John Crowley once remarked ruefully, “my work has hovered in a kind of nameless one-person ghetto”. It’s true that much of his fiction belongs to that visionary branch of fantasy often classified as “unclassifiable”, alongside the works of David Lindsay, Mervyn Peake and Anna Kavan. Yet Crowley’s narratives can be identified more precisely as the culmination of the Christian tradition of modern fantasy, whose most famous author was God.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge inaugurated this lineage in the early nineteenth century when he proclaimed that the imagination was a divine faculty, and human artistry a consequence of being formed in the likeness of the Supreme Creator. This view galvanized George MacDonald, who embarked on his influential career as a writer of fantasy – one that spurred the modern genre – in the confident assurance that, “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”. Even as Victorian culture became more secular later in the century, God continued to be acclaimed as a fantasy author: Matthew Arnold recommended, in Literature and Dogma (1873), that the Bible be venerated not as fact but as an inspiring fiction.
Twentieth-century Christian fantasy writers such as G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien returned to Coleridge’s metaphysical conception: rather than seeing religion as literature, like Arnold, they insisted that fiction was, in certain respects, religious. Tolkien called this view “mythopoesis”, and perceived human affairs in light of God’s grand narrative. During the Second World War he encouraged his son Christopher to envision his perilous efforts as an RAF pilot in terms of an epic: “Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story!” In her role as a Christian apologist, Dorothy Sayers similarly commingled narratives sacred and profane. She compared works of art to the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker (1943): the author’s immaterial conception was likened to the Father; its actualization the Son; its reception by the public the Holy Spirit.
The fantasies of John Crowley (born 1942) represent a pragmatic, existentialist conclusion to this tradition. Many of his tales feature protagonists who – like him – were raised as devout Catholics but lost their faith by adolescence. (In his new collection of non-fiction, Reading Backwards, the author recalls the profound effects that his early reading of Nabokov, Sartre and Camus had on his intellectual development.) Yet these characters – like Crowley – remain nostalgic for the supernatural world of wonders they once inhabited. They often find themselves plunged unexpectedly into new realms of wonder that they struggle to comprehend, engaging the reader with their spiralling quests for answers.
Crowley confesses to being obsessed by imaginary worlds, from his youthful production of puppet plays to his later documentary films on twentieth-century dreamscapes, like the 1939 World’s Fair. After graduating from college in the early 1960s he focused on writing fiction, and “had the revelation that … I don’t have to write about this sometimes beautiful but at bottom godless, spiritless, existential world that I really in fact believe in”. Like Christ in the wilderness, his characters face situations they do not fully understand. But Crowley’s post-Christian fantasies depart from those of MacDonald and Tolkien in querying without resolving the nature of existence. As he states in an interview published in Snake’s-Hands: The fiction of John Crowley (2003),
The adventures of my characters in my novels are existential, but I don’t believe they are exactly moral … I’m trying to explore the dilemma of characters who are creations in a book – which is in effect a Gnostic dilemma: souls who find themselves in a world that they suspect is not merely fallen or bad but entirely unreal, including their own histories and natures.
His fiction is postmodern in its intellectual play, modern in its gentle ironies and satisfyingly Victorian in its commitment to intriguing plots, relatable characters and a companionable style. His works exude warmth, humour and humanity.
Crowley’s concern with the fictional dimensions of existence was central to Engine Summer (1979), a novel set in a future whose narrator finds himself transformed into a narrative, the flesh made word. It was also masterfully expressed in Little, Big (1981), a fantasy that Harold Bloom deemed “the best book of its kind since Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland”. This multigenerational saga features a quirky family living in upstate New York, whose quotidian existence, it is revealed, contains a series of tardis-like other worlds, at the centre of which is the realm of faery. On the surface, the plot encompasses everything from the daily events of family life to the global machinations of a despotic politician (who happens to be a reincarnation of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa). The most important mystery, however, involves the nature of the broader “Tale” the characters feel compelled to enact without fully understanding.
Crowley’s novels – including his realist works, such as Lord Byron’s Novel (2005) – are carefully researched and thematically structured, while his short stories are accomplished miniatures. And Go Like This is an eclectic sampler of his characteristic preoccupations cast in realist and fantasy modes. While many of the tales express a faith in existential possibilities being actualized by pragmatic decisions, a few are darker, dramatizing how ageing, disease and other impediments narrow options and constrain potential.
Two deal directly with disability, portraying people who remain “free spirits” despite their situations. This phrase is a refrain in “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines”, which details the love affair between two theatre devotees who meet as teenagers at a summer Shakespeare festival in the 1950s. Their budding romance is abruptly shattered when they contract polio. The star-crossed lovers are reunited as adults, one with more limited mobility than the other. The tale beautifully explores the conflicts they experience in retaining hard-won independence while negotiating the mutual dependence demanded by love.
The narrative also celebrates other free spirits in history, a recurring theme in Crowley’s work. Here he focuses on those who disbelieve that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. One character, a wealthy sponsor of the festival, reminds attendees, “nothing needs to be the way you’ve always thought it has to be”. But the narrator, much like Crowley, prefers to retain the distinction between worlds: “Between the enthusiasts and the hardheads who dismiss them, I love the enthusiasts and stand with the hardheads”.
Other stories examine the physical and psychic losses that attend ageing. In the autobiographical fantasy “Anosognosia”, a writer at midlife believes he has magically been given the opportunity to start his life over again as an adolescent, while retaining knowledge of how to avoid his original mistakes. Reaching midlife again, this time without the loving wife and family he had attained in his original life but with a far more successful career, he must make an irrevocable choice: either to continue his current trajectory or return to his previous one. Or might “John C.” be the victim of his own delusional narrative? In another tale, a middle-aged couple’s marriage is tested when the wife is prescribed hormone replacement therapy, boosting her libido. Her husband finds the tacit acceptance of their lengthy relationship upended by this change; both are unsure of their new roles.
Crowley’s non-fiction shares the amiable voice, observant detail and compassionate vision of his fiction. Some of the elegant and substantial essays in Reading Backwards discuss the art of writing, a subject that he taught for many years at Yale University. Others are portraits of artists he admires, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Nicholson Baker, Rosamond Purcell, Richard Hughes, Ben Katchor, Joan Aiken, David Stacton and Edward Gorey. Several focus on the eccentric enthusiasts and imaginative speculations that captivate Crowley without ensnaring him, including Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy, UFOlogists and ghost stories. Some speculate on potential afterlives acceptable to a secular worldview. Might the end of consciousness, he wonders, result in a permanent dreamlike state? Or might consciousness itself be a single moment containing everything, including death?
When it comes to substitutes for religion, though, Crowley defaults to fiction. He is intrigued by a speculation in physics that the universe might be a holographic projection that could, in theory, be turned off, disappearing for ever. This jibes with the author’s own exploration of the overlaps and distinctions between real people and fictional characters. He entertains the idea that, because “the world in which I exist is at once endless and fictional, I could participate in the experience of those people I made, their experience of living in worlds made of words”.
But he doesn’t necessarily believe this outré possibility. In Crowley’s view, the death – or at least striking absence – of God does not mean that everything is permitted. His pilgrimage from Christianity to fictionality reflects the broader development of modern fantasy since the nineteenth century, and of our culture more widely: but even fantasy has its limits. Instead, Crowley’s final credo is to abide with “the unfinishable endlessness of real things”.