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Peter S. Beagle had, depending on how one looks at it, the great fortune or the great misfortune to start his career at the top. His first book, A Fine and Private Place, written when he was yet quite young, was highly successful both commercially and artistically. Beginning a career with such a work has obvious advantages, but it raises extraordinary expectations. In the event, Beagle did not put out a second novel until eight years later. Remarkably, that book too (The Last Unicorn) was a double success.
Beagle has by now established himself as one of the premier fantasy writers of our time. His pace has continued to be slow: over forty years, he has given us—if we ignore duplicative overlap in collections—half a dozen novels, a novella, and three story collections (plus a few books of non-SF&F). At that rate, one might expect each book to be a special thing, a polished gem, but regrettably that is not so. Of the his books (counting the novella), two are, in my opinion, not “keepers” and another (Tamsin), while worthwhile, is not something no one else could have written, at all or as well.
That said, those seven remaining books would suffice to establish and sustain his reputation forever, did he never write another word.
Beagle, like virtually all who get high marks on this site, is first of all a craftsman of language. Craft in language can manifest itself in many ways. One such way is poetic, full and rich and colorful and image-laden. But, while there are symphonies of prose, there are also chamber pieces. Beagle is superb at the clean, simple-seeming language that quietly says a great deal more than it seems to:
“I had a nice drugstore,” Mr. Rebeck said. “It smelled. I mean, it was clean but it smelled nice. Like gunpowder and cinnamon, with a little chocolate maybe. I had a bell that rang when somebody opened the door, and it rang for whatever a person needed, whether it was on his prescription or not. And I had a pair of scales that could weigh a man’s heart. I didn’t have a soda fountain, but I had a jar of candy to give the children when they came in to buy cough syrup or razor blades. Coltsfoot candy, they called it. I don’t know why. It came in long yellow sticks. I don’t think they sell it any more. I had everything any other druggist in New York had, and a little wolfbane besides.”
That’s from A Fine and Private Place, which is an urban fantasy. The book has a remarkably tight focus: very few characters, even incidental ones, and very few locations. It could almost (but not quite) be a play. Most readers and critics (me included) esteem the book highly; a few have remarked that the book is too “obvious”—that it is, in effect, a tearjerker, the sort of thing that draws response by playing all-stops-out on obvious emotions. That view is, I suppose, a half truth. The same plot, characters, ideas, in the hands of many another writer might have turned out as cheap slop. It is Beagle’s kindly manner and his language skill that turn lead into gold.
His second book, The Last Unicorn, was very different yet very like. It was different in overt setting, style, and mode, being superficially akin to classic heroic fantasy; but this is Beagle, and “classic heroic” is deceptive.
Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest where there is a pool clear enough for them to see themselves—for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides. They mate very rarely, and no place is more enchanted than one where a unicorn has been born. The last time she had seen another unicorn the young virgins who still came seeking her now and then had called to her in a different tongue; but then, she had no idea of months and years and centuries, or even of seasons. It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the great beech trees, keeping watch over the animals that lived in the ground and under bushes, in nests and caves, earths and treetops.
So far, a fine sample of delicious writing and beautiful images, but nothing, one might think, out of the ordinary in concept. But then, soon after, we meet the next major character:
But to take me for a mountebank like herself—that was her first and fatal folly. For I too am real. I am Schmendrick the Magician, the last of the red-hot swamis, and I am older than I look.”
As Prospero’s mirror used to say, “Whoo-hoo!” Schmendrick is, shortly put, a flop.
Schmendrick stood on a box and did tricks. The unicorn watched him with great interest and a growing uncertainty, not of his heart, but of his craft. He made an entire sow out of a sow’s ear; turned a sermon into a stone, a glass of water into a handful of water, a five of spades into a twelve of spades, and a rabbit into a goldfish that drowned.
And so the two books, so different in their superficies, are, at their cores, quite similar. They are serious tales much leavened with wistful humor, about serious but seriously imperfect people dealing with difficult, sometimes heart-rending situations with all the strength their imperfect selves have, which turns out to be surprisingly much, enough to do what most needs doing, but always at a cost, with a loss, a longing never to be fulfilled.
Those two are the books whose names most readers still call up when Beagle is mentioned. His next novel did not appear until eighteen years after them (not that he wasn’t doing other things in between), and many, including me, felt it was not worth the wait—it is not on the list below, and in keeping with my policy of no negatives I won’t discuss it (though Beagle is now supposedly in the process of re-writing it—and expanding it—for a new release).
One might pardonably at that point have decided that Beagle had shot his bolt, or at least his novelistic bolt (he put out some fine short stories in those years). But after another seven years—a full third of a century after his first book—he again dazzled readers, with a book that was a giant step forward, The Innkeeper’s Song. It was as if someone we had last seen as a ballet dancer had shown up years after as a weight lifter.
The Innkeeper’s Song is, to use a trite but apt term, muscular prose. Beagle discusses big, hard adult matters in big, hard—though still singing—prose. It is not that his first two books were not about adult matters and with painful things in them; it is that there was about each an air, a sense, of distance, of vague fogs separating their realities from our own, even the ones set in New York City. The world of The Innkeeper’s Song is a world of violence and force, rich and poor, civilized and savage, a more vividly alive world.
There’s this about starving, though, it takes your mind off things like loneliness and sorrow. It hurts very much at first, but soon you start to dream, and those are kind dreams, perhaps the sweetest I ever had. They weren’t always about food and drink either, as you’d suppose: most often I was old and home with my girl, children close and my arm so tight around her when the bridge railing broke that she still bore the mark, all those years later. I dreamed about my father, too, and my teacher, who was his teacher, and I dreamed I was little, sitting in a pile of sawdust and wood shavings, playing with a dead mouse. They were very dear dreams, all of them, and I tried harder and harder not to wake.
