ways: first, by her love of sleep (a state sometimes connected to death but still a kind of life) and dreaming; and later, by her connection to her daughter, Lilac, which provides a tie to the realm of the fairies. Dreaming can itself be considered a liminal state. It is a withdrawal from waking life—a state neither fully awake nor as oblivious as dreamless sleep—yet may be a portal to supernatural realms, though a limited and temporary one. More than that, Sophie’s love of dreaming is often expressed in terms of slipping into the dream, “the moment of passage.” In fact, “she found she was one of those who could awake, leap the gap of consciousness, and arrive back at the same dream she had awakened from.” She calls her dreams “her journeys,” and she is an expert traveler (153). Then, after Lilac is stolen by fairies, over the years Sophie retains a sympathetic connection to her that is more than human imagination; for instance, Sophie imagines Lilac failing to grow older, which is not a mental error but a fact, since over in the realm of fairies Lilac is asleep and unchanging in Father Time’s lap (290, 312). When the real Lilac returns to Edgewood, she “looks just like Sophie had imagined she would” and is the age that Sophie envisioned (453–454). Finally, Sophie is a messenger like Nora: she learns the art of card-reading in order to find Lilac, though it leads her to other awarenesses and wisdoms as well and enables her to gather and instruct those who are ready to cross over into the world of the fairies (442–443, 473, 474–477).
With each generation, the women come closer to being able to cross the threshold into the fairy realm, or even to exist in both worlds. In an echo of Daily Alice’s moment of awareness that she herself is liminal and no longer needs to cross any boundaries, Nora thinks about more recent generations than hers, seeming to move farther from the world of fairy but actually moving closer to it, who have “only ceased to search or bother themselves about it because they felt fewer and fewer distinctions between themselves and it” (257).
After Violet decides that they all must forget what they know about their Tale (123–124), both men and women suffer the burden of the women’s secrecy as the men grow more baffled and the women grow more oracular. Before as well as after that, however, the main price the women pay for their bimodal understanding is that their experience is ineffable. As an old woman, Violet talks to her son, August, about the fairies, then realizes that what she said was not true or is true only in a conditional sense (104–107). The utter inexplicability of the fairies, their status that confounds the categories on which our language depends, is clear when she decides “she ought to say what she knew.” She writes two statements that are, if not contradictory, at least paradoxical: “they mean no good to us” and “they mean us no harm either.” Then she writes a sentence in religious language—“they are made not born”—and decides it can work as well with the two terms reversed. Finally, she crushes the page of writing (106–108). The world of the fairies is one that confounds logic and perhaps language itself. To use a structuralist paradigm, if words that take their definitions from a system in which they are opposed to each other are just as valid when each is used in the other’s role—the opposites “born” and “made” become indistinguishable—then there is no difference and no meaning. At least Violet knows she is writing nonsense, or at least no sense that can be brought across the borders of the world of fairy into our world.
A few men in the novel do accomplish something like an understanding that encompasses both worlds, including Dr. Bramble and John Drinkwater, respectively Violet’s father and husband. However, they persistently work to wrangle the experience of the other world into words, and the price they pay is to lose accuracy about it. In a kind of literary tricksterism that looks forward to Crowley’s Ægypt books, the theosophical lectures by Bramble and the quotes from John Drinkwater’s ever-expanding, ever-odder book, Architecture of Country Houses, are our main sources of information about the fairies—and they are unreliable, though also the best that anyone is going to get. Even Dr. Bramble is vaguely aware of this when he states that the powers or spirits that were written about by Paracelsus—by implication, the fairies also—“are not quite material—whatever that means or meant” (42). He is unable to break away from dichotomies and understand that which is both material/immaterial and yet neither; however, he persists in speaking about it.5 Auberon Drinkwater’s Darwin-inspired theory of fairies is given even less importance (80–81), though it may be equally true and false, like anything written about the fairies.
Finally, two of the most liminal figures in the book literally move between our world and that of the fairies and exhibit a dual or multiplex nature.
