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Celebrating Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is a master of the fantasy fiction genre, but his story lines set trends instead of following them, and his lyric voice gives his writing qualities that make his work beloved even by those who don’t normally gravitate to speculative fiction.

Beagle is best known for The Last Unicorn, and sadly for the somewhat average animated film more than the book itself. Beagle wrote the screenplay and then spent years in litigation trying to get the production company to pay his share of profits. There’s a twenty year gap in his publishing career where he spent most of his energies on screenwriting. Still, the book, dating back to 1968 is a classic quest, the most successful use of the title mythical creature in literature. If you only know the film, by all means seek out the book, which will startle you with its poetic use of language.

Beagle wrote his first book when he was only a teenager. A Fine and Private Place is a philosophical ghostly love story, comprised mostly of conversations between the ghost of a man trapped for 19 years in a mausoleum and a living woman who comes to the cemetery to visit her husband’s grave. Jonathan has fashioned himself into a kind of counselor for the newly dead, but recent happenings at the cemetery are changing that. There’s also a cheeky raven who provides some great comic relief.

My favorite Beagle novel is The Innkeeper’s Song, in which three strong and mysterious women, each plagued by different personal demons, come to the aid of the aging wizard who helped train them. The action is observed by Rosseth, a somewhat feckless boy who works as the assistant to innkeeper Karsh, and his innocent view of magic and grand happenings gives the book a real sense of wonder. Narration rotates between him and the other characters, and each is distinct, each is interesting. There’s a tragic love story of a young man pursuing his dead fiancee, a shape-changing fox, and a somewhat bewildering sex scene–a little bit of something for everybody.

My most recent encounter with Beagle was through We Never Talk about My Brother, a good example of the short stories to which much of his late career has been devoted. The title story vividly re-imagines the Bible’s Jacob and Esau story as a noir encounter between a news anchor who moonlights as the angel of death and his late-blooming country brother. There are also stories about a Jewish artist who obsessively paints a fallen angel; about an American librarian who morphs into the world’s last authentic Frenchman; a great anti-war story featuring the leader of a tiny but successful country who throws everything away;  a great story set in the world of Innkeeper’s Song; and “By Moonlight,” an encounter between an English highwayman and a fallen cleric who has spent his life trying to gain re-entry to the realm of Titania. “Spook” provides some comic relief, recounting a supernatural duel fought exclusively with bad poetry.

Beagle received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011, a nice capstone for a long and varied career. Beagle has also won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award, but he’s still relatively unknown to too many readers who would enjoy not only the works mentioned here, but also many of his other stories and novels.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Celebrating Peter S. Beagle"

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  1. Great post. I haven’t read any Beagle works yet, I plan to start with The Innkeeper’s Song!

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