“Paracelsus is of the opinion,” Dr. Bramble told the theosophists, “that the universe is crowded with powers, spirits, who are not quite immaterial – whatever that means or meant, perhaps made of some finer, less tangible stuff than the ordinary world. They fill up the air and the water and so on, they surround us on every side, so that at our every movement” – he moved his long-fingered hand gently in the air, causing turmoil amid his pipesmoke – “we displace thousands….

“Nereids, dryads, sylphs, and salamanders is how Paracelsus divides them. That is to say (as we would express it) mermaids, elves, fairies, and goblins or imps. One class of spirit for each of the four elements – mermaids for the water, elves for the earth, fairies for the air, goblins for the fire. It is thus that we derive the common name for all such beings – ‘elementals.’ Very regular and neat. Paracelsus had an orderly mind. It is not, however, true, based as it is on the common error – the old, the great error that underlies the whole history of our science – that there are these four elements, earth, air, fire, water, out of which the world is made. We know now of course that there are some ninety elements, and that the old four are not among them.”

There was a stirring at this among the more radical or Rosicrucian wing of the assembly, who still set great store by the Four, and Dr. Bramble, who desperately needed this appearance to be a success, gulped water from a goblet beside him, cleared his throat, and tried to march on to the more sensational or revelatory parts of his lecture. “The question is really,” he said, “why, if the ‘elementals’ are not several kinds of being but only one, which I believe, why they manifest themselves in such various forms. That they do manifest themselves, ladies and gentlemen, is no longer open to doubt.” He looked meaningfully at his daughter, and many there did also; it was her experiences, after all, that lent Dr. Bramble’s notions what weight they had. She smiled, faintly, and seemed to contract beneath their gaze. “Now,” he said. “Collating the various experiences, both those told of in myth and table and those more recent ones verifiable by investigators, we find that these elementals, while separable into two basic characters, can be any of several different sizes and (we might put it) densities.

“The two distinct characters – the ethereal, beautiful, and elevated character on the one hand, and the impish, earthy, gnomelike character on the other, is in fact a sexual distinction. The sexes among these beings are much more distinct than among men.

“The differences observed in size is another matter. What are the differences? In their sylphlike or pixie manifestation they appear no bigger than a large insect, or a hummingbird; they are said to inhabit the woods, they are associated with flowers. Droll tales are spun of their spears of locust-thorns and their chariots made of nutshells drawn by dragonflies, and so on. In other instances, they appear to be a foot to three feet in height, wingless, fully-formed little men and women of more human habits. And there are fairy maidens who capture the hearts of, and can apparently lie with, humans, and who are the size of human maidens. And there are fairy warriors on great steeds, banshees and pookahs and ogres who are huge, larger by far than men.

“What is the explanation for this?

“The explanation is that the world inhabited by these beings is not the world we inhabit. It is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this one; it is in a sense a universal retreating mirror image of this one, with a peculiar geography I can only describe as infundibular.” He paused for effect. “I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The father in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until, at the center point, it is infinite. Or at least very very large.” He drank water again. As always when he began to explain it all, it began to leak away from him; the perfect clarity of it, the just-seizable perfect paradox of it, which sometimes rang like a bell within him, was so difficult – maybe, oh Lord, impossible – to express. The unmoved faces before him waited. “We men, you see, inhabit what is in fact the vastest outermost circle of the converse infundibulum which is the other world. Paracelsus is right: our every movement is accompanied by these beings, but we fail to perceive them not because they are intangible but because, out here, they are too small to be seen!”

-- John Crowley, Little, Big