Uncle Fox

I first read the Last Unicorn in nineteen sixty nine, shortly after it was published. This was a heady time for many people (I know, I know. I just can’t stop it.) I had discovered the world of J.R.R. Tolkien three years earlier and completely immersed myself in his imagination. Peter wrote the introduction to the Tolkien Reader - the logical next step for me, after the trilogy - in his inimitable style, with the fond affinity of a fan: “Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.” Or words to that effect.

Memory is the first thing to go, at least with me. Something impelled me to pursue this further, and my kindly Grady High librarian pressed a copy of The Last Unicorn into my adolescent hands.

I was gone, without a trace. My mom actually read both The Lord of the Rings and The Last Unicorn, in what I suspect was a hopeless attempt to understand what was happening inside my head.

The Last Unicorn tells a story of the search for the remainders of her kind by the last - while in her native shape - single horned being. Aided and abetted by a bumbling magician - perfectly named Schmendrick - and a shrew-like scullery maid called Molly Grue, they trek to the castle of King Haggard who has trapped the unicorns with his pet Red Bull. When the blind Bull smells this particular unicorn, he pursues her until she is cornered. In the first taste of the power he has been promised, Schmendrick changes her into a mortal woman, in which the Bull has no cognizance or interest. Haggard appears with his illegitimate son Lir, and the three seekers are taken into the castle and captivity where the story unfolds. The unicorn as woman - named Lady Amalthea, by Schmendrick - eventually liberates her kind, with assistance from a skull and a cat. And at last by a true magician, though nothing turns out at all like you expect.

There is a coda to this adult fairy tale that I have read, and will be published soon. There’s an audio book, too. See:     http://www.conlanpress.com/

Anyway, these books comprised my inner universe - the only one I truly inhabited - for my formative years (read: up until right now.) From here on I was a hostage, and searched out previous opuses from my new imaginary friend: Peter’s first novel - A Fine and Private Place: a whimsical tale of a man who can no longer cope with the outside world and lives in a mausoleum in Yorchester Cemetary, conversing with ghosts and a brilliantly profane raven. His second effort, an autobiographical memoir about a cross country journey by motor scooter with his friend Phil Sigunick, was entitled I See by My Outfit (Does anybody other than I remember The Streets of Laredo, and the Smother’s Brothers brilliant parody?). I loved the fact that Beagle was obviously a guitar player: he saw the world through a lens that mirrored my own, with biological references abounding, and a truly bent sense of humor. And his detailed, eidetic imagery opened spacious new vistas for my voracious reading which was beginning to include works by Carl Sagan and John Lilly on my left (hemispheric and political), and Mark Twain and James Thurber on my (hemispheric) right.

It was a long time between novels, I would discover. The review I most appreciated about the next book read: “Peter Beagle is not the most prolific author in the fantasy genre. He is simply the best.” The review in question was for The Folk of the Air, which reprises Farrell - protagonist from a short story entitled Lila the Werewolf - in a gentle lampoon of the Society for Creative Anachonism, aliased here as The League for Archaic Pleasures. Farrell visits his friend Ben, who occasionally transforms into or is possessed by the Viking warrior Egil Eyvindssen, and lives with the sorceress Anastasia (Sia). Rosanna Berry, a misfit adolescent who becomes the witch Aiffe, summons the devil, in this incarnation monikered Nicholas Bonnor. Beagle leads us surely by the hand through this world he has created, which seems to have always been there.

The intervening time was spent raising a family; writing screenplays for the animated films The Last Unicorn and The Lord of the Rings; several Disney projects, and Star Trek: the Next Generation; turning Lila the Werewolf into an opera, and paying the bills.

The Innkeepers Song was approximately ten years writing, and possibly gestating for decades. The song predates the book, and was in fact the inspiration. Told from each of the various perspectives of the multitudinous characters in the story, it spins the tale of young Tikat’s search for the love he has seen drown, risen again and spirited away. Possibly my favorite - although you will notice I say that about every book Peter has written - my wife Mary’s inscription on this gift reads ‘All my songs are of you’. The dazzling array of characters includes Karsh, the innkeeper; Rosseth, the stable boy; sailor Lal, one of the three amazing...women characters; the warrior Nyatenari, second of the three; the damsel Lukassa - Tikat’s drowned love - the third; and the wizard, known variously as the man who laughs and My Friend. The fox is Beagle’s omnipresent anthropomorph.

At this chronological point - pre Christmas, nineteen eighty nine - my amazing wife Mary (you may note ‘my amazing wife’ is legally part of her name) wrote Peter a letter. Which read - and this is obviously the Cliff’s Notes - My husband Cal just about worships you! It would make his life if you would send him a Christmas card. Which he obligingly enough did, despite the facts A) he does not subscribe to that particular mythology, and B) he hates the holidays, like nothing you can imagine. Typically, it took me the better portion of a year to summon the courage to write back, and a stuttering correspondence began. One evening I returned home from work and Mary greeted me with an incandescent smile, bursting with anticipation. “There’s a message for you on the answering machine,” she urged, barely able to contain her excitement. I punched the play button, and Peter’s rich, sonorous voice emerged:

Hi Cal, this is Peter Beagle. I have moved, and I didn’t want you to think I had disappeared. I’m now in Davis, California. I’m in the phone book, but the number is...” I was slack-jawed, and my first thought was This must be some elaborate practical joke. Eventually I summoned the chutzpah to call him, and we talked easily for an hour, mostly about music. “I’m so glad to be away from Seattle,” he told me.

Taken aback, I asked “Why is that? I always heard Seattle was this wonderful place to live.”

Several moments of silence passed as he considered his reply. “Well...living in Seattle is like living with a beautiful woman....who is sick all the time. People tan in California - they rust in Seattle.

Rumor has it he is working on a visitor’s guide to that city.


Some time later Peter told me he would be in Miami, speaking at the World Opera Guild’s annual convention, through his previously mentioned association with Lila the Werewolf. Would it be possible to make it down there and meet?

Does the pope shit in the woods?

He began the process of re-educating me concerning Chet Atkins, to whom I was first introduced by my Uncle Bud, and then Tommy Emmanuel. This cross pollination would bear fruit in 2000 when he and I would meet in Nashville for the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society annual convention.

Tamsin is Beagle’s most recent offering, as of this writing - a phrase you will become tired of, I fervently hope. Told from the viewpoint of twelve year old Jenny from New York City, the tale moves to the English countryside and a darker, much older world. Inhabited by ghosts, demons, native New Yorkers and other mythological creatures, it spins the story of the the hundred year old ghost of Tamsin Willoughby who yearns for justice and release.

And finally updated, A Dance for Emelia is a short novel/long novella about the loss of a good friend. I don’t think there’s anything else to say - just this ongoing story to which I will add as the fit takes me.

For All We Know is the only book I can think of since I See by My Outfit that contains Beagle’s own character, even aliased. More appropriately, For All We Know portrays Beagle as he is currently. If he can find an editor bright enough to realize Peter understands the craft of writing better than his editor, we may get to see this in print. Eventually, entitled Summer Long, I am told it will appear before this year is over.

Notice I don’t mention what year this is.


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