An issue of Green Man devoted to Peter S. Beagle and his works
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a particularly splendid gathering at the Green Man. Everyone comfy? Gotta drink and a cushion? Well, then!
It's my profound pleasure to present to you our extraordinary Guest, Mr. Peter S. Beagle. That's him there, the pleasant-looking silver-bearded gentleman in the best armchair, by the side of the fire that doesn't smoke. Nod and wave politely, please.
Cat Eldridge, our esteemed editor, has asked me, Kathleen Bartholomew, to give an introduction for Mr. Beagle and his work, on the off chance that some of you were raised in caves far from bookstores or libraries. I've prepared a few remarks for the occasion...
According to my notes here... "...truly remarkable! Layers of malty complexities of figs and a raisiny fruitiness; balances nicely with a clovey spiciness; develops into a Champagne like acidity."
Ooops, no, sorry — those are the notes on the Aventinus Ale.
But they are not too far off the mark for Peter S. Beagle, either: his work is complex, familiar and exotic together, sweet and rich and yet possessed of a clarifying strength that both intoxicates and clears away dross. One could do worse than compare any writer to a really fine ale, of course, but there is more to Peter S. Beagle than his ability to make us drunk on beauty: though he does excel at that.
Peter S. Beagle was born in the Spring, on April 20, 1939. However, according to an old reference on a Peter Beagle site, Mr. Beagle has also been reported to have been born on April 29 of that year. For some time I wondered if the truth was that he might possibly have been born over the course of those 9 days, a little bit more of him appearing in our world with each spin of the globe... Note the concatenation of 3's into 9's here: appropriate for the birth of a mage or a bard. Peter Beagle is both — he is a writer of grace and power, producing books and screenplays, prose and poetry, fantasy and fact; he is a musician, a poet, and a singer.
The work for which he is most famous is The Last Unicorn and if anyone here has not read it, I conjure and abjure you to do so at once. Consider it a geas laid upon you: read this book. Then read A Fine and Private Place and then read I See By My Outfit. After those three, you should really read everything else he has ever written, but those three alone will enrich your soul and guarantee you entry into a particularly beautiful suburb of the Afterlife when and if you die.
Peter S. Beagle is one of the seminal writers of modern fantasy. That means he was one of the first, one of the best, one of the founders whose work has shaped and influenced those who came after him. But saying it like that sounds like pretty dry stuff. So, why will reading it get you into Heaven? What does one say to introduce a seminal writer?
All I can do is try to describe a little of my own experience with his work.
I first read his work when I was 15. In the long-ago year of 1968, post-Tolkien fantasy was just entering its first great bloom — suddenly you could find fantasy novels everywhere, old classics as well as bright new stuff. I bought The Last Unicorn because the cover was a lovely take on the medieval unicorn tapestries — I was unsure about the title, because it seemed a distinct possibility that it would be a sticky, fluffy, rhinestone sort of book and I didn't like those. I'd been introduced to fantasy through Tolkien and Mervyn Peake and E. R. Eddison, and I liked some power in my fantasy.
The Last Unicorn proceeded to run 220 volts through my little 110-volt brain.
I'm not going to review it here; right now I just want to settle you firmly in place to listen to Mr. Beagle. But I will tell you — this book is instantly addictive. You will pick it up and read the first few paragraphs, and you will never, ever put it down. You may think you have, but it will always be there in the back of your soul; and when you gaze on beauty, or grasp for love, or stand fast in the face of terror — or run from it — the words of this book will rise and illuminate your life like the light from the Unicorn's horn.
At the same time,The Last Unicorn is somehow firmly planted in reality. This is one of Mr. Beagle's gifts: he takes the fantastic and while never diminishing it one scintilla, he makes it familiar and natural. "Of course!" we mutter, avidly hunched over the pages, "of course, this is how Magic has to work!" By paving the narrative road with stones we recognize, Mr. Beagle leads us straight down the broad path to Faerie. And we are changed forever.
When I first read this book, I cried, of course. I had expected to when I started it, simply because of the title — what I didn't expect was that I would laugh just as much as I wept. Nothing in Peake or Tolkien or Eddison had prepared me for the possibility of joy and humour in high fantasy, and that gift came to me first from Peter Beagle. It literally changed the way I looked at the world, and made it a much richer place. Thank you, Mr. Beagle.
