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Telling Tales: Peter S. Beagle talks myths and memories

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WATERVILLE The story of 'The Last Unicorn' is legendary, garnering thousands of fans around the world for both the book and the animated movie of the same name. Nearly 50 years after the book was published and over 30 years since the motion picture first hit big screens, Peter S. Beagle, who penned the novel and screenplay, is touring the world along with the film. He was kind enough to speak with us in between stops on his tour, conducting a phone interview while driving through New England.

He found returning to New England to be a nice nostalgic trip.

'It's been enjoyable. I haven't been to New England for a very long time. I spent a lot of summers here and started working on The Last Unicorn,'' said Beagle, noting that he had spent a summer in Cheshire, Mass. with an old friend who was a painter.

'I started a new book. I hadn't the faintest idea it was about a unicorn. I associate the book very much with New England, even though I finished it in California,' he said. 'I'm very happy being here. There are so many memories and fragments of memories with Massachusetts especially, but also with Watertown, Massachusetts and Waterville, Maine.'

He noted that he had a residency at Gould Academy in Bethel and also spent time teaching writing at Colby College in Waterville.

'I haven't been back in a good 30 years or something like that. While I was there, I met a tall, shy, awkward girl named Robin McKinley ('The Blue Sword' and 'Beauty'). She's the nearest thing I have to a protg,' he said. He recalled telling her, 'You're very good. Don't let anyone tell you you're not good.'

Beagle's 'Last Unicorn' is a masterful blending of humor and melancholy. There is a deep sense of beauty and a profound sense of loss that pervades the entire work.

'You have to remember, I'm Jewish, and after World War II and the Holocaust that's just always been there. I like it when people comment on the humor, and I try to make sure I'm funny,' he said. 'It's a common theme in all civilizations Jewish, black, Irish the blues line When you see me laughing, I'm laughing to keep from crying.' And it was a Roman who said, I laugh so that I may not weep.' That's always been there.'

Though the book was written in a time when female characters in many fantasy books were sidelined or reduced to rewards for a protagonist, it was not so with Beagle, who gave fans two disparate and complex female characters in the Unicorn/Lady Amalthea and the plucky spinster Molly Grue, who acts as a moral compass throughout the book.

'I'm very proud of that. I've often said, No Molly, no story.' She was just suddenly there. I'll not have it, Cully, the soup's no thicker than sweat as it is,'' he said. 'The only thing I can say, really, is I grew up around strong women.'

Many hail the book as a masterpiece, and Beagle was protective of it when it was making the transition to film. He had great reservations about the animation studio Rankin & Bass.

'I didn't have much in the way of clout. Fantasy was not doing well at the box office then,' he said. When the deal was struck with Rankin & Bass, Beagle was less than enthusiastic. He told his friend who had brokered the deal, 'Why not go all the way to Hanna/Barbara. I disliked everything they had ever done. [His colleague] told me [Hanna/Barbara] was next nobody else wanted The Last Unicorn.''

He insisted on writing at least the first draft of the screenplay (something he found relatively easy in contrast to writing the book itself). The rest of the film came together so well, with the voice talents of Mia Farrow (Unicorn/Lady Amalthea), Christopher Lee (King Haggard) and Jeff Bridges (Prince Lir). Beagle liked who they picked as the musical director and the soundtrack.

'I didn't know how to deal with being pleased. When they showed me the movie privately, I didn't know how to react,' he said. 'The idea that they had made a good movie based on my work was almost more than I could take in Years later, I was watching the film and thought, Oh, my God, the thing's a bloody classic.'

Beagle noted that they are being courted for the rights for a live-action remake of 'The Last Unicorn.'

'For once, they're actually coming to us. We're hoping to make a deal with somebody and actually have some control,' he said. 'The fan base is so important and the film and book is so important we are being very careful to keep that control. As one friend said, This is the only shot you'll probably have at keeping on top of it. Be very, very careful.''

With 'The Last Unicorn' written nearly 50 years ago, fans of Beagle's work know he's got a long list of wonderful titles under his belt, including 'Tamsin,' 'The Innkeepers Song' and a great many more. An upcoming collection of short stories called 'The First Last Unicorn and Other Beginnings' is slated to be released soon.

'I think of it sort of as Beagle's Garage sale,'' he joked. 'It does have the first 85 pages I wrote in Cheshire (Mass.) In the earliest version of The Last Unicorn' there was a dragon that's how she (the Unicorn) finds out [her kind disappeared from the world]. It was set in the 20th century, and she finds out from a dragon who has had a hard time with the 20th century.'

That beginning became the genesis for 'Oakland Dragon Blues.'

Beagle is also working on a novel that features Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld who was carried off by Hades to be his wife and tricked into eating pomegranate seeds and returning for six months.

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 May 2015 19:37

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