Peter S(oyer) Beagle Critical Essays

Beagle, Peter S(oyer)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beagle, Peter S(oyer) 1939–

Beagle is an American novelist whose love of fable and fantasy is tempered with his concern for realism. As a creator of imaginative characters and plots, he has been compared with Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Peter S. Beagle's first novel, "A Fine and Private Place,"… is a fantasy on certain currently fashionable themes. Almost all the action takes place in a cemetery, and some of the principal characters are dead. One who isn't is a raven, a voluble and sardonic old bird, not Poe's melancholy symbol but Elijah's industrious benefactor. That Beagle, working with such materials, can engage the reader's interest is evidence of his literary skill….

The idea with which Beagle seems to have begun is that the distinction between living and not living is less than clear-cut. His concern is not with life after death but with death in life….

"A Fine and Private Place" may not be a work of the first importance, but it seems to me quite as important as many solemn and pretentious novels I have read. Beagle neatly avoids those pitfalls of the fantasist: sentimentality, coyness, and an air of profundity. He persuades the reader to play his game of make-believe, and then rewards him with an admirably sustained performance. For so young a writer, he is amazingly sure of himself, and it will be interesting to see what he writes next.

Granville Hicks, "Visit to a Happy Hunting Ground," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 28, 1960, p. 18.

[The Last Unicorn] is a fable,… as well as a fantasy. The unicorn is a symbol of the imagination, and King Haggard's country is an image of a world in which the imagination has been destroyed, a wasteland. Schmendrick represents the artist; recognizing his failures, he learns that the power he craves comes and goes according to its own laws and is not under his control. Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, which raises profound questions about illusion and reality, is a place most of us have visited in our dreams.

Further interpretations are possible, but to me the fantasy is what counts. As he has shown before, Beagle has extraordinary inventive powers, and they make page after page a delight. (pp. 21-2)

The book is rich not only in comic bits but also in passages of uncommon beauty. Beagle is a true magician with words, a master of prose and a deft practitioner in verse. He has been compared, not unreasonably, with Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien, but he stands squarely and triumphantly on his own feet. (p. 22)

Rochelle Girson, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 30, 1968.

Two things are certain about Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn: It will be added to the list of hippy-admired literature, along with Tolkien, Peake and Heinlein; but it will be received as a "second novel"—disappointing after the splendid first one, A Fine and Private Place.

The Last Unicorn fulfills the vogue of questing literature, enriched with "lore," arcane, occult, new-minted. It may refresh palates jaded by pornography and paradox. Certainly Beagle's sense of humor is subversive to the genre.

In the middle of a lyrical account of the last unicorn's search for her lost race, he creates a butterfly, mad as they all must be, remembering everything, knowing nothing, haunted by dreams of crawling things; a band of feckless robbers whose captain rationalizes that "Robin Hood is a myth … a classic example of the heroic folk-figure synthesized out of need"; and an inept magician with the almost unforgivable name of Schmendrick, who exhorts the unicorn: "You're in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no."

But figures of this sort, charming as they may be, are upsetting and distracting when they are switched in with contemporary, medieval and prehistoric references. Even the unicorn, immortal and perfect, seems to stand aloof and confused, waiting to get on with her mission.

The Last Unicorn is neither quite fairy tale, myth, dream or nightmare. But Peter S. Beagle is much too original and gifted to be contained by familiar forms. (p. 13)

Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1968 Postrib Corp.), April 7, 1968.

Peter S. Beagle's imagination went far afield in his whimsical first novel, A Fine and Private Place, published in 1960. There was much inventiveness, charm, and quirky beauty in individual scenes; the allegorical truth of the characters, their situations, developed leisurely, emanated naturally without violating the integrity of the fiction. Death, Beagle seemed to be saying, is life without feeling. A familiar enough admonishment, certainly, but I have never felt its authenticity quite in the same way.

To be sure, there were defects in this first novel…. But these instances were rare, and Beagle was, after all, only twenty-one years old.

Now, eight years later, in his second novel, The Last Unicorn, Beagle has blended fantasy and reality even more deftly, and has largely ironed out his previous stylistic difficulties….

[The] miraculous is juxtaposed with the mundane…. [The] fable on the stage is fused with the seemingly unfabulous existence of the audience. On the one hand, Beagle is saying that the same magic as there is in his tale exists in our sloganized lives. But to the cynics he may also be saying that if we think unicorns and wizards are unreal, we should examine the "verities" of our own lives….

Beagle's remarkable inventiveness in tangling his plot is equaled by the skill with which he unravels it.

