Posted by: Mish | June 13, 2010

The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle

Under the binding of the Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle are the novels “the Last Unicorn” and “A Fine and Private Place” and two short stories, “Come, Lady Death” and “Lila, the Werewolf”. Each is different from the others, showing Beagle’s range in storytelling, writing styles, developing sophisticated characters, and genres. A writer of distinction, he has been compared to Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Contrary to what the title implies, one doesn’t need to be a fantasy fan to appreciate the collection or Beagle’s writing.

Notably, “A Fine and Private Place” was Beagle’s first novel, written at the age of 19. Centered around a mausoleum, a recluse who has given up on life lives among ghosts who regret their deaths. Its wit, charm, sadness, beauty, insight, and writing make it a fine and memorable piece of literary fiction and is definitely worth revisiting. Did I mention he was 19? It was published shortly after in 1960 and is considered a modern classic.

“The Last Unicorn” follows the Unicorn’s journey to discover what happened to the others of her kind. During her quest, she encounters some colorful characters like a riddling butterfly, a magician who isn’t very good at his trade, and a fiery bull. It’s an entertaining story for children and adults alike and one of Beagle’s most acclaimed works. Thanks to the animated film in 1982, it’s also one of his most famous, even if viewers don’t know his name or that it was first published in 1968. As usual, the adaptation omitted some of the story, including the book’s end.

Jane Austen was channeled for “Come, Lady Death”, in which a widow who is tired of the same old parties invites Death to her masquerade ball. It’s a humorous spin on life’s futility and social superficiality. The well done short story was really amusing.

In “Lila the Werewolf”, Joe finds out there’s more to his new girlfriend than meets the eye. Some readers may really like the gothic fantasy, but I thought it bordered between okay and good. It just wasn’t my type.

The Last Unicorn‘s movie captivated my imagination countless times in my youth so it was fun reading the original as an adult. I’m glad I got to read it along with some of Beagle’s other works. I’ll certainly be reading more by the engaging, fantastic storyteller. I blurbed about Beagle and his fantasy worlds last year for SF/F Writers Day, but felt they deserve more than that. With something for everyone, the 430-page collection is a fine edition to anyone’s library.

From “A Fine and Private Place”:

  • “All lives are composed of two basic elements, purpose and poetry. By being ourselves, squirrel and raven, we fulfill the first requirement, you in flight and I in my tree. But there is poetry in the meanest of lives, and if we leave it unsought we leave ourselves unrealized. A life without food, without shelter, without love, a life lived in the rain- this is nothing beside a life without a poetry” (283).
  • “When I was eighteen or twenty, I knew everything except what I wanted. I knew all about people, and poetry, and love, and music, and politics, and baseball, and history, and I played pretty good jazz piano. And then I went traveling, because I felt that I might have missed something…and the older I grew, and the farther I traveled, the younger I grew and the less I knew” (296).
  • “Man searches constantly for identity, he thought as he trotted along the gravel path. He has no real proof of his existence except for the reaction of other people to that fact. So he listens very closely to what people say to one another about him, whether it’s good or bad, because it indicates that he lives in the same world they do, and that all his fears about being invisible, impotent, lacking some mysterious dimension that other people have are groundless” (329).
  • “Even when you admit that you know every line in the play and every song that will be sung, even when you know that this evening spent with friends is pleasant and joyful because you remember it as pleasant and joyful and wouldn’t change it for the world, even when you know that anything you feel for these good friends has no more reality than a dream faithfully remembered every night for a thousand years- even then it goes on. Even then it has just begun” (350).
  • “Dreams never needed you to remind them that they existed- it was always the other way around” (406).
  • “You carry the world with you, wherever you go, like a turtle. You yourself are soft, naked, shapeless tissue, but you carry the hard shell of the world to protect your back and belly. All men carry the world on their backs, wherever they go” (409).


  1. Despite knowing of Peter S. Beagle and hearing praise from bloggers for years, I have yet to read any of his novels. I have read a handful of his short stories and, if memory serves, I have strongly liked each and every one of them. All of these novels sound like ones I would enjoy and I really should get around to reading them sometime. At the moment I have a short story chapbook of his that I should try to get to soon.

  2. Thanks for this, Mish. I had never heard of Peter Beagle before, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I like to read to my daughters, or the Unicorn one does, at any rate. And I would get to read the rest to myself!

  3. Carl: I think so too and would like to hear about the chapbook. Beagle is one of the better short story writers I’ve read. That reminds me, when people say they don’t like shorts because they’re poorly developed, to point them to Beagle’s.

    Sarah: The Last Unicorn would be fun for y’all. Getting to read the rest, is a definite bonus.

  4. Here is a link to where Lisa Snellings, the cover artist and creative mind behind these books, sells the Beagle chapbook, Strange Roads:

  5. Ooh…I might have to get that. Thanks.

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