Peter S. Beagle is still going strong at age 78. The winner of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement is most famous for his 1968 novel The Last Unicorn. In his 34th book, The Overneath, Beagle shows that he hasn’t lost the playful and imaginative touch that made The Last Unicorn an international bestseller and delighted readers for more than half a century.
This short story collection features two tales (one previously published) about the early years of Schmendrick the Magician, the bumbling hero of The Last Unicorn. The young Schmendrick presented in these stories previews both the incompetence and the nobility that make the “last of the red-hot swamis” one of the most beloved characters in American fantasy. The self-aware apprentice appearing in “Green-Eyed Boy” sums up well the man he will become: “Others will learn what they must from glory—I from failure.” In “Shmendrick Alone,” the young “wizardlet” sets out after the end of his apprenticeship and quickly has cause to wonder whether he will survive his first day on his own.
In addition to reacquainting readers with the hero of The Last Unicorn, Beagle explores different mythologies of unicorns in three stories. “The Story of Kao Yu” features the Chinese, “some sort of mystical dragon-horse . . . considered one of the Four Superior Animals of good omen.” This creature, “while wondrously gentle, will suffer no least dishonesty in its presence, and while instantly gore to death anyone it knows to be guilty.” A judge named Kao Yu finds his job made much easier by the occasional appearance of a chi-lin . . . until he falls in love with a criminal.
In “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” Beagle presents the Middle Eastern Kardadann, “those terrible horned demons” that kill elephants. The story echoes Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse,” but quickly sheds the fable’s simple morality. A kind and naïve boy finds a wounded Karkadann, nurses it back to health and tries to tame it, with tragic results.
Beagle returns to the European unicorn in “Olfert Dapper’s Day,” but transplants it to Puritan New England. The story’s protagonist is Dr. Olfert Dapper, a real-life Dutch geographer who is said to have seen a unicorn in the Maine woods, despite never having stepped foot outside of the Netherlands. (It was actually Arnoldus Montanus who claimed to see a unicorn; Dapper translated Montanus’ work under his own name.) In this story, Beagle decides to make Dapper an inveterate con man (not necessarily a stretch) who flees to America and encounters a unicorn.
The collection’s title comes from “The Way It Works Out and All,” a tribute of sorts to fellow World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement laureate Avram Davidson (1923-1993). Beagle narrates the story as himself, as he struggles to solve the mystery of how the fictionalized Davidson manages to send postcards from all over the world in such a short span of time “that even the Flash would have had trouble hitting them all.” Davidson reveals that he is able to traverse the world in an instant through the Overneath, an overlapping plane of existence that allows for quick—if unreliable—transit between distant places. This is fun story, made more so by Beagle’s self-deprecating tone and alternatively flattering and teasing depiction of his late friend.
This story is representative of Beagle’s work here and elsewhere. His version of fantasy is a whimsical one, though he never descends into farce. He takes his characters seriously, even if the reader cannot help but chuckle at their misadventures. Peter S. Beagle’s charms have not worn off.