Study Guide

Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle Essay - Critical Essays

Beagle, Peter S.

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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."

Criticism

Edmund Fuller (review date 5 June 1962)

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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Benedict Riely (review date 24 March 1968)

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....

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Granville Hicks (review date 30 March 1968)

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 entire section is 629 words.)

David Van Becker (essay date February 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 5094 words.)

Don Parry Norford (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 5129 words.)

David Stevens (essay date Fall 1979)

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 entire section is 3717 words.)

Jean Tobin (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 4095 words.)

Gerald Jonas (review date 18 January 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Suzy McKee Charnas (review date 1 February 1987)

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.

...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Charles de Lint (review date April 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Colin Greenland (review date 20 November 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

John Pennington (essay date Summer 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 6107 words.)

Gary K. Wolfe (review date September 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Gerald Jonas (review date 14 November 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Tom Easton (review date April 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 713 words.)