So we have two differences already: the light, dry comedic elements of those earlier books no longer appear, and their feelings of lightness and delicacy (even their poignancies are esthetic) are replaced by starker realities. There is a third difference: Beagle in The Innkeeper’s Song moves to a new technique: interwoven viewpoints. Each chapter is told in the first person by one or another of a small set of key characters.
Four years later (we are now up to 1997), Beagle returned to the land that was the setting for The Innkeeper’s Song for a collection of unrelated short stories, released under the title Giant Bones. Those tales were much of a piece with the novel as to style, quality, and language use (we even, in one of the tales, encounter a pair of characters from the novel, though many years after the events therein). This collection and the novel may be considered a matched pair, just as his first two novels are in so many ways.
(Just before that, Beagle produced a novel—not read here—eventually classed as “young adult” and not generally received with the enthusiasm of his other works; several critics have noted that Beagle once referred to it as a book written to pay the bills, and, though he did add that eventually he became engaged with it, it is said to read like a bill-payer.)
Also around that time, Beagle released a collection of stories (and a few essays), The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche, containing some earlier tales of his that had since become minor classics of modern fantasy—“Lady Death”, “Lila the Werewolf”—plus other tales both early and recent.
A couple of years later, in 1999, Beagle put out his sixth novel, Tamsin. Were it a first novel by an unknown, I’d have said it was good and promised better; from Beagle, it was disappointing. There is nothing wrong with it, and a lot right: but it does not seem to have the magic touch that distinguishes Beagle’s works at their best. The tale seems much more plot-driven than character-driven, which is, as I have indicated, unusual for Beagle.
That was followed by a novella entitled A Dance For Emilia; it is not his best work, pulling as it does just a bit too vigorously at the heart strings, but it is distinctly closer to his better work than to his bill payers. After another gap, this time of six years, Beagle gave us The Line Between, more short stories, including “Two Hearts”, a sort of sequel to The Last Unicorn, and also including A Dance for Emilia.
Some few novellas and reprint collections followed till, in 2016, we got what was billed as Beagle’s “first new novel for adults in 12 years”. I haven’t yet read it, but it got good reviews, though most with a certain wistful air that it isn’t quite another Unicorn.
Conspiracy theorists may draw conclusions from Beagle’s sf&f publishing history (in which I will not count individual short stories or chapbooks): first quarter-century: two books; first 30 years, three books; next 15 years, nine books; last 10 years, seven books. Clearly, the pedal is being pushed. That several of his most recent books have been "young adult" and not up to his usual level may signify or may be simple coincidence, but it does give one to wonder. Though Beagle has done significant work in television and the movies, he has apparently earned strikingly little therefrom, his business manager referring to Beagle as now being “poor and struggling”; it is not a great leap, then, to feel that Beagle in more recent years has sacrificed to at least some extent quality for quantity.
Beagle’s history includes at least two major disputes alleging that others badly cheated him. They are not part of a discussion of his works’ literary merits, but I suppose I should at least mention them. The first was over the movie version of The Last Unicorn; you can get a capsule history of that at Wikipedia. The second was a major lawsuit by Beagle against his former business manager; Locus has a case summary on line. The point of mentioning all this here is that it sheds some further light on the publication history mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Beagle’s language use we have seen: sometimes delicate, sometimes muscular, always elegant. His settings are always sufficiently and often lovingly described, though they are not memorable for themselves. As Jack Vance uses plots as tailor’s dummies on which to array his colorful language and world settings, Beagle uses settings as dummies on which to array his character development and fine prose. The various worlds are all well realized in their various ways, but their nature seems subservient to the needs of the tale; we do not feel that the worlds of these tales thrust themselves up into Beagle’s mind, but that their inhabitants did.
Of his plots little need be said save that they serve primarily as vehicles to develop and grow his characters, which in any event is the best and highest use of plots (tales that rely on suspense—on the “Gee, what happens next?!” effect—are rarely if ever great, and hard ever to read a second time.) Those plots at times require straightforward simplicity and at times convoluted complexity, each of which Beagle supplies in just the amounts and at just the times needed.
As you will have deduced, character development is integral to Beagle’s works. In all of his books, we see very clearly growth and maturation in his chief characters. In each Beagle tale, most or all of the characters must learn to give up and put behind them something very precious to them because their lives have uncontrollably moved past that thing, precious or not, and to cling to it is to be static, stagnant, ever more and more isolated from their true selves, powerless to advance.
Beagle’s characters are each in the round, full, three-dimensional, not constructs conjured for a literary purpose. They have life and movement and credibility, as they ought, since they are always at the heart—are the heart—of what Beagle’s tales concern themselves with.
Beagle’s themes—conflict, loss, growth—are perhaps not novel themes, but then who, after these many centuries, millennia, since the development of tale-telling, has an “original” theme? It is by the skill and humanity with which an author works out and displays for us one or another of the great basic themes that we judge that writer. And Beagle I judge a major talent, and much recommend to you.
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The chief currently active Beagle information page is that at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Regrettably, the site Unofficially Peter S. Beagle seems to be “on hiatus”. (Well, there’s also a Facebook page, for those who think Facebook signifies.)
Individual pages of interest would include The Atlantic’s belated review of The Last Unicorn and flayrah’s page titled “Peter S. Beagle awarded $332,500 judgement in lawsuit against ex-manager”. There are a few other scattered pages, but those cover the basic ground.
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I could find none.
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