Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Beagle, Peter S

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(1939-    ) US writer who has published only four novels (plus a novella later issued in book form) in 35 years, establishing a reputation as craftsman and innovator with his first in 1960; his star dipped in the 1980s, but his skill and vitality were reaffirmed in the 1990s.

His beginnings were precocious. After a nongenre story – "Telephone Call" for Seventeen in 1957 – he published his first and by many still most-loved novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), before he was 21. In its grave and controlled polish, it does not seem the work of a young man. Though the tale's warm intricacies – and PSB's occasional flights of sentimentality – tend to obscure the fact, A Fine and Private Place is a Supernatural Fiction in chamber-opera form, whose small cast of sharply realized characters play out their destinies within a narrow compass, without any genuine exit available into a fantasy Healing: their coming to terms with life and death is, in the end, this-worldly. In a Bronx graveyard lives Jonathan Rebeck, a recluse from life's challenges who is kept alive, in part, by a talking raven, and who has survived here for almost two decades (there is an echo of this in Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire [1976], whose Lestat dwells long years hidden in a cemetery). He is surrounded by Ghosts of those buried there, who seem to remain sentient – after the manner of the dead in the style of classic Posthumous Fantasy – until they have come to terms with the true shapes of the lives they had in the flesh. Rebeck, a live companion and two ghosts all duly discover that the stories they've been telling themselves about themselves are more or less false, and that they must live (or die) the true story; the novel closes with the two ghosts lying embraced in a single grave, while the two live characters go off to have breakfast. The influence of Robert Nathan upon this novel has been acknowledged by PSB, who has said it is "a direct descendant" of Nathan's One More Spring (1933).

After another short story – "Come, Lady Death" (1963), in which Death is invited to a party and (as usual in Fables of this sort) arraigns the hostess and guests – PSB published his most significant single work to date, The Last Unicorn (1968), a highly self-conscious, sophisticated, classic fantasy. The main characters are the eponymous Unicorn, who learns – in a manner which perfectly demonstrates that the Perception of Wrongness can easily be defined as a realization that a Thinning of the world has already occurred – that she is the last unicorn still at liberty; and the incompetent magician, Schmendrick, who is doomed never to age (see Belatedness; Bondage) until he grows into his full power as Magus and artist (see Kenosis). As the unicorn begins her Quest to find her fellows, she becomes involved in a Circus, where she meets some of the numerous Underlier characters who fill the text with cunningly presented echoes of traditional fantasy narratives; and subsequently she gathers Companions (including Schmendrick) around her. As they continue, it becomes apparent that they know they are in a Story, one which is full to the point of pixilation with figures and icons and Plot Coupons and Plot Devices from the Cauldron of Story; and every new underlier they meet (the band of outlaws who re-enact their leader's dream of being a new Robin Hood; Molly Grue, the crone who rather unseriously takes on the role of perpetual virgin [see Virginity]; the Dragon-fighting prince) further deepens their sense that somehow they are going to have to live through – to tell by their own actions the predetermined story of – the events to come.

The quest ends in the Waste Land created by King Haggard, whose dark self (the Red Bull) has imprisoned all the other unicorns of this Secondary World in the surf that pounds the beach that borders the Edifice where he lives in a state of self-knowing refusal of rebirth (he is a classic Knight of the Doleful Countenance). The unicorn disguises herself from Haggard by permitting Schmendrick to inflict upon her a thinning Metamorphosis into human form as Lady Amalthea, and passes through the Night Journey of this bondage into the climax of the tale, the point at which every significant member of the cast (including the unicorn in her true form again) comes together on the beach, in a moment of tension before the story unfolds that we can characterize as a Recognition of passage: "For Molly Grue, the world hung motionless in that glass moment. As though she were standing on a higher tower than King Haggard's, she looked down on a pale paring of land where a toy man and woman stared with their knitted eyes at a clay bull and a tiny ivory unicorn. Abandoned playthings – there was another doll, too, half-buried; and a sandcastle with a stick king propped up in one tilted turret. The tide would take it all in a moment, and nothing would be left but the flaccid birds of the beach, hopping in circles."

After this Trompe-L'oeil moment the story then unfolds in the traditional, destined way. The unicorn defeats the Red Bull; the whitecaps reassemble themselves into unicorns; the edifice of King Haggard topples into the sea; and the waste land undergoes an almost instant Healing, with green sprouting everywhere. Schmendrick and Molly Grue depart together. There are tears and laughter – for much of the book is hilarious. The story has been told.