Two years later I read A Fine and Private Place. This was Mr. Beagle's first book, actually, written when he was all of 19. How could a 19-year-old write a story so wise, so poignantly beautiful? Unless Mr. Beagle wishes to reveal his tutelage at the Court of the Queen of Air and Darkness, we just have to admit he is a flaming genius.
I am not going to review this one here, either except to say that Love does survive Death. Not forever, not even for long; but long enough. It was a damned good thing I was 17 when I read this. At 15, an age where dying for love seems as necessary as clean underwear, I think it might have overwhelmed me. By the time I did read it, I had matured just enough to realize that the message was: don't die for love. Live for it. Break rules, laws and your heart, if you must — but seize love and live for it. Thank you, Mr. Beagle.
And if you haven't read the Andrew Marvell poem from which the title is taken (To His Coy Mistress), you need to read that, too. Consider it a literary aperitif to go with the main course of A Fine and Private Place.
For some time, these were the only Beagle works I knew about. I forced them on my friends and family, and nodded with smug wisdom and satisfaction when they came back babbling their gratitude. This doesn't say as much about me as it does about the power of Mr. Beagle's writing: you gotta share this stuff! You have to hand these stories on so more people will be enriched. That's part of what we are doing here, my dears.
In my twenties, I found I See By My Outfit and discovered that Peter S. Beagle lived in the real world after all — the very world in which I dwelt, where lovers lived at inconvenient distances, and money could buy a hamburger or a spark plug but not both, and magic rode in a tool box instead of a bottomless purse. This book is a true story, about a cross-country motorscooter trip, and once more it came to me at just the right age: at 17 I would have dismised it as too mundane. But the real world is enchanted, and this book sings with that subtle magic. Besides, when I read it I was discovering the road myself, in a tiny truck I had to learn to service on my own. I learned very valuable things about gapping spark plugs from I See By My Outfit. Thank you, Mr. Beagle.
I've happily read everything else he's written as well, and look forward to more of it. On this topic, I am delighted to alert you all to the upcoming The Line Between due out this just about now from Tachyon Publications. It is Mr. Beagle's first new story collection in 9 years, and features the Hugo-nominated "Two Hearts," the sequel to The Last Unicorn. Order it now! (Best online sources: Amazon for the least expensive buy, Conlan Press for personally-autographed copies where most of the money goes to the author.)
Mr. Beagle's first three books are a part of the foundation of my mind. That is what a seminal writer does. I come back to these three time after time, because my heart was nurtured on them. So now I pass them on to you, whoever you are who have not yet encountered the works of Peter S. Beagle. These books will show you unexpected things about the beauty and tragedy of life.
And now, this lengthy introduction is over. Someone make sure Mr. Beagle is close enough to the fire, and plump up the pillow on his chair — pass him the best cat, the one who purrs if you just look at her, and gazes back up at you with her eyes like beryls in white wine. And I will fetch our honored Guest another ale and pour it out myself (I've been an innkeeper for 30 years and I pour a perfect ale), and settle down here at his feet...
And now, dear Mr. Beagle — please, tell us a story. Ahh, The Last Unicorn...
— In This Issue —
A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle, June 2006
A Dance for Emilia
A Fine and Private Place
The Folk of the Air
I See By My Outfit
The Innkeeper's Song
The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn (animated feature)
The Last Unicorn (unabridged audiobook)
The Line Between
The Lord of The Rings (animated feature)
The Midnight Angel (opera)
The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzche and other Odd Acquaintances
The Unicorn Sonata
The Rise and Fall (and Coming Renaissance?) of Peter S. Beagle: An Analysis
The Problems At Hand, and How You Can Help
Facing the Cossacks (Ten Anecdotes in Search of a Punchline)
A Reading from The Last Unicorn (unabridged audiobook)
None But A Harper (Ibid.)
When Rabbits Write Books, by Karen D. Mitchell
Early Poems by Peter S. Beagle
photograph of Peter S. Beagle by Connor Freff Cochran
artwork by Rebekah Naomi Cox, from The Last Unicorn
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Entire Contents Copyright 2006, Green Man Review except where specifically noted. All Rights Reserved.
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