Grandfather Trout is an inherently liminal figure, neither man nor fish but both, like the fish footman from Through the Looking Glass that he can almost, but not quite, remember (see Ansley 177–178). His main purpose is to carry messages—again, like the fish footman—from the fairies. His very being would be forbidden by strict dichotomies, his nature betwixt-and-between; but also, living in both worlds, he can bring information from one to the other with a minimum of garbling.
Grandfather Trout was once August Drinkwater, though by the time of Smoky and Daily Alice, little of that humanity remains. When August Drinkwater takes a hiatus from his staunch modernist practicality (101–102), represented iconically by his love for the automobile (100), to contact the fairies for permission to build a filling station, the state of mind he needs is achieved by an act of will, as is Smoky’s general attitude; but it is more fully betwixt-and-between normal modes of thought. If Smoky straddles the dichotomy of belief and skepticism, August holds the distinction temporarily at bay and thinks between them. While fishing,
He was trying, without exactly seeming to try, to see or notice something, without exactly seeing or noticing it, that would be a clue or a message; trying to remember, at the same time as he tried to forget he had ever forgotten, how such clues or messages used to appear. . . . (108)
Like any fisherman, August wonders if he would do better elsewhere, and at that moment, when “his desires were so to speak in transit between There and Here,” he catches a fish and talks to a kingfisher that is a messenger from the fairies (108–111). This encounter happens during sunset on a riverbank, a liminal time (between day and night) and place (between the river and the land) (111). His transformation into a fish develops out of a ruinous bargain that August makes that day. A scene in which Mrs. Underhill consults Grandfather Trout confirms that his pool is completely in the land of fairies, just as it is completely in the human world (324). However, the pool is not the threshold: that is the man-fish who is both and neither.
When everyone in the story is given the choice to step into the land of the fairies, August chooses to stay behind. We know, though we do not see it happen, that Margaret Juniper—the one woman who loved him but left him, now an old woman—will free him from his liminal state. Mrs. Underhill promises, “she will look down into this pool; she will be the one you’ve so long waited for, and she won’t be fooled by your shape; she’ll look down and speak the words that will free you.” Grandfather Trout asks if he may keep his magically mixed condition, and Mrs. Underhill seems shocked at the very idea (524). As Smoky realizes, making choices means giving up some of the potential that is permanent in the liminal state.
Perhaps the most multifariously liminal character in the novel is Lilac, Sophie’s daughter, who as a child is stolen and raised by the fairies (178–179). Evidence indicates that Lilac’s father is George Mouse, which, as Bill McClain states, makes Lilac also a bridge that joins the two branches of the family, City and country. However, that evidence, like so much in the novel, may or may not be conclusive. As prophesized by Lilac’s cousins and/or half-siblings, Lily and Tacey, Lilac “won’t stay long” but “it’s okay. She’ll come back” (175). Exactly, Lilac enacts the shamanic process: she leaves our world and then returns to bridge the two worlds. She is a human child, educated by the fairies in their world, though Mrs. Underhill is pleased that Lilac retains her human coloring and robustness (267). Lilac secretly visits her mother, Sophie, and feels human emotions which, having been “raised the way she has been,” she does not recognize and has no words for (269–271). When she is awakened, Lilac returns to the human world through the Gates of Horn (425), traditionally the threshold through which human sleepers receive true dreams. This real Lilac’s return to Edgewood makes it clear that she has been groomed as a messenger and guide, sent from fairy to Edgewood and Old Law Farm to be inserted at a critical time. There was a war in the fairyland, but it was to be resolved into peace, “and end the long sad time.” She brings this news but also a “summons,” to the Parliament that will end the war. “So you must come,” she tells those assembled at Edgewood; “You have to.” Then she visits Old Law Farm, tempting Auberon to go and giving direction to George Mouse (459–466).
