Beagle, Peter S.
Peter S. Beagle 1939–
(Full name Peter Soyer Beagle) American novelist, novella writer, short story writer, essayist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of Beagle's work through 1997. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volume 7.
Beagle is praised for his ability to develop characters, his use of incongruous humor, and his marriage of traditional fables with modern culture and settings. His novel The Last Unicorn (1968) is consistently cited by critics as a masterpiece in the fantasy genre.
Beagle was born April 20, 1939, in New York City to Simon and Rebecca (Soyer) Beagle, both public school teachers. He grew up in a literary family; his grandfather wrote fantasy stories in Hebrew. Beagle published his first story in Seventeen magazine at the age of seventeen. He attended the University of Pittsburgh where he studied creative writing, receiving a B.A. in 1959. In 1960, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first novel, A Fine and Private Place. The work earned him critical praise and a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship for study at Stanford. In 1964 Beagle married Enid Nordeen and adopted her three children. He described his journey via a motorscooter from New York City to his new home in California in the nonfiction book I See by My Outfit (1965). After his 1968 novel The Last Unicorn, which garnered great critical attention, Beagle produced no full-length fiction until 1987, when he published The Folk of the Air. During this period he published nonfiction articles, reviews, and books as well as a novella, Lila the Werewolf (1974). In 1980 he divorced his first wife, and in 1988 he married Padma Hejmadi.
While Beagle's nonfiction work has varied in form and subject, his short stories and novels are centered in the fantasy genre. Beagle is particularly known for his placement of fables in contemporary settings, sophisticated character development, and witty dialogue. In A Fine and Private Place Beagle explores the issue of consciousness in life and death. The fantasy is about the relationship between a man who, though alive, has given up in life, and two ghosts who re-gret their deaths. Beagle further develops the theme that true death is accepting the futility of life in his 1963 short story "Come, Lady Death." His novella Lila the Werewolf is a gothic fantasy set in New York City. His best known work, The Last Unicorn, is a mythopoeic fantasy, a heroic quest romance. The last female unicorn, who few people can recognize, represents imagination in the cynical world. She sets out to free the captive unicorns, falls in love with a prince, and has to kill the Red Bull in order to free the others and regain immortality. The work is both a new style of fantasy and a parody of the old quest romances. Beagle's Folk of the Air, a tale of witches and Californians pretending to be medievalists, resurrects the character Farrell from Lila the Werewolf. Beagle returns to his earlier theme of the nebulous relationship between life and death in The Innkeeper's Song (1993). His most noted works of nonfiction are The California Feeling (1969), American Denim (1975), and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981). He also wrote the screenplay for the movie The Dove (1974) as well as screenplays for various television programs. Beagle received the Mythopoetic Fantasy Award in 1987 and the Locus Award in 1993.
Critics agree that Beagle is a fantasy writer of distinction. He has been compared to such writers as Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, Hans Christian Andersen, James Branch Cabell, and Robert Nathan. Critics note his preoccupation with the human condition and his optimistic conclusions. David Van Becker, writing about A Fine and Private Place, states that numerous "passages illustrate Beagle's concern with the problems of human existence that give his fantasy worlds force and coherence." Raymond M. Olderman points out that The Last Unicorn focuses on the wonder and magic of life, in contrast to the works of other writers who focus on the bleaker aspects of existence. In addition, Beagle has been praised for his use of incongruity and humor, particularly within his witty dialogue. David Stevens, for instance, discusses the freshness and skill Beagle demonstrates in the dialogue of the butterfly in The Last Unicorn. Critics have noted as well Beagle's ability to merge new fantasy with old fables. Jean Tobin writes: "Beagle manages to give his readers fresh, contemporary versions of both the unicorn myth and the werewolf legend while retaining all the traditional and satisfying familiar elements of each."
A Fine and Private Place (novel) 1960
I See by My Outfit (travel) 1965
The Last Unicorn (novel) 1968
The California Feeling: A Personal View [with Michael Bry] (essays) 1969
The Dove (screenplay) 1974
Lila the Werewolf (novella) 1974; revised edition, 1976
American Denim: A New Folk Art [with Baron Wolman] (nonfiction) 1975
∗The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle (collection) 1978
The Lord of the Rings, Part One (screenplay) 1978
The Garden of Earthly Delights (nonfiction) 1981
The Last Unicorn (screenplay) 1982
The Folk of the Air (novel) 1987
The Innkeeper's Song (novel) 1993
The Unicorn Sonata (novel) 1996
The Magician of Karakosk, and Others (short stories) 1997
∗This collection contains A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn, Lila the Werewolf, and "Come, Lady Death."
