The Easton Press
||Masterpieces of Fantasy
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||Penquin Books USA Inc.
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|The Last Unicorn is one of the true classics of fantasy, ranking with Tolkien's The Hobbit, Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Beagle writes a shimmering prose-poetry, the voice of fairy tales and childhood:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician--whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended--when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his unmerry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.
This is a book no fantasy reader should miss; Beagle argues brilliantly the need for magic in our lives and the folly of forgetting to dream. --Nona Vero
|THE SUBJECT IS FANTASY.
Last time we looked into the other side of the mirror, I suggested that fantasy takes place in the worlds of "make believe" and "what if" and that our first response is intuitive: we know it when we see it. We open a book, and there it is, as Keats wrote in his "Ode to a Nightingale":
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
But what is it we see, and how do we know it?
What we recognize today as fantasy started in pre-literate days as myth. Myth is a collection of anonymous stories that have their origins in the folk-beliefs of races or nations; myth offers supernatural explanations for the natural world that fit a group's concept of what it means to be human or how and why the universe began, and the place of humanity in it. Myths survive today, however, not as belief-systems but as stories and as images imbedded in the language. We speak, as Erik Rabkin has pointed out in his Fantastic Worlds, "of Herculean feats and Procrustean beds and the Oedipus complex."
Rabkin believes that myth develops into folktales, as a culture begins consciously shaping its myths. Folktales are offered first as enter tainment and only secondarily as explanation; they are clearly manmade.
Some familiar stories get surrounded by narrative conventions aimed at particular audiences. The fairy tale, for instance, offers a set of recognizable conventions directed at children. Sometimes, when those conventions are shaped in an artistic fashion, a familiar story can be re-imagined for another audience - a children's story for adults, for instance.
Rabkin sees myth, folktale, and fairy tale forming "a sliding scale along which the stories become more conventionalized, the audience becomes more limited, the teller becomes more sophisticated, the truth value becomes more symbolic and less literal, but in all of which the issues remain the same."
After the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Age of Science, supernatural explanations for the way things are became less necessary and less plausible. The literature of the Industrial Revolution and its emerging middle class was realism, and, in particular, the realistic novel, which portrayed the changing world in pragmatic terms and offered the middle class instruction in how to behave, the way myths and folktales provided lessons for children.
Rather than performing a social function like myth, modern fan tasy may be anti-social. The Austrian critic Franz Rottensteiner has written that "modern fantasy is a reaction to industrial society and its pressures . . . It is not chance that this kind of fantasy arose in nineteenth-century England, the country that first felt the full pres sure of industrialization; that its main practitioners, whether Morris, Lord Dunsay, C. S. Lewis, E. R. Eddison, or J. R. R. Tolkien, all profoundly disliked their own time; or that this literature reached its greatest popularity in the scientifically and industrially most advanced country on Earth (the US) and then spread from there to foreign countries. Modern fantasy is a literature for a discontented city population. . .
The Gothic romance, with its haunted castles and supernatural apparitions, sprang up in the middle of the eighteenth century, beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764. After the turn of the nineteenth century, the Gothic novel drew upon the sciences to nurture early science fiction, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). By the end of that century, authors such as George MacDonald and William Morris deliberately tried to evoke an earlier era with their fairy tales and magical romances. At about the same time, Bram Stoker was writing Dracula and the ghost story was becoming popular; such narratives brought the supernatural into everyday life to evoke emotions of awe or terror at the unseen or the unknown, or even, some times, at what lurked in the subconscious mind.
Otherworldly fantasy was created early in the twentieth century, as David Pringle has pointed out in Modern Fantasy, by authors such as "Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, David Lindsay and - in America - by James Branch Cabel, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith." That eventually led to Tolkien and the world of the Hobbits, and in the U.S. to Robert E. Howard and Conan's Hyperborea.
And they, in turn, to the great boom in modern fantasy, which up to the 1960s was a minor publishing category. In the 1960s new possibilities emerged from rival U.S. paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings, from the book versions of Conan retrieved and edited by L. Sprague de Camp, from Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, from the first paperback editions of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery stories, and, as Pringle notes, from two books issued in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn.
BEAGLE WAS BORN in New York City in 1939 and earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pittsburgh twenty years later. While still a student he was writing A Fine and Private Place, which got published while he was studying at Stanford University in 1960- 61. In The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle (1978), he recalled writing his first novel at the age of nineteen about a real cemetery in the Bronx. He wrote it sitting in his dormitory room, trying to type softly at two in the morning. He also commented that there were only two important things to know about his fiction: that he is a born hider who cultivates an air of guileless candor; and that he has always been a singer, even a writer and public performer of songs. Of course he also says that he is "an old professional liar" and nothing he says is to be trusted.
But Beagle's most remarkable aspect may be that at the age of 28 he published one of the fantasy novels that helped turn a generation into readers of fantasy. The Last Unicorn is a modern fairy tale - that is, it takes the characters and narratives of classic children's stories and adapts them for adult reading by adding real-world sensibilities, while retaining their appeal to children. It is also, in a sense, meta-fantasy - that is, it comments about the nature of fantasy and fairy tales while it is spinning its web of enchantment. It discusses the nature of unicorns and magicians and heroes while telling stories about them, and mixes categories with abandon.
Schmendrick the magician, for instance, is inept, but he is the uni corn's only chance. Schmendrick tells the imprisoned unicorn that the magic on her is only magic and can be removed, but "the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream."
Prince Lir, the hero of the story, tries to win the Lady Amaithea by killing dragons and rescuing maidens in distress. The novel observes at one point that Lir "knew how to make [women] stop crying - generally you killed something." It also notes that adven tures are good for the constitution: that Lir's "adventures had made him much handsomer and taken off a lot of weight." It is this combination of the fantastic juxtaposed with the commonplace that gives The Last Unicorn its unique flavor.
At another point, the entrance of a band of outlaws brings in comparisons to Robin Hood and his Merry Men - literally brings them in. And the outlaws themselves turn out to be trapped in roles. In fact, throughout the novel the characters get caught up in the roles they are required to play, thus asking readers to consider the story-telling process while they enjoy the story.
The magic is that it works. The reason it works is Beagle's sor cery with words, and the wit and wisdom slipped into the narrative as delicately as butterfly wings. There are talking animals, too, and all sorts of fantastic creatures. And revelations about all of them, such as the fact that unicorns cannot have human emotions.
An animated film version of The Last Unicorn was produced in 1982, with a screenplay by Beagle. Beagle has written other screen plays, including one for an animated version of The Lord of the Rings: Part One; The Dove; and The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened. He has also written an opera libretto, The Midnight Angel. His other novel is The Innkeeper's Song, published in 1993.
He has written nonfiction: I See by My Outfit (1964), The California Feeling (1969), The Lady and Her Tiger (1976, with Pat Derby), and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1982), and he has written for the Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post.
But, as Beagle has admitted, The Last Unicorn is the book by which people know him: "it will probably haunt the rest of my career, as The Crock of God came to haunt James Stephens." It may haunt readers as well. The last unicorn, happy in her forest, with her magic pool, can live forever, bringing joy and peace to her little part of the world. But she risks everything on the mere chance that she can find her lost fellows and rescue them. Readers who venture into the pages of Beagle's novels must take their chances, like the unicorn, of losing their hearts forever.