The author John Crowley needs no introduction. His masterwork, Little, Big, is on Harold Bloom’s list of 100 great books, and widely credited as an influence among leading authors of our time, like Elizabeth Hand and Neil Gaiman, and his work continues to inspire new generations of writers. There is nothing obscure or unknown about John Crowley, and I’m sure readers of this post are already familiar with the name even if they haven’t quite gotten to the books, yet.
I would not start with Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr, if you have not already familiarized yourself with Little, Big. It isn’t a contest between the books to say one is better than the other, because that is not true. They are simply different ways of approaching many of the major themes of Crowley’s work. The relationship between mankind, the natural world, and the mysterious and ineffable world is present in spades in both cases as Ka is reborn and reborn, and the world shifts and bends around his regenerations. But, where Little, Big is more accessible is simply perspective. Ka is told from the point of view of a Crow. Smokey Barnable is a mere human male walking into the unknown; Dar Oakley is an avian resident of Ymr and the unknown walking towards humanity. This shift in perspective creates a layer of alienation that requires a greater leap of the imagination, initially. Much of the early book discusses the life of the Crow, their seasons, their tribes and stories, and humanity’s arrival into the scene happens quite a few pages in. Initially, one feels like one might be experiencing something akin to Watership Down with the story of Crows told as if they were the rabbits residing in a very real place in some forest, somewhere. But the arrival of humans changes that expectation. Ymr is a place like ours, but also not.
As Dar Oakley passes in and out of lives, he is drawn to humans. Initially, he saves the life of Fox Cap Girl, and learns to share language with the humans that reside there. His relationship evolves into a close friendship, and the two go on a great, epic journey. I will not spoil what happens therein, but only mention that as Dar Oakley returns and evolves, the same story seems to play out in its way. The industrial evolution occurs. The future arrives in darkness. Dar Oakley is reborn each time, and leads a fairly normal Crow life, seeking food and shelter and companionship among his fellow crows with no aspiration of glory beyond the stories they all tell of each other in the manner he invents when he brings to crow society the concept of a name from the humans of Ymr.
The narrative is set as a frame. There is a bleak future world, where a dying man discovers an old and worn Crow in the rubble, and brings the crow back to his home. This frame narrative paints a picture of death. Crows are often symbols of death, and devour all that they can find dead or dying. Dar Oakley, in his regenerations, observes the rise and ruin of humans, who are fascinating storytellers, and capable of great companionship and affection, but are also responsible for the ruin of Ymr. The narrative frame paints a theme of death that hangs over the world, and the forest of the early pages that exists as if eternal before the arrival of humans. The novel seems to meditate on this distinction between life and death, and how to face death, how to live, even as it celebrates the primacy of stories.