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SOURCE: "Unique Recluse," in New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1962.
[In the review below, Fuller describes A Fine and Private Place as imaginative and witty.]
Peter S. Beagle makes a striking debut on several counts. With the first two paragraphs of A Fine and Private Place a style is established, a personality registered. We meet at once a talking raven, who is taking food (baloney) not to the prophet Elijah but to a retiring man named Jonathan Rebeck. This unique recluse had withdrawn in discouragement from a clamorous world some twenty years ago. He has lived ever since in an unattended mausoleum in a corner of Yorkchester, a vast interfaith cemetery in the upper Bronx. The raven has fed him all this while, as it explains, because "Ravens don't feel right without somebody to bring things to."
With the funeral of young Michael Morgan we discover that the dead haunt the cemetery for a time and that Mr. Rebeck has been sensitized by his strange life to the point where he can see and talk with them. Michael had been a disgruntled young history teacher and claims his wife poisoned him: later (through news fetched by the raven) we are able to follow her trial. Added to the cast are Laura, a faintly bitter ghost from a barren life, and Mrs. Klapper, a salty-tongued Bronx widow who, visiting her husband's mausoleum, discovers Mr. Rebeck and becomes a disturbing link to a...
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SOURCE: "The Dragon Has Gout," in New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1968, pp. 4, 8.
[Below, Riely remarks on Beagle's skillful personification of animals in The Last Unicorn.]
It is nothing to be surprised at that a man whose first novel [A Fine and Private Place] began with a raven stealing a sausage and bringing it to a dirty old man (Elijah?) who had lived for 19 years in a cemetery, should now write a novel about the last of the unicorns. The only rope that can hold a unicorn (one of his odd people tells me) is made of fish breath, bird spittle, a woman's beard, the miaowing of a cat, the sinews of a bear and—one thing more—mountain roots. Peter S. Beagle handles that rope as skillfully as a rodeo expert. He has given us a unicorn (female) in whose existence I find it easier to believe than I do in the existence of the fabulous running horse called Santa Claus, who won the English Derby and the Irish Derby in the same year and whom I once actually saw on a misty morning on the Curragh of Kildare.
That raven in the novel A Fine and Private Place was no relation to Poe's dismal, one-worded, repetitive bird. Indeed, in a story in which both the living and the dead talked with wisdom and eloquence, the raven was the best talker of them all. Oliver Goldsmith said, to the face of the Great Lexicographer, that if he (Johnson) tried to make fish talk in an apologue, he...
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SOURCE: "Of Wasteland, Fun Land and War," in Saturday Review, March 30, 1968, pp. 21-2.
[In the following excerpt, Hicks argues that The Last Unicorn is a fable about imagination and the artist.]
Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn is frankly a fantasy, as was his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, which was published in the year he became twenty-one. (In the interval he brought out an unusual and amusing account of a transcontinental trip by motorscooter, I See By My Outfit.)
In the new novel the unicorn, learning from the talk of hunters that she may be the last of her species, sets out to discover what has happened to the others. En route she is captured by members of Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, and then freed by a melancholy magician named Schmendrick. She and the magician, who joins her in her search for King Haggard and the Red Bull, encounter a fifth-rate Robin Hood, Captain Cully, and add to their party one of his followers, Molly Grue, who has recognized the unicorn. They come to King Haggard's barren country and to the city of Hagsgate, which, by exception and for sinister reasons, prospers. When the unicorn is attacked by the Red Bull, Schmendrick—who has begun to suspect that he may be a real magician after all—saves her by giving her a human form. Prince Lír falls in love with her in this form, and there are numerous complications...
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SOURCE: "Time, Space & Consciousness in the Fantasy of Peter S. Beagle," in San Jose Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, February 1975, pp. 52-61.
[In the following essay, Becker explores Beagle's manipulation of time and space.]
In Peter Beagle's first novel, A Fine and Private Place, Jonathan Rebeck, the hero, has lived surreptitiously in a New York cemetery for nineteen years, aided by a talking raven who steals food for him from local stores. Rebeck would rather be dead, like the ghosts he talks with until they forget and fade from life. The kind and sociable Rebeck has become a reluctant teacher of the newly dead; he tells the ghosts Michael and Laura: "You'll drowse…. In time sleep won't mean anything to you … it won't really matter." But Michael, a suicide who values life now that his is over, rejects the somnolent peace of Rebeck's art of dying, and he tells Laura to fight back—as he does—to remember the feeling of being alive: "Caring about things is much more important to the dead because it's all they have to keep them conscious. Without it they fade, dwindle, thin to the texture of a whisper. The same thing happens to people, but nobody notices it because their bodies act as masks. The dead have no masks."
