The Way Home by Peter S. Beagle
This is a glorious month for Peter S. Beagle fans, with The Way Home (2023) offering up two novellas set in the same world as The Last Unicorn, and not one but two retrospective collections of stories: The Essential Peter S. Beagle: Volumes I and II. Even better, one of those two novellas is brand new and serves to show that Beagle remains one of our most elegant of fantasists.
The Way Home begins with “Two Hearts”, a previously published novel that offers up a bittersweet (and who would expect anything else from Beagle) coda to the beloved classic The Last Unicorn. Here we meet the young girl Sooz, whose village is being terrorized by a griffin who has recently taken up residence in the woods nearby and that as moved on from preying on animals to the villagers’ children. The king responds to the village’s request for help by by sending first a single knight, then five, then an entire squadron. None return from facing the griffin and, as Sooz says, “after that, the village didn’t send to the king anymore. We didn’t want more of his men to die, and besides they weren’t any help.” Sooz however, has a different idea — why have the king send men when King Lir, the great hero, can just come himself.
And so she runs away to seek out the king’s castle. Along the way, she (luckily) runs into two old friends for fans of The Last Unicorn: Molly Grue and Schmendrick the Magician. They agree to escort her to the king but warn her that “The king’s a good man, and an old friend, but it has been a long time, and kings change. Even more than other people, king’s change.” The many years have indeed not been kind to the king, who is worn down and forgetful (I have to confess as well that realizing how long ago it had been since I first read The Last Unicorn made Lir’s years feel heavy on this reader as well). But at the mention of a new quest and a reminder of his great love the unicorn, he rouses himself one more time against the protestations of those who wish him to stay old and safe and dying in the castle until the end of his days. I won’t say what happens on this last quest save to say it is all that could happen. A perfect ending, albeit an ending. But also more, as Sooz bears witness to. A story of hope then heartbreak and hope again. It’s Beagle at the height of his powers.
The second novella, “Sooz” picks up years later on Sooz’s seventeenth birthday, and this time the quest belongs to Sooz herself as she must journey into the lands of the Fae in search of her lost sister, but also in search of herself as well, making this a coming-of-age story in addition to a quest tale. This is in many ways a darker story where tragedy and victory, grief and joy, loss and friendship are all intermingled. As are life and death, a fact made clear early on via the animals on the farm, with Sooz holding and stroking three new goat kids birthed the night before, followed later in the day by her observation that she “hates the hogs. I hate the sounds they made when they ate, and the sounds they made when they knew they were going to be slaughtered.” As in “Two Hearts,” Sooz meets strangers on the road, but while the second encounter involves a stone woman who becomes Sooz’s traveling companion, the first is a rape scene, one that is no less difficult to read despite its brevity and lack of gratuitous detail.
This is the way of these strange lands, full of a strange and dangerous beauty that is both dream and nightmare. Beagle’s language in this section is richly, often surreally lyrical, but lyrical in Beagle’s world does not mean beneficent – the poetic can describe horror and evil just as it can beauty and compassion. The Otherlands are truly “other”, and humans will never feel at home there even as they marvel at what they see there.
Many of the same themes of “Two Hearts” are present here as well: the way death haunts everything all the time; how life brings with it both joy and sorry, the warming comfort of memory and the biting bitterness of regret, as when Sooz recalling leaving her father behind tells us “I still regret not having looked back at him when I walked out of the house where I had lived my all my life. I should have looked back. It hurts me still that I didn’t turn my head.” The end of “Sooz hurts as well. But also heals. Few do the “hopeful ache” (or perhaps the aching hope) like Beagle. Sooz says at one point, “You can’t forget the ones who change you always,” and while it’s meant in a different context, the line can refer as well to Beagle himself, who has certainly through his writing in some small way changed those of us lucky enough to have met his words long ago.