The Way Home by Peter S. Beagle

Two novellas in the world of The Last Unicorn? Yes, please.

“Two Hearts,” the first, is closer in tone to Beagle’s classic novel. Sooz, who is nine when the story begins, tells of what happens when the griffin who has settled into her village’s woods stops eating sheep and goats, and starts taking away children instead. Wilfrid, her older brother, says that Sooz screamed for three days after just seeing the griffin in the distance at night, “but he’s lying, and I didn’t hide in the root cellar either like he says, I slept in the barn those two nights, with our dog Malka. Because I knew Malka wouldn’t let anything get me.” (p. 4)

The villagers don’t know what to do, and when the griffin starts to take children they send messengers to the king to ask for help. And help duly comes, but it does not go well.

The Way Home by Peter S. Beagle

The first time, it was one knight, all by himself. His name was Douros, and he gave me an apple. He rode away into the Midwood, singing, to look for the griffin, and we never saw him again.
The second time—after the griffin took Louli, the boy who worked for the miller—the king sent five knights together. One of them did come back, but he died before he could tell anyone what happened.
The third time an entire squadron came. I don’t know how many soldiers there are in a squadron, but it was a lot; and they were all over the village for two days, pitching their tent everywhere, stabling their horses in every barn, and boasting in the tavern how they’d soon take care of that griffin for us poor peasants. They had musicians playing when they marched into the Midwood—I remember that, and I remember when the music stopped, and the sounds we heard afterward.
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. (p. 5)

Then one day the griffin takes Sooz’s best friend Felicitas, and that very night she sets out to see the king herself. She hides in her uncle’s cart and rides along towards town—she figures the king can’t live far from there—and slipping out again just about dawn with her uncle none the wiser. Only then does Sooz think that she doesn’t even know the king’s name (“He’s just the king“), and she doesn’t have the faintest idea where his castle is. Beagle shows a nine-year-old’s view of trying to find the right direction, getting increasingly lost and regretting that she only took a piece of cheese from home. She’s run out of path and is pushing into a forest when she hears first a stream, then horses whickering, then two people talking, a man and a woman.

Sooz thinks they haven’t noticed her, even though the woman said to the man “The greatest wizard walking in the world, and your back hurts?” but then a little later he says “Child, there’s food here” and Sooz approaches: “I started remembering how hungry I was, and I started toward them without knowing I was doing it. I actually looked down at my feet and watched them moving like somebody else’s feet, as though they were the hungry one, only they had to have me take them to the food.” (p. 15)

The man is Schmendrick, and the woman is Molly Grue, names that do not mean anything to Sooz but a great deal to readers of The Last Unicorn. The king, of course, is Lír. With that, the story is very much in the world of the other novel, but many years later. Schmendrick and Molly are also on their way to see the king. Schmendrick is certain the king can help Sooz and her village. “That’s a fearful matter, a griffin, but the king will know what to do about it. The king eats griffins for breakfast snacks—spreads them on toast with orange marmalade and gobbles them up, I promise you.” (p. 18) Molly is less certain about the enterprise. “Girl, it’s not you worries me. The king is a good man, and an old friend, but it has been a long time, and kings change. Even more than other people, kings change.” (p 17)

The rest of “Two Hearts” is an adventure and a fable in the mold of The Last Unicorn. They reach Lír, and he has changed. He is old, and there are scenes reminiscent of Theoden and Grima, or rather scenes of what that would have been like if Grima had had love in his heart rather than betrayal. Nevertheless, there are some beasts that only a king can dispatch, according to Lír, and he says he should never have sent those men instead of coming himself. A griffin has an eagle heart and a lion heart, and it cannot be killed unless both are pierced.

But there are many more pairs of hearts in “Two Hearts”: Molly and Schmendrick, together after all these years; Sooz and her lost Felicitas; Lír and Lisene, who would keep him home and safe; Sooz and faithful, fearless Malka; and in the end, Lír and Amalthea, the unicorn returned. With his title, Beagle invites readers to consider each of them, whether they are the heart of the story.

At the end of “Two Hearts,” Molly teaches Sooz a song that she is not to whistle until she turns seventeen but that when she does, someone will come for her. The second novella, “Sooz,” tells the story of what happens when she reaches that birthday and whistles up no one Molly had mentioned as possible, but the older sister Sooz never knew she had: Jenia, lost to the Dreamies in a moment of parental inattention when she was four, and not glimpsed in mortal realms all the years since.

The Dreamies … the Fae … the Others … the Good Folk … I’ve heard such names since I was as old as Jenia was when she was taken—all the names we have for the shadow people, the ones you only see when they want you to see them, and then just out of the side of your eye. Children see them. (p. 76)

“Sooz” is a dream quest to bring Jenia back, to heal her parents who have suffered from the loss of their child. Apart from the beginning, it takes place in the land of the Dreamies, a land that is constantly changing and operates by a set of rules that Sooz can only partly perceive, and that may not be consistent anyway. Early in her time there, she suffers a grievous harm. She makes a peculiar friend, Dakhoun, who is made of stone, who bleeds sand slowly from a wound, and who is seeking Death.

Beagle captures the feeling of a dream, and the disconnected sense of faerie realms, but that’s exactly what left me much less certain about “Sooz.” If anything can happen, if the world is constantly changing and infinitely malleable, what does any of it matter? The atmosphere in the story is suitably creepy, and I have the feeling that some of the images will stick with me a long time, but I cannot really tell if I missed something terribly important about the story, or if this is a rare miss by Beagle.

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