These passages illustrate Beagle's concern with the problems of human existence that give his fantasy worlds force and coherence, but they do not fully convey the...
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SOURCE: "Reality and Illusion in Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn," in Critique, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 1977, pp. 93-104.
[In the following essay, Norford discusses the symbolism of the characters in The Last Unicorn.]
A cheeky and didactic squirrel in Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place (1960) tells the cynical raven that "there is poetry in the meanest of lives, and if we leave it unsought we leave ourselves unrealized. A life without food, without shelter, without love, a life lived in the rain—this is nothing beside a life without poetry." He is so preachy that one sympathizes with the weary raven: "If I was a hawk, I'd eat you in two bites." Beagle is much more subtle and complex in The Last Unicorn (1968), but the theme is the same: "the main message of the allegory is that there is magic in being human." The symbol of the magic is the unicorn, who is "the dream we have forgotten how to see, the thing whose absence makes our world a waste land; she is renewal and rebirth, the lost fertility and potency of life."
Significantly, the unicorn, in her mortal form as the Lady Amalthea, inspires Prince Lir to write poetry: she is what Jung calls an anima figure, the eternal feminine that leads us on into art as well as life. In The Last Unicorn magic and poetry are closely related. The outlaw, Captain Cully, writes ballads about himself which he hopes will...
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SOURCE: "Incongruity in a World of Illusion: Patterns of Humor in Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn," in Extrapolation, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 230-37.
[In the essay below, Stevens argues that Beagle uses humor to manipulate the tone of The Last Unicorn.]
While humor is peripheral to much fantasy, it is central to Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Beagle creates a quasimedieval universe with built-in anachronisms to serve as the setting for his fairy tale that is at once high romance and self-parody. He presents a serious theme, that we are what people think us and we become what we pretend to be, with a comic technique, and much of the success of the novel can be traced to its humor.
Beagle leaves no doubt about his comic intentions very early in the novel. Before any of the important mortal characters are introduced, the unicorn meets a butterfly. While some important exposition is presented, the main purpose of the encounter seems to be humorous. In Beagle's world butterflies can talk, but all they can do is repeat what they have heard. This butterfly has apparently heard a lot of popular songs, a lot of television commercials, and a lot of Shakespeare and other medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Its speech is a combination of these elements, and the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime is very funny:
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SOURCE: "Werewolves and Unicorns: Fabulous Beasts in Peter Beagle's Fiction," in Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 181-89.
[In the following essay, Tobin examines Beagle's use of myths about unicorns and werewolves in such works as The Last Unicorn and Lila the Werewolf.]
"Would you call this age a good one for unicorns?" asks the elder of two hunters riding through the first pages of Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn; "Times change," the other mutters. By the end of a brief conversation, the elder has made a judgment. Breaking out of the lilac wood, he shouts back over his shoulder as if he knows the listening unicorn can over-hear: "Stay where you are, poor beast. This is no world for you." Elders in fairy tales are wise, and the hunter may be right. This world—our world—is no world for unicorns. Indubitably, people believed in the existence of unicorns for a thousand years and more, but they do no longer. Belief in unicorns, in werewolves—indeed in a whole menagerie of mythical and legendary beasts—vanished over two hundred years ago with the coming of the Enlightenment. People on the streets of San Francisco and New York, Indianapolis, and Miami know about but do not believe in either werewolves or unicorns. How, then, in...
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SOURCE: A review of The Folk of the Air, in New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1987, p. 33.
[In the review below, Jonas praises The Folk of the Air as a dazzling work that demands a sequel.]
The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle, a fantasy novel set in contemporary California, mixes science and the supernatural so seamlessly that the bedazzled reader soon ceases to care which is which. Certainly none of the characters in this book stay up nights worrying about such distinctions.
The woman known as Sia is a psychotherapist of sorts who lives in a house with an indeterminate number of windows; describing her chents as "the displaced ones," she adds, "You can be uprooted from imaginary places too, you know." Joe Farrell, an attractive drifter who plays a mean lute when the mood strikes him, readily identifies himself as a man born out of his time; he would have preferred the heyday of the gallard, the pavanne and the madrigal. Farrell's old friend Ben is a scholar with a more than academic interest in the Vikings. Together with Ben and an old girlfriend, Farrell is caught up in the antics of the League for Archaic Pleasures, whose members masquerade on weekends as medieval lords and ladies and witches and bards. Farrell's refusal to deny the evidence of his senses makes him an unusually reliable guide to events that keep stretching the conventional coordinates of...
