This book gave me an almost physical sensation of pleasure as I read it. I want to overstate this: the prose hums with power. I've been goodreading long enough that I think about what I might say later as I read - this is either a curse or a blessing - and all my mind could do was come up with a list of opposed adjectives:
Then the adjectives started drifting off into nouns:
This isn't making much sense, I know. I'm sorry. I'm in a bit of review block at the moment, and I can't tell if it's because of this book or a more general malaise. I'll start again in a more prosaic vein.
I went to get a copy of this book because several people I love like crazy have screamed themselves hoarse about how great Beagle is. I've seen the Rankin film, which is for children, a couple of thousand times, and I liked it as a child because it's so weirdly downbeat for children's fare. I mean, there's some goofing and drunken skulls and songs and stuff for the kiddie set, but the ending is so ambivalent. The plot of the movie is roughly similar to the book: a unicorn realizes she is the last of her kind and goes on a quest to find the other unicorns. A wizard and a woman join in her travels, which terminates at a cursed castle. There are kings and devils, witches and magic, transformations, redemptions, love and loss. In the end a choice has to be made between this thing and that, between one mode of being and another. This is not a choice between good and evil, it's just a choice, one that will inevitably create regret for the choice not made. So the ending is both happy and sad.
So I went to the bookstore, and talked to the middleschooler who was managing the children's section, and asked him to look up Beagle's name for me, because I couldn't remember it. Oh, he says, that's not shelved in children's. Okay. Off I go with my sticky-note to the other side of the store, and then the book was in my hand, and in a bag, and by my bed and sitting on the exerbike, and in the cushions of the couch. It took over. It was everywhere, even if I wasn't reading it, my hands finding it and carrying it from room to room, this book following me like a cat, the way cats follow you while affecting distance, just sleeping in the sunlight on the floor by the window, crawled into the grocery bags set down on the floor. It was my familiar. It took me several nights to finish this because I kept picking it up in the drowsy half-hour when I've gotten into bed but before sleep, and I couldn't do it. This book demanded, deserved my full attention.
Beagle's wordsmithing hammers with sparks. It is both concise and whatever the opposite of concise is, because I feel like the word concise has a knife-edge in it, and while this does, it's also as leathery as a well-held pommel and soft as the skin of the hand that holds the blade. This book is literate, in a way that rings with oral history and the fairy tale told to the half-listening. There's a ton of literary references, but they don't smirk so much as wink, and the wink might just be a trick of the firelight.
For example, there's a section in the middle when our protagonists run in with some Robin Hoodish folk, and the Robin Hood character mistakes the magician for Child, the man who collected all the ballads in England and the Americas in the late 19th Century
in the heat of the early discipline of folklore. It's a complicated joke, maybe not necessary for enjoyment of the sequence, but one that hinges on the way fairy tales, in the modern (or possibly Modern) vernacular skip from page to mouth and back again, tellings and retellings shaping both life and its simulacrums, the way we tell stories to ourselves, and others, about what we do and what it means, but the actions themselves hold the meanings they may. Or may not. Damn it, I've gone off into incoherence again.
The movie, in retrospect, is not nearly as good, not by half. I am not pissed off about the movie version because it lead me to this wonder in the end, but it is not the same kind of wonder as the book. The movie is the difference between plot and craft, between the things that happen and the experience of those things on our skin. This is not a children's book, the way fairy tales told by mothers in the dark while children half-sleep are not for children, they are stories that transmit society in the telling and the half-listening. This is a storyteller's book, a book for listeners, and for readers, and for the dreaming, the half-dreaming and the awake.