Peter Beagle

I was still experiencing the warm afterglow of Worldcon when I stopped by Fog City News a few weeks ago on my way home from work. It’s a little newsstand on Market that carries an amazing selection of chocolate bars as well as a very good selection of periodicals, including the big three genre magazines: Analog, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction. As always I needed something to read, but specifically I wanted the October-November issue of F&SF, which contains (among other gems) a new Peter Beagle novella called ‘El Regalo’.

I was picking it up because during the Best Books of 2005/2006 panel at the convention, Ellen Datlow or Gordon Van Gelder had recommended it as being superior even to Beagle’s recent Hugo winner Two Hearts. I purchased the magazine and a bar of chocolate, feeling like a schoolgirl, and was amused when an older gentleman approached me on the Muni platform to commend my taste in literature and tell me how much he loves Beagle’s work, his favorite being A Fine and Private Place

Beagle is a local author, but I first encountered his work long before I ever imagined I would live here. When I was around ten years old I watched the animated movie of The Last Unicorn at a friend’s house. Frankly, I don’t remember much of it… I think I recall the bull and the seafoam full of unicorns, but seeing the film did not prepare me for the intensity with which the book grabbed hold of me when I read it a few years later, and its images remain far sharper in my mind than anything the movie provided. Every character felt both real and mythical at the same time. The modern tone of the narration was also new to me in a work of fantasy, although later I would find it equally fascinating when I encountered it in T.H. White’s masterpiece The Once and Future King. The book was full of magic, poetry and awe but entirely devoid of pretension.

The Last Unicorn is Beagle’s most famous book by far, but the same sense of loss and nostalgia permeates his other works. One of the most beloved episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation was his work. In “Sarek” he brought back a character from the original series to tell a tale of loss of a different kind, with many of the themes being reminiscent of The Last Unicorn and even his recent Hugo winning novella ‘Two Hearts’.

Two of my favorites, A Fine and Private Place and Tamsin, are both about love after death, tragedy and humanity. Equally steeped in magic and tragedy is The Folk of the Air, which is sometimes uneven but very relevant to this column, since it takes place in a mythical version of Berkeley called Avicenna and features an alternate version of the SCA, The League for Archaic Pleasures—-in which true magical forces do battle. At the core of the book is the protagonist’s return to a place and people who have changed while he was gone. It is also about fandom, about finding the balance between keeping the magic alive and allowing it to consume you.

All this makes Beagle sound like a gloomy old man, which he is not. His work is full of humor and wonder as well. And those who enjoyed the poetry in The Last Unicorn will be interested to learn that he is also a musician. As an author he is more active than ever after spending some years delving into screenplay work. His legal dispute with Granada Television over their failure to pay any of his contractually due movie and merchandising profits may soon come to a resolution, hopefully in his favor.

Conlan Press and Tachyon Publications are both local publishers who are due praise for championing Beagle’s cause and putting out beautiful editions of his works. Tachyon Publications has just put out The Line Between, a collection often stories that was also recommended at the LACon IV panel where I heard about ‘El Regalo’, and which is on my to-be-purchased list; while Conlan Press has a lovely edition of Two Hearts with fantastic illustrations, and Beagle’s new memoir, ‘Writing Sarek’

~Espana Sheriff

SF/SF Issue 31, October 2006