Monday, May 4, 2015

An irrational outgrowth - Carlo Ginzburg help me prepare to read John Crowley's Little, Big

John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) will be my readalong book of the month – please see Dolce Bellezza for details.   Quite a few book bloggers are, to my pleasure, joining.  Little, Big is an unusual book, a member of whatever genre – dream novels –  contain Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and George MacDonald’s Lilith. It is about a family of fairies who live in the Catskills.

I was tempted to beg off, not feeling that the book fit with whatever else I had been reading, but I read the first chapter to remind myself of what it was like.  “Make it fit,” I thought.  So I have been preparing the battle space.  Today, some true fantasy.

In The Night Battles (1966), Carlo Ginzburg tells two overlapping stories, both hard to believe but both in some sense true.  In 1575, a Catholic priest, an inquisitor of the Inquisition, stumbled upon the surviving remnants of an ancient fertility cult in the isolated region of Friuli (the far northeastern corner of modern Italy).  Four times a year, during the Ember Days, a specially selected group of champions, the benandanti, the good-doers, armed only with fennel stalks, spent their nights in combat with the region’s witches, who were armed with sorghum.  The results of the battles determined the quality of the harvests.  If the witches won, the harvest was bad; if the benandanti won, there would be abundance.

That is one story.  The other is the postmodern detective story in which the Inquisition tries to figure out what is actually going on here.  They have only one frame of reference, witches and witch’s sabbaths, and the idea that there are people with magic powers who fight the witches, who even claim to be doing God’s work, is incomprehensible. 

There was no place in the theological, doctrinal and demonological theories of the dominant culture for the belies of the benandanti: they constituted an irrational outgrowth and therefore either had to be made to conform to those theories or be eradicated.  (88)

It took fifty years of desultory pressure from the Inquisition, but over time the benandanti began describing themselves, detail by detail, in terms the inquisitors could understand, regularizing and thereby exterminating their own practices.  This is what I meant by “postmodern.”  The detectives, confronted with an unsolvable crime they do not understand, which is perhaps not a crime at all, accidentally convert the activity into a crime they do understand, thereby allowing them to solve it.

The historical sources are primarily the records of the bureaucratic Inquisition.  One of Ginzburg’s achievements was to figure out how to work with this evidence.  In a way, this second story, the subtle interaction between folk culture and official culture, is as interesting as the first story.  But then I remember that the first story involves men leaving their bodies to combat witches over the fate of the grape harvest as part of a Christianized remnant of a pagan fertility cult, and that people in early modern Italy openly talked about this until they realized that, oops, maybe a Catholic inquisitor is a dangerous audience for this stuff, and I think, no, that story is really hard to top.

Actually, it is topped by the story of the Livonian werewolf, which Ginzburg uses, along with the Germanic version of the Celtic Wild Hunt and similar legends, as evidence that there is something else going on, something bigger:

Three times each year on the nights of St Lucia before Christmas, of Pentecost, and of St John, the werewolves proceeded on foot, in the form of wolves, to a place located ‘beyond the sea’: hell.  There they battles the devil and witches, striking them with long iron rods, and pursuing them like dogs.  Werewolves, Thiess exclaimed, ‘cannot tolerate the devil’.  The judges, undoubtedly astonished, asked for elucidation.  (29)

Crowley has recommended The Night Battles (1966) as a source for fantasy writers, something radically different than the endless Tolkien knockoffs.  He has used it himself in his Aegypt series, especially in the 1994 Love & Sleep, if I remember correctly.  The essence of those books, and of Little, Big, too, is that there is something else going on.  Crowley, writing fiction, is allowed to elucidate a bit more, to take a guess at the something else.


  1. I loved Ginzburg's book.

    Sadly, the way those 'inquisitive savage detectives' solved the blessed walkers' mystery was similar to an old (and very cruel) joke.

    Three groups compete to prove their superiority when it comes to magic. A white fox is released somewhere in the middle of the Arctic, the first group to catch it will win the contest. Wizards use their hidden sight powers to scan all the Northern latitudes looking for the fox. Werewolves use their supernatural sense of smell and their large numbers to track the scent of the fox. Finally, trolls use their secret technology and claim to have caught the fox in under one hour. As proof, the trolls produce a green parrot who says 'Yes, yes, I'm the white fox, just please don't torture me anymore'.

  2. Tempted to beg off, say it isn't so! And now that I read your post, I'm feeling a bit lost. Count on me to point out the mundane when I write my posts, and I will count on you to point out the sublime. Between us, we shall get it all covered.

    I truly am loving this book so far. It's my first time through, ever, and I am totally enraptured by the Drinkwaters. Smoky. Even George Mouse.

  3. If I had more energy and more smarts yet were still fool enough to write a book blog, I would read and write about history a lot more and would at this point be suggesting a group read of The Cheese and the Worms. Ginzburg is superb.

    I forgot to include Crowley's other suggested books that accompanied Night Battles.

    As far as begging off, Bellezza, I believe I am just repeating what I said in the comments of your blog, except that now I have done some of my preparatory reading.

    As for the sublime, I will point you to the title - there will be the little but also the big. It is an ambitious book, a big, big book. When we were discussing the dismaying possibility of set themes, I considered suggesting "Is history linear or cyclical?" There we have a connection with Ginzburg's book. The Inquisition says linear, the benandanti say cyclical. Little, Big says - well, we will see.

    Glad you are enjoying the book so much.

  4. Of course you were only repeating what you told me already, I was just teasing you. I'm glad you're here to point out the bigger points. Right now I'm taking things as they come, while keeping an eye out for hidden, underlying meanings. Such an intriguing book, so filled with Story.

  5. So filled with Story that I could keep reading towards the book, endlessly. At some point soon I will start reading the book itself.

  6. I'm tempted to join in for Little, Big, but almost more tempted by that list of Crowley's. The Ginzburg book sounds magnificent. I see Crowley also includes Frances Yates on there, whose book on Giordano Bruno I've dipped into, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's marvel Montaillou. How refreshing to find a fantasy writer whose recommendations list doesn't just consist of other fantasy writers.

  7. A person could have a lot of high-level fun with that list. The suggestions in the comments are interesting, too, although there is a turn towards serious anthropology that might be over my head.

  8. An interesting list! The only one I've read, unfortunately, is Yates's "Art of Memory," which I recommend loudly. It's a deft piece of scholarship, unearthing a long, important tradition that had been largely forgotten. Read the Dame!

  9. The Yates book, like the Ginzburg, has long been tempting. Maybe I'll take a little Yates / Bruno / Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci digression sometime.