(The entire section is 377 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Folk of the Air, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 1, 1987, pp. 1, 9.
[In the review below, Charnas argues that despite minor problems with its structure and plot, The Folk of the Air is well written and superior to Beagle's earlier novels.]
Like the hero of this book, who returns to friends from his wanderings, Peter Beagle returns, with The Folk of the Air, to the company of publishing novelists. Beagle's first two novels, A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, were fantasies that won great popular response in the '60s No further books have come from this author for 18 years.
About 10 years ago at a fantasy and science fiction convention, I heard him read aloud from a work-in-progress that, rumor had it, he was having great trouble completing. Now here is the finished book at last, and it is a humdinger.
The Folk of the Air, also a fantasy, begins by firmly anchoring its hero in the real world. Joe Farrell, a wandering musician, arrives in the college town of Avicenna on the California coast in a bizarre and funny scene involving a hold-up attempt by a preppy hitchhiker and bandit. Avicenna itself is bright with real sunlight, complete with creeps and crazies and expensive gentrification.
Joe moves in with an old college buddy, and runs into a former sweetheart. The...
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SOURCE: "Well Worth the Wait," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, April, 1987, p. 33.
[In the review below, de Lint remarks favorably on The Folk of the Air.]
For some twenty-seven years, Peter S. Beagle has been a voice to be reckoned with in the fantasy field, a reputation based solely upon two novels, A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn, and two short stories, Lila the Werewolf and "Come, Lady Death." It's been almost nineteen years since we've had a novel from him. The Folk of the Air, which apparently took fourteen years to write, now rectifies that dearth. And it's well worth the wait.
Joe Farrell, the protagonist from Lila the Werewolf, returns as the central viewpoint character of The Folk of the Air. Arriving in San Francisco to visit his old friend Ben, Farrell soon becomes involved with an old girlfriend Julie, the League for Archaic Pleasures (a group of medievalists along the lines of the Society for Creative Anachronism), and Ben's lover Sia, an enigmatic woman who lives in a house that has rooms and corridors which come and go.
Both Ben and Julie belong to the League—which Farrell also joins on the strength of his lute-playing. But all's not well within the League. A young witch named Aiffe has powers that are more than playacting, while Ben appears to be possessed by the spirit of an ancient Viking...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
SOURCE: A Review of The Folk of the Air, in New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 29,561, November 20, 1987, p. 31.
[Below, Greenland argues that The Folk of the Air "lacks the mordant Jewish irony" that was present in A Fine and Private Place.]
In (and out of) progress since 1971, and featuring Farrell, hero of a story from 1969, Peter S. Beagle's comeback novel The Folk of the Air is also somewhat concerned with old hippies. The protraction has not been good for it. Though this book has much of Beagle's former lyrical expansiveness and wry, lugubrious caricature in sidelights, it mostly lacks the mordant Jewish irony that, in A Fine and Private Place especially, co-ordinated the various purples of the prose. The titular Folk are a group of Californian Creative Anachronists, who put on medieval dress, talk like Robin Hood movies, and hold banquets, jousts, wars and so on. Initially scornful, Farrell, a rootless lutenist, rapidly becomes assimilated to their fraternity, just as it is taken over by a teenage witch and her brat demon boyfriend. Luckily Farrell's landlady is a retired goddess.
Beagle acknowledges the perversity of the League for Archaic Pleasures, the insecurity beneath the helms and wimples, but he so much wants it to be all right he allows their army to repulse a surprise attack by five real medieval mercenaries conjured through time, and lose only one...
(The entire section is 264 words.)
SOURCE: "Innocence and Experience and the Imagination in the World of Peter Beagle," in Mythlore, Vol. 15, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 10-16.
[In the following essay, Pennington applies William Blake's philosophy of contraries to understand Beagle's work and its critical reception.]
"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence," writes William Blake in his radical and paradoxical The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a marriage that prompted C.S. Lewis to annul in The Great Divorce. In Blake's universe opposites attract and repel and inform one another. As Martin Nurmi explains;
A human world must be informed by opposed yet positive and complementary forces which, when allowed to interact without external restraint, impart to life a motion and a tension that make it creative.
This dialectic is extremely complex, for unlike Yin and Yang which separates light from dark, good from evil into balancing forces (a philosophy at the heart of many of Ursula Le Guin's fantasies and science fiction tales), Blake's philosophy encompasses contraries as simultaneous entities; these oppositions become the touchstone to the imagination and to creativity. Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake's most accessible work, is also structured upon...