Inevitably, critics have compared The Last Unicorn to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Beagle's book is less ambitious, yet it comes closer to poetry. While Tolkien's fine energy was largely directed at keeping the plot rolling, Beagle is interested in texture as much as structure: he meanders, embroiders, occasionally fusses too much with his palette, but usually manages to imbue his characters and situations with an incandescence as bright as the supernal glow of his unicorn's horn. The Last Unicorn is an exquisite little fable, no more—but certainly enough. (p. 447)

Harold Jaffe, in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 28, 1968.

Fantasy, while not to be despised in a mechanistic age largely denigrating if not rejecting old-fashioned humanistic ideals, must above all possess a sure touch and an unequivocal freshness if it is to carry any persuasiveness whatever. Mr. Beagle in an ambitious whirl at the genre seems to glance rather too often over his shoulder at the apparitions of many successful predecessors somewhat more expert than he, among them surely Donn Byrne, James Branch Cabell, and Robert Nathan. His themes are the typical ones of a quest and a journey, in [The Last Unicorn] by a threesome composed of a unicorn, a not always gifted magician, and a nebulous character, female, who might possibly be intended to represent Everywoman as part of a complicated and frequently obscure allegory. In company they traverse a waste land to reach a forbidding castle by the sea where live an Evil King, a Handsome Prince, and an all-powerful Red Bull. Mr. Beagle's story varies from moderately interesting to mildly dull. (p. xcvii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1968, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1968).

Beagle takes [an] implied sense of wonder and makes it the central concern of his work. Wonder has been so obscured by the profusion of deadening detail in contemporary life that it takes a "pure" fable to retrieve it. There is no black humor in The Last Unicorn because form and content are unified to help us see again the small happy mysteries of human life and the magic of the world—if we dream dreams of annihilation, we do also dream some happy dreams…. The Last Unicorn not only celebrates what Pynchon and Vonnegut and others would like to openly celebrate, it restores a certain needed balance. The answer to the question of whether or not ours is an age for unicorns records Beagle's awareness of that need for balance: "No," says a second hunter, ours is probably not a good age, "but I wonder if any man before us ever thought his time a good time for unicorns." (p. 221)

Beagle gives us a recognition of life's pains and sorrows, but only a symbolically ponderous threat of annihilation; he emphasizes, instead, the balance of caring and loving with a world of wonder…. [For] Beagle the move … is out of the waste land and into the magic of life, as in his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, where the main character literally moves out of a cemetery to rejoin the living…. Beagle hopes to revalue what we have seen too often—to revalue by making us see anew. The rediscovery of wonder in the world may ultimately be the best our decade can offer as a substitute for a truly accepted mythology to move us out of the waste land. The sixties seem ripe for such a rediscovery; Tolkien has been gobbled up with a great deal of enthusiasm, and the atmosphere of the late sixties in particular is filled with "flower children" and lectures on the false values that lead us to exist without wonder. Although we might expect it, Beagle's lovely fable is not a parody—it assumes a willingness to value things fresh and fragile and not necessarily sophisticated. Such an assumption is a sign of health. Not only does Beagle succeed, I believe, in unearthing our own enchantment with the world, but he does so with his eye constantly on what is vital to our age—and such a "relevant" rebirth for the reader is surely a portent that we can move beyond the waste land. (pp. 222-23)

The story of The Last Unicorn is the simple romance of a female unicorn's quest to release all other unicorns from the tyranny of the mysteriously powerful Red Bull. The unicorn is aided by Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lír. The quest involves an ultimate confrontation with King Haggard, father of Lír and keeper of the Red Bull, and a final battle with the Bull itself. Before that confrontation the unicorn is turned into the lovely Lady Amalthea by Schmendrick, and as the Lady gradually forgets her immortal nature, she and Prince Lír fall in love. The ending is, of course, a victory over Haggard and the Red Bull, and the unicorn's return to her nonhuman form. It is a magnificent romance with a sweetly sorrowful happy ending.

The meanings of the allegorical figures are—as in most twentieth-century allegory—widely suggestive rather than single objective manifestations of absolute divine Truth. Each figure contributes to an overall image of what it is to be human, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to be alive in a world of wonder. The unicorn herself is a dream of beauty, the kind of dream that makes humans wake weeping with a sense of human loss, and the knowledge of unbearable beauty…. She 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. When we learn to see the unicorn we will be healed and reborn and the world will be ripe again, as it is in the closing moments of the book. (pp. 223-24)

Beagle's moral—if we need to call it that—is clear; we live in a waste land because we choose to look at death, and have either forgotten how to see the world's wonder or, having seen it, grow haggard in trying to possess it, thereby losing our heart's desire in the having of it. And if that is not the moral, then this statement from the unicorn must be—something to keep in mind when faced with harpies or red bulls—"You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention." (p. 239)

Raymond M. Olderman, "Out of the Waste Land," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties (copyright © 1972 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 220-42.