The second, or false Lilac, left by the fairies in Lilac’s place, is the most frightening element in Little, Big, perhaps the one figure of pure horror. George Mouse, who destroys it with fireworks, balks at the idea of a changeling, but nonetheless knows it is wrong—he knows that it is not Lilac, of course, but also that it is something that is somehow elementally false and bad. His reaction is precisely that which Clements says accompanies encounters with interstitial creatures that challenge the boundaries of our categorizations: “I don’t know if I was crazy or not,” George says to Auberon Barnable. “All I knew was that this thing was evil, I mean not evil evil”—because it seems vulnerable, even fragile—“But evil, I mean an awful evil thing to have in the world. All I could think of was: get rid of it.” The description of the changeling shows that it undermines dichotomies of young and old, male and female, innocent and knowing. (418–423).
One would think that two changeling Lilacs would be enough multiplication and enough liminality. However, the author turns the screw one more notch with the introduction of the third Lilac, Auberon Barnable’s imaginary childhood friend. She is not some manifestation of the real Lilac via fairy-magic; even Mrs. Underhill recognizes Auberon’s playmate as “imaginary Lilac” (267). Yet this imaginary Lilac acts independently of Auberon and shows many of the same characteristics as the human Lilac—who, however, is still in the world of fairies. It is this imaginary Lilac who meets Auberon in the park in which he practices the Art of Memory and who tells him—actually, it is phrased as a question—that it is time for him to go home to Edgewood (385, 424).
While figures like Grandfather Trout and Lilac seem more traditional to the genre than Daily Alice (Dame Kind) or Ariel Hawksquill, they are more innovative than is immediately apparent. Each repeatedly poses questions about our relationship to the supernatural, the relationship between the supernatural and imagination, and the ways in which fantasy and transformation are part of human nature. These characters’ liminal nature also precludes an easy dismissal of them as “just fantasy.” We cannot categorize them as totally alien from our experience as we can, for example, most dragons or ogre-equivalents in most fantasy novels. They more clearly exist on a continuum with the other characters and perhaps with ourselves.
Conclusion: Fantasy, Change, and Creation
John Crowley states in a 1994 interview, “One of the reasons you write fiction is because you can create your own world. You need that constant sense of possibility. If you don’t have that sense of possibility in your own life, don’t even feel a craving for that kind of possibility and change, it makes it hard to write” (4). Why someone with this opinion would be drawn to fiction with liminal concerns seems clear. First, the liminal state, with its breaking of old associations and even questioning of received categories of thought, is highly creative, perhaps containing the essence of creativity. Moreover, the process of writing a book is in some ways liminal, itself a transformative seclusion: while some worlds may be made immediately, with no pause—“Fiat lux!”—in general, lengthy processes of change and refashioning are essential to the act of creation, of magical creation within a fantastic text, or of the creation of the text itself.
Bernadette Lynn Bosky lives in Yonkers, New York with her two husbands and eight rats. A version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this editorial first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.
A print edition of Issues 291 and 292 will available from Lulu.com.
- Ansley, William H. “Little, Big Girl: The Influence of the Alice Books and Other Works of Lewis Carroll on John Crowley’s Novel Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament.” In Snake’s-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley ed. Alice Turner and Michael Andre-Driussi, Cosmos Books, 2003.
- Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.
- Clements, William M. “Interstitiality in Contemporary Legends.” Contemporary Legend, 1, 81-91.
- ——. “The Interstitial Ogre: The Structure of Horror in Expressive Culture.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 86 (1).
- Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
- Disch, Thomas. “Best and Biggest.” In Snake’s-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley, ed. Alice Turner and Michael Andre-Driussi, Cosmos Books, 2003.
- Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
- Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures Series 2, v, 5, n. 4 (Winter 1993). <www.jstor.org/stable/20736767>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Foreman, Brendan. “John Crowley, Little, Big.” <greenmanreview.com/books/john-crowley-little-big/>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Gateway Press, pages for books, journal, and an international conference on liminality, <www.angelfire.com/journal2/tgp-sll/Whoweare.html>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Gordon, Joan. “Recombinant Post-genre Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies #91 (v. 30, part 3) November 2003. <www.depauw.edu/sfs/birs/bir91a.htm>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Hamer, Naomi. “The City as a Liminal Site in Children’s Literature: Enchanted Realism with an Urban Twist.” The Mentor 2 January 2003 (v. 7, n. 1). <www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/217/215>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Hynes, James. “Genre Trouble: What stands between John Crowley and a serious literary reputation?” Boston Review, Dec 2000/Jan 2001.
