Peter S. Beagle, who turns eighty on Saturday, has behind him a six-decade career as a novelist, and is still writing. A native of the Bronx with literary aspirations, who was born into a family of Jewish artists and rubbed elbows with Ken Kesey, Beagle, as Michael Weingrad puts it, “could have ended up an American Jewish novelist trailing belatedly after Saul Bellow and Philip Roth or an occasional surrealist like Bernard Malamud or Cynthia Ozick, an observer of and sometime participant in the counterculture.” But while he experimented in a number of genres, Beagle stands out from this group by writing several works of fantasy, most importantly the 1968 The Last Unicorn, for which he is best known. Weingrad comments on this book’s subtle, but inescapable, Jewish themes, which go far beyond the fact that one of its main characters is a wizard named Schmendrick:
[In this novel] Beagle does not ironize evil; he treats it mythically. He introduces villains, above all the Red Bull, an implacable, destructive force that has been unleashed against the unicorns. Beagle’s depiction of the [titular] unicorn’s melancholy quest for the rest of her kind borders on secular post-ḥasidic parables of God discovering what has become of His Jews in the wake of the Shoah. “Wherever she went,” Beagle writes, “she searched for her people, but she found no trace of them.”
Though the novel cannot be reduced to allegory, its language is infused with suggestive parallels to God and the Six Million. The unicorn repeatedly refers to the other unicorns as her “people.” “How terrible it would be,” she says ominously, “if all my people had been turned human by well-meaning wizards—exiled, trapped in burning houses. I would sooner find that the Red Bull had killed them all.”
Beagle’s unicorn resembles a god who has been living apart from the world. When the unicorn leaves her timeless forest, she enters into history and is shocked and saddened by what she discovers, not least that human beings are no longer able to recognize her. “There has never been a world in which I was not known,” she muses, surprised when a farmer takes her for an ordinary mare.