[(essay date February 1975) In the following essay, Becker explores Beagle's manipulation of time and space.]
In Peter Beagle's first novel, A Fine and Private Place, Jonathan Rebeck, the hero, has lived surreptitiously in a New York cemetery for nineteen years, aided by a talking raven who steals food for him from local stores. Rebeck would rather be dead, like the ghosts he talks with until they forget and fade from life. The kind and sociable Rebeck has become a reluctant teacher of the newly dead; he tells the ghosts Michael and Laura: "You'll drowse . . . . In time sleep won't mean anything to you . . . . it won't really matter." But Michael, a suicide who values life now that his is over, rejects the somnolent peace of Rebeck's art of dying, and he tells Laura to fight back--as he does--to remember the feeling of being alive: "Caring about things is much more important to the dead because it's all they have to keep them conscious. Without it they fade, dwindle, thin to the texture of a whisper. The same thing happens to people, but nobody notices it because their bodies act as masks. The dead have no masks."
These passages illustrate Beagle's concern with the problems of human existence that give his fantasy worlds force and coherence, but they do not fully convey the comic, inventive and richly particular texture of his writing. Nor do they fully reveal the ironic nature of Beagle's fantasy, which involves the reader's consciousness of space and time, of the real and the imaginary in fiction. Both A Fine and Private Place (published in 1960, the year Beagle turned twenty-one) and The Last Unicorn (1968) have talking animals as characters. But the animals are not merely delights of fantasy; they are the fantasist's technique for exploring the nature of reality in the modern world. The raven who brings Rebeck food, for instance, is a testy and tough-talking pragmatist, whose contempt for illusion is modified only by his need to preserve dignity. After grouchily delivering Rebeck a whole baloney, he says, "There are people . . . who give and people who take . . . . Ravens don't feel right without somebody to bring things to . . . . You think we brought Elijah food because we like him? He was a dirty old man with a beard."
In the first chapter of The Last Unicorn, the Unicorn leaves her forest of eternal spring to search for others like herself: she meets a butterfly, who says, "I am a roving gambler. How do you do?" From this zany acquaintance she gets the first help in her quest. The butterfly's disjointed conversation flutters with snatches of poetry, popular songs, and commercial slogans: "The sweet and bitter fool will presently appear. Christ, that my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again . . . . You can find your people if you are brave . . . ....