Peter S. Beagle Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."