- Interstitial Arts Foundation, mission statement, <www.interstitialarts.org/wordpress/>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- “John Crowley: The Writing on the Wall” (interview). Locus #398 (v. 32, n. 3) March 1994, 4.
- Liminality in the Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Exchange, University of Utah, 2004 program. <www.hum.utah.edu/hgc/view.doc>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- McClain, Bill. “Little, Big by John Crowley.” <watershade.net/wmcclain/little_big.html>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Palmer, Richard E. “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics.” <www.mac.edu/faculty/richardpalmer/liminality.html>. Accessed 25 Oct 2012.
- Purcell, Rosamond. Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
- Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
- ——. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1967.
- ——. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969). New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.
- van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1960. Originally published 1909.
- And special thanks to George P. Hansen, author of The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001) without whom this paper would never have happened.
1. For postmodernists such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, the challenge to dichotomies is much more a source of freedom and potential. More traditionally Western culture has sought to totally efface the challenge posed by liminality, as seen in the surgical taming of the liminal in terms of gender (hermaphrodites and other intersexed people) or body/identity boundaries (conjoined twins). For both the awe-full and the awful affect of the liminal, see Clements.
“Uncanny” is meant in Freud’s sense, but not here attributed to Freud’s explanation that it is based in recollection. Rather, the liminal state can make everyday things strange, even frightening—perhaps a combination of Freud’s use of the Term and Todorov’s in The Fantastic. “Abject” is meant as in Julia Kristeva’s work, that which we wish to push away from us but cannot actually exclude; this idea has some similarities to the anthropological concept of taboo, in that the taboo is based in, and reinforces, a status of extreme importance even as it prohibits something.
2. Taking another mythic template, Old Law Farm and the park could represent the underworld into which Auberon symbolically travels, bringing back gifts in the manner of a shaman. His guides into and out of each place are psychopomps, and the locks are the inevitable division between life and death that few may cross. This interpretation also is supported by the Winged Messenger Service in the novel and its reference to Hermes.
3. The range of sexuality in Little, Big deserves a study of its own—reaching far beyond, but definitely including, the relationship(s) among Daily Alice, Smoky, and Sophie. Bill McClain suggests that Smoky may be drawn to Sophie in part because he has taken the gift of Daily Alice’s childhood, which includes sex with Sophie. This is certainly possible, though one cause is also, certainly, that there are, as Daily Alice says, “So few of us, . . . so much love and so few to spend it on, no wonder we get tangled up” (168).
4. Much could be written about homeless people as liminal figures in a liminal state. They are marginalized, of course, which is linked to liminality though far from identical. Many stay, when they do stay anywhere, in vestibules, under stairs or on stair landings, on subways constantly traveling between locations, or literally in doorways. Megan Lindholm also mines this vein in Wizard of the Pigeons. See Attebery, 140.
5. Both Nora’s cards and Drinkwater’s Architecture of Country Houses present a wonderful reversal of the usual fantasy trope of a book that, once found, clearly explains all the supernatural goings on—shelves and shelves of them from H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon through the eponymous book in Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard? One of my favorite noncliché examples is the index to the town newspaper, with its hidden truths, both supernatural and not, about the town, in Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. (An entry under “embezzlement” might lead to articles about the awarding of a contract to build something for the town, the purchase of a fancy new home by a town official, and the discovery that the new building was cheaply made despite the price.) Straub’s innovation is to make the “book” emergent and thus opaque in one way; Crowley’s is to make both books possibly unreliable, certainly baffling, all in all perhaps more trouble than they are worth.