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SOURCE: A review of The Innkeeper's Song, in Locus, September, 1993, pp. 23-4.
[In the review below, Wolfe compares The Innkeeper's Song to Beagle's earlier works and concludes that The Last Unicorn is Beagle's best fantasy but that The Innkeeper's Song is his best novel.]
A couple of months ago, Peter Beagle said in a Locus interview that The Last Unicorn might well go on dominating his work, and he's probably right: it became an instant classic for its grace, wit, complexity, and accessibility. It's not surprising that many readers, including myself, found 1987's The Folk of the Air a little thin by comparison with what we'd hoped for after such a long wait. By now, Beagle must certainly be accustomed to readers wanting another Unicorn, just as Woody Allen has to live with fans who want him to do more funny movies. His new novel, The Innkeeper's Song, is likely to confound everyone's expectations. Its basic premise—a war between two nearly all-powerful wizards—seems the stuff of supermarket fantasy, but it's a fantasy in the same way that Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is a western, and it draws the same kind of power from setting, character, and memory. The Last Unicorn may always be Beagle's best fantasy, but The Innkeeper's Song, based on an enigmatic song Beagle wrote some years ago, is his best novel....
(The entire section is 740 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Innkeeper's Song, in New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, p. 74.
[In the following favorable review, Jonas discusses The Innkeeper's Song, asserting that in Beagle's hands "even the most timeworn material shines again."]
As Webster's Third New International Dictionary confirms, the word "fantasy" has a long and honorable lineage. Its ancestry can be traced back to the Greek phantazein, "to make visible, present to the mind," which is derived from phaos, the Greek word for light, and akin to the Sanskrit bhati, "it shines." Sadly, most books marketed today under the label of fantasy do a disservice to this proud etymology. Instead of fresh wonders made visible, fantasy as a commercial genre has come to mean endlessly recycled adventures of sword-wielding heroes and spell-casting wizards, recounted in a pseudopoetic prose as dreary and predictable as the characters and settings. This makes the achievement of Peter S. Beagle in The Innkeeper's Song all the more remarkable. In his capable hands even the most timeworn material shines again.
Mr. Beagle, whose 1968 novel, The Last Unicorn, is something of a classic in the field, sets his story of love and loss in familiar territory—a preindustrial world in which the levers of power are manipulated, for good or ill, by people known as wizards or magicians....
(The entire section is 583 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Innkeeper's Song, in Analog, Vol. CXIV, No. 5, April, 1994, pp. 166-68.
[In the review below, Easton remarks favorably on The Innkeeper's Song.]
Peter S. Beagle is well known for beautifully crafted fantasies—think of The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air—that offer rather different takes on familiar themes. It is thus a great pleasure to find that he has produced a new novel, The Innkeeper's Song.
Beagle's numerous fans undoubtedly grabbed the book as soon as they saw it on the bookstore shelf. For those of you who resisted temptation but have been wondering whether those who succumbed got their money's worth, let me assure you they did.
The tale is constructed as if, many years later, its several characters are relating what happened to an interviewer, perhaps the novelist, perhaps the reader, perhaps just a stranger who has joined them at their table in the inn. Why are they talking? Well, perhaps someone sang the title song—
"There came three ladies at sundown:
one was as brown as bread is brown,
one was black, with a sailor's sway,
and one was pale as the moon by day."
—And they hinted that they were the ladies, the innkeeper, the potboy, the stableboy, or even...
(The entire section is 713 words.)
Gutcheon, Beth. Review of American Denim: A New Folk Art, by Peter S. Beagle and Baron Wolman. New York Times Book Review (18 January 1976): 6.
Describes Beagle's text that accompanies the photographs as entertaining, pertinent, and well-crafted.
Hicks, Granville. "Visit to a Happy Haunting Ground." Saturday Review XLIII, No. 22 (28 May 1960): 18.
Argues that while A Fine and Private Place is not a first rate work, it is well-written and engaging.
Miller, Faren. Review of The Innkeeper's Song, by Peter S. Beagle. Locus 31, No. 4 (October 1993): 59.
Describes The Innkeeper's Song as deeply moving and lyrical.
Review of The Garden of Earthly Delights, Peter S. Beagle. New York Times Book Review (20 June 1982): 31.
Considers Beagle's book a good introduction to the work of the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Olderman, Raymond M. "Out of the Waste Land: Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn." In Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, pp. 220-42. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.
(The entire section is 296 words.)