Thursday, January 10, 2008

Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn
by Peter S. Beagle
Recommended Age: 12+

It would be a shame if adults reading this review noted the "12+" age recommendation and decided this book wasn't for them. This is a book adults may appreciate on a level only an exceptional 12-year-old can grasp. In fact, it is a book to be loved, revisited, shared, and savored in the mouth like a favorite poem read aloud, even if you read without moving your lips. As one who appreciates the writer's craft, I am moved by excellence when I see it. And since the story itself is very moving, I floated through this book on a sea-swell of emotion. The last time a single story made me cry so much in proportion to its length, it was Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major. I don't mind acknowledging a kinship between them. Both are tales about a farewell to a kind of magic in the world, and both are told with elegance and eloquence.

The Last Unicorn is now a classic tale. I wish I could have witnessed the impact it made when it first came out in 1968. It is the tale of a beautiful, immortal creature - less like a horse with a horn on its head than you would think - who, one day, realizes that she may be the last of her kind. Regretfully, she leaves her sheltered wood and goes out into the world to seek her kind, or word of their fate. She finds a world where men have forgotten to believe in her, where most cannot see her for what she is, and where some who do recognize her mean her ill.

The unicorn's quest takes her through captivity in an evil witch's freak show, companionship with a hopeless wizard named Schmendrick, collision with a band of merry men who aren't really so merry, and connection with a past-her-prime Maid Marian type (named Molly Grue) whose first words to the unicorn are a heart-wringing reproach: "Where have you been?" But the main part of the quest involves a wicked king, a cursed castle, a lovesick prince, and a terrifying creature called the Red Bull.

If you look close, you can learn a lot from what Beagle does. He never says the expected thing in the expected way. He chooses descriptive words that appeal to different senses than what we would automatically focus on, resulting in such phrases as "furry black wine" and "the little cat's random fur." Occasionally, he even seems to disregard the proper meaning of a word, as if choosing it for its musical effect. His every phrase, sentence, and paragraph seems to be crafted with a poet's sensibility, with alliteration, assonance, and all the other devices that make a story seem just as close to being sung as spoken. To be sure, there are occasional moments where an ear for literal sense rebels against this impressionistic language; for example, after seeing him use the word "betimes" in two very different books, I doubt that Beagle thinks it means what I think it means. On the other hand, did I mention that the book's beauty made me weep?

by Peter S. Beagle
Recommended Age: 14+

Jenny Gluckstein of New York City does not seem, at first, to be a very likely heroine. In fact, the early chapters of her first-person account show her to be somewhere between pitiful and repulsive. Almost the least pleasant thing about her is the fight she puts up when her divorced mother announces she is getting remarried and moving to England to live with Evan and his two boys, and taking Jenny with her. Even as unsympathetic as Jenny is, it is hard not to sympathize with her plight, particularly when the sudden new family gets its first look at their new home: a run-down old manor house on a ruined Dorset farm.

But soon, Jenny has too many things to do to spare time for being nasty. She has to find her place at a new school like none she has attended before; she forms instant relationships with her stepbrothers; she gets a new best friend; and she is drafted into the workforce of an old farm that is trying to become new again. But the biggest distraction of all is the night life in and around the house, ranging from a boggart, a billy-blind, and giggling voices under the bathtub, to things even greater and, in some cases, more sinister, that live in the fields and the woods.

Jenny's biggest secret has to do with ghosts -- 300-year-old ghosts left over from the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes. In particular, Jenny befriends Tamsin Willoughby, the lovely daughter of the farm's founder. Tamsin "stopped" (living, that is) at age 20, and at first her memory about the circumstances of her death is pretty vague. But ghosts are nothing if they are not memory, and unlocking the truth of what happened 300 years ago is the key to setting Tamsin free. A Pooka (if you have to ask, read the book) tells Jenny that she is the only one who can help Tamsin through this perilous time. And what, you might ask, can imperil a ghost? Well, how about the ghost of the Lord Chief Justice Baron Jeffreys of Wem, a.k.a. "the hanging judge," who did a lot worse than hang people. George Jeffreys is actually a historic person; wiki him for yourself, and perhaps you will see why an old man tells Jenny:
"You can't imagine him. You can't imagine what he did here. The Irish still damn each other with the Curse of Cromwell, because of the terrible way he drove them off their land, and the thousands and thousands who were killed when they resisted. We in Dorset could call down the Curse of Jeffreys on our enemies, but we never would - no one could deserve that, and it's no name to be conjuring with."
A right vile villain he makes, too, 300 years dead or no.

Anyone fond of British folklore about the bogey-creatures who live in attics, gardens, and woods, will enjoy this tale featuring everything from a Pooka to the Wild Hunt. This book may appeal especially to fans of The Dark Is Rising series and spine-tingling ghost stories best read well before bedtime.

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