PSB himself scripted the rather flat and disappointing Animated-Movie version of the novel, The Last Unicorn (1982); what comes across as charm on the printed page seems instead, when rendered as a screenplay, somewhat overladen with tweeness, on occasion excruciatingly so – a fault carried through to the animation and some of the voice acting.

The novella Lila, the Werewolf (1969 Guabi as "Farrell and Lila the Werewolf"; 1974 chap) is a very early example of the kind of Contemporary Fantasy on which many fantasy writers – like Charles de Lint and most of the Scribblies – have concentrated since about 1980: Urban Fantasy told in a colloquial tone of voice, and tending to treat Crosshatch moments as though they redeemed the modern world city. In this story the narrator's girlfriend turns out to be a Werewolf whose transformations are tied to her periods; the tale is told with a kind of cool humorousness which has seemed offensive to some. Joe Farrell (the narrator) reappears in PSB's next and least esteemed novel, The Folk of the Air (1986), which amiably, but lacking some of his previous mythopoeic intensity, depicts a California cast, most of whom belong to the League for Archaic Pleasures (based on the Society for Creative Anachronism) and who are variously involved in activities which invoke a genuine crosshatching reaction from other realms in response to their games. The course of the tale gives PSB room to create a complex vision of the Goddess, whose Bondage to a Thinning world – along with that of her son and others – becomes an intermittently powerful account of how, in a mature fantasy narrative, improvident role-playing – most of the characters are bound to Underlier figures they have played – can generate arguments about the relationship of Parody to authentic being. These arguments, which are relevant to any analysis of the Recursive nature of much modern fantasy (and indeed, much modern literature in general), are clearly evoked here. But there is a lack of bite – which, along with PSB's seemingly easy recourse to sentimentalized character portrayals, gave rise to fears about his future importance.

As with Joe Farrell in The Folk of the Air, one of the protagonists of The Innkeeper's Song (1993) – an unnamed Magus who has called previous students to his side to help him fight off another one-time student who needs to send his Soul to the Underworld to honour a bargain – is also from an earlier work; in this instance it is Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn. But here the presence of Schmendrick, identifiable only by inference, does not point to a softening of the texture of the new tale; and The Innkeeper's Song is not in any proper sense a sequel. Nor is it easily amenable itself to sequelizing: as the reader discovers only late in the text, the events described have become, over the decades since they occurred, a familiar and oft-told Story (see also Twice-Told), which ends. The plot is not particularly complex, for the old magus is saved in the end from the demons of the underworld when one of his young helpers acts as a psychopomp (in a reversal of the Orpheus myth) and guides him back to the surface of the world, a vaguely Oriental Land of Fable. The complexity lies in the telling, as it is recounted from the perspective of a large number of first-person narrators, some important to the tale, others peripheral. As these narrators are all reliable at least insofar as their knowledge goes, the effect is not Rashomon-like but, rather, is of facets of story.

Throughout this glittering presentation of a loved story, certain motifs appear and reappear: for example, one of the magus's old students is a woman who is in fact a man, disguised not by clothing but by Illusion or Glamour, so that it is at times impossible to understand what one is perceiving; and a Shapeshifter man (he becomes a fox on occasion) turns out to be a fox who becomes a man. In short, the story is irradiated with transformations and passages. Although it takes place almost entirely in a rural inn – the main excursion being a useless attempt by the magus's students to find and defeat his opponent – The Innkeeper's Song encompasses much of the range available to modern fantasy. It demonstrates once again PSB's remarkable and exemplary grasp of his chosen genre. [JC]

other works: The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle (omni 1978; vt The Fantasy World of Peter S. Beagle 1980 UK), assembling A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn, Lila, the Werewolf and "Come, Lady Death"; The Lord of the Rings (1978), screenplay; The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), a study of the painting by Hieronymus Bosch; The Last Unicorn; A Fine and Private Place (omni 1991); Peter S. Beagle's The Immortal Unicorn (anth 1995) ed PSB, Janet Berliner and (anon) Martin H Greenberg. PSB adapted "Come, Lady Death" into a libretto for the Opera The Midnight Angel by David Carlson.

Peter Soyer Beagle


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.