It seems whenever I am communicating with writers, particularly young writers, about writing fantasy, the question inevitably comes up of how to avoid the clichés of classic fantasy. One answer, of course, is to avoid writing classic fantasy, which most find unsatisfactory. However, my habitual answer, and the one that people find the most functional, is simply that there are no “clichés.” There are icons, recurring images, even archetypes, all of which are useful, all of which have power. The handling may be trite (and all too often is), but not the elements themselves.
That said, let me point out that I should, by now, know better than to expect anything in particular from Peter S. Beagle. There is only one The Last Unicorn, and only one “Come, Lady Death.” I should have expected something like The Innkeeper’s Song — after all, Beagle says himself that he’s always wanted his novels to be as different from each other as possible. The Innkeeper’s Song is a big, loose novel. I don’t mean long, I mean big — it doesn’t seem willing to stay within the bounds of the story at all.
Tikat and Lukassa have grown up together in their small village and plan to wed in the spring of their eighteenth year. As the spring finally comes, while they are standing on the old bridge over the river one evening, the railing breaks, and Lukassa falls in and is drowned. And then, one night after a fruitless search by the whole village has ended, Tikat sees a black woman on a horse standing in the river, singing a nonsense rhyme. Lukassa rises from the water and rides off with the woman. Tikat, willing to accept Lukassa’s revival but not her departure, follows, beginning a quest that will, of course, take him to surprising places.
Three women arrive at an inn, The Gaff and Slasher outside of Corcorua: one is black, one is brown, and one is white and very quiet, although she objects strenuously to the first room they are offered because it was the scene of a death. As it happens, these women are on a quest of their own, in search of a wizard who was teacher to two of them — the black woman, Lal, and the brown one, Nyateneri. They don’t know why their teacher has called them, but he has. There are other mysteries around them — the pet fox who is not always a fox, nor even really a pet; the two men who are following Nyateneri, who wind up dead in the bathhouse; the fact that the third woman, who is Lukassa, is dead — and strange events begin to happen at the inn, especially after they find their wizard. Tikat appears, finally, more than half dead and riding — or walking — a stolen horse, and he is given into the care of the stable boy, Rosseth, who is fascinated by the three women. Karsh, the innkeeper, has no use for any of them, but is perhaps a better man than he admits — they aren’t turned out.
So, clichés — the aforementioned quests, the female warrior (Lal and Nyateneri, although the latter, as it turns out, is somewhat ambiguous in that role), wizards (two, one bad and one neutral), the brave peasant (Tikat), the bumbling stable boy (Rosseth), the shapechanger (the Fox, for one), the innkeeper with a heart of gold, deeply hidden behind a blustering manner (Karsh): they’re all there. But they are most certainly not clichés, at least not in Beagle’s hands.
One reason is, I think, that Beagle is a master of characterization. I’ve remarked on this elsewhere, but this novel depends on it to a high degree, simply because it is told as a series of first-person narratives — even the Fox has something to say. There is never any doubt who is talking, even when the differences are subtle — the contrast between Rosseth and the Fox, for example, is obvious, between Lal and Nyateneri, not so much, but it’s there. It’s the result of Beagle being so good at creating real people.
Beagle’s diction is also worth noting. There is poetry throughout the narrative of a kind that few writers manage, and it comes through no matter who is speaking. It’s the poetry of things left unsaid, of inferences and meanings lying just under the words, and it builds a compelling story by means that we don’t notice save in retrospect.
The Innkeeper’s Song is an easy book to read, for the most part (although there are one or two places where the narration is a bit much — just one or two, and it’s mostly to do with the Fox and Lukassa, who share an exhausting intensity). It is not, however, an easy book. In fact, it’s a substantial book, not so much from any great themes (those are there, of course they are, and in a subtle and nuanced form), but simply from its weight as a deliberate and conscious work of art.
I love it when that happens.