Peter S. Beagle’s Giant Bones

Beagle-Giant BonesPeter S. Beagle does not do sequels. He says. He is also one of the two fantasy writers I know who quite blithely admits that his universe-building is more than a little haphazard, just enough to hang the story on.

So of course he wrote a group of stories set in the universe of The Innkeeper’s Song.

The stories are not about the place, although the place is very much a part of them. The only characters who reappear are Lal and Soukyan (who was Nyateneri for most of Innkeeper’s Song). It’s really a journey through the world, and in several cases, “The Magician of Karakosk,” “Chousi-Wai’s Story,” and the title story, into the . . . well, call it “legendry,” although it could be history.

There are threads that run through all these stories that are not about the place at all. Most of the stories have an element of redemption through atonement, particularly “The Last Song of Sirit Bayar” and “Lal and Soukyan.” Both stories center on journeys, and in both cases the journey is to right an old wrong. The bard Sirit Bayar seeks to heal the woman who bore his child, now married to someone else and fearsome in her madness: she lost the child and its father, and now inhabits a dark world of her own. Lal and Soukyan travel to make right something that Soukyan claims haunts him, although it happened many years ago: they shamed a prison guard in front of his son during an escape. When they arrive at their destination, the guard has died long since, his son has moved away, and no one remembers the escape. They have, however, rescued Riaan, a peasant boy, from his brutish overlord, little more than a peasant himself, and in spite of themselves reunited him with his father, whom he never knew.

Both of these stories play on another common element, transformation. In “Sirit Bayar,” the bard’s last song has the power to transform the madwoman, Jailly Doura, into the woman she would have been. In “Lal and Soukyan,” Riaan’s father is a ghost — he is long dead. In “The Magician of Karakosk,” the evil queen is undone through a transformation she herself undertakes to rid herself of the humble magician whom she forced into teaching her his spells. He’s humble, but not naïve, and if she had no patience for the ethics of magic – well, there’s not much he can do about that, but it turns out to be enough. Transformation is also the chief device of “Choushi-Wai’s Story,” in which the peasant girl Tai-sharm is rescued from an unwanted marriage to a king by a thief and a magical fish: the fish simply transforms her into a fish herself, and they ride comfortably in a tightly woven basket borne by the thief.

“Giant Bones” is, I think, the most subtle and moving story in the collection. It is a family legend told by a father to a sleepless son who is afraid he will be short all his life (he’s nine years old at this point), concerning a several-times-great grandfather, a tinker who decided to move on across the mountains and was saved from a rock-targ by a giant. Grandfather Simsim spends eighteen years with the giants, a thoughtful, gentle people who are dying off one by one. Simsim becomes the only celebrant of the death ritual for the last of the giants to die, which makes her part of him. And so his descendants are from then on taller than normal.

As you can see from my comments about “Lal and Soukyan” and “The Magician of Karakosk,” irony plays an important role in Beagle’s work. One of the best examples of that in this collection is “The Tragical Historie of the Jiril’s Players,” related by Dardis, the manager of the company, who has every theatrical manager’s dream: a spacious theater, and adequate budget, and devoted audiences. The irony is, quite in spite of himself, he manages to place the company in the position of precipitating a coup by the one agent the Jiril, with his four obstreperous sons and dishrag of a daughter, is not prepared for: the conspirator manages to subvert the Jiril’s guard not with wealth or the promise of power, but with decent meals.

As is always the case with Beagle, the most compelling aspect of these stories is the sheer humanity of the characters. Many of them are told in first-person, and the narrators shine through clearly, with all the fits and starts and digressions and wanderings that anyone does in conversation. The stories they tell may seem to be mundane or bizarre, but the concrete reality of the people, from the exasperated invective of Mircha Del, the narrator of “The Last Song of Sirit Bayar” through the professional storyteller Choushi-Wai and the rueful Dardis, makes such questions pretty much irrelevant.

So, the Innkeeper’s World is a fascinating place, even if it was put together from bits and pieces as needed. Word is that Beagle is not yet finished with it, or at least not the people who live there: several new stories have been written, and there will probably be more. Not bad from a guy who doesn’t do sequels.

(Roc, 1997)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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