“Overneath” by Peter S. Beagle

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I’ve been a fan of Peter S. Beagle’s work ever since I read The Last Unicorn, a cheerfully bittersweet examination of life and fairy tales. I also enjoyed In Calabria, Beagle’s more recent take on unicorns. However, aside from a short sequel to The Last Unicorn, I hadn’t read any of Beagle’s shorter fiction. Overneath is a collection Beagle’s short stories, some previously published and some new to this volume. It’s a great introduction to Beagle’s fiction.

The two stories likely to receive the most attention are “The Green-Eyed Boy” and “Schmendrick Alone,” prequels to The Last Unicorn focused on Schmendrick the wizard. The first is told from the point of view of Schmendrick’s master, Nikos. It’s an interesting attempt to retcon what we know of Nikos from the novel, depicting him forgiving of Schmendrick’s many failures, as opposed to frustrated enough to curse the boy with immortality until he mastered magic. I’m not quite sure the story works as the Nikos depicted here doesn’t seem quite like the character who told Schmendrick, “Don’t thank me. I tremble at your doom.” I did enjoy seeing a younger Schmendrick attempting to impress a woman with a magic trick that backfired (of course).

“Schmendrick Alone” tells the story of a time when Schmendrick conjured a demon. Again, for a woman, but this time to protect her from thugs. The story really brought home the tragic loneliness of Schmendrick, something that I didn’t appreciate while reading The Last Unicorn. Seeing Schmendrick try and fail to interact with normal people, fail to develop relationships, fail to fall in love, helps explain why he’d ended up in a dead-end job at Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. It also explains both Schmendrick’s longing for a relationship with Molly Grue and the limits of that relationship. I definitely look forward to rereading The Last Unicorn after having learned about Schmendrick youth.

Several of the other stories in Overneath also deal with unicorns, albeit not as part of The Last Unicorn. Beagle’s previous unicorn stories have largely been grounded in Western or Christian unicorn mythology, which depicts the unicorn as a beautiful, semi-religious creature that can both physically and spiritually heal people. “Olfert Dapper’s Day” continues in this tradition. Olfert Dapper was a Dutch physician who wrote what we would now call travelogues and mentioned a unicorn sighting in Maine. When he was younger, Beagle came across Dapper’s account, which helped inspire his love of unicorns (he even dedicated The Last Unicorn to Dapper). The only problem is Dapper never traveled and his reports relied on secondhand accounts. Beagle’s story explores what Dapper’s encounter with a unicorn might have been like had he actually traveled to Maine.

However, in Overneath, Beagle also draws upon unicorn myths from other parts of the world. “The Story of Kao Yu” features a Chinese unicorn, the chi-lin, which is a much more imperious creature that looks like a cross between a horse and a dragon. In the story, a chi-lin assists a judge in ancient China with difficult cases, meting out harsh punishments to the guilty. The judge’s relationship with the chi-lin becomes complicated when he falls in love with a suspected thief. In “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” Beagle tells the story of a Persian boy Heydari and a Karkadann, a Middle Eastern unicorn that was probably inspired by the Indian rhinoceros. Unlike Western unicorns, the Karkadann is a large, violent beast. Despite this, Heydari ends up tending a Karkadann’s wounds.

 

With over a dozen stories, its difficult to derive any general themes or narrative threads from Overneath. One common thread is Peter Beagle’s unique ability to mix and meld two opposite emotions into something greater. His stories manage to evoke both melancholy and wonder, cynicism and hope, frustration and love at the same time. Several of the stories, including the two about Schmendrick, involve people blinded by love. There seems to be a theme, an implicit message against trusting the heart… and yet it’s hard to read these stories simply as cynical diatribes against love. If there’s a message, it seems to be that people are flawed, although they might be touched by magic every once in a while – or a unicorn.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]

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