Review – The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche by Peter S. Beagle

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 1997

My first acquaintance with Peter Beagle’s work, like a lot of other people’s, was the classic The Last Unicorn. I was hooked, and sought out everything else I could find, which at that time was I See By My Outfit and A Fine and Private Place, a non-fiction account of a cross-country trip on a motor scooter and Beagle’s first novel, respectively. I didn’t even know that he did any work at less than novel length until I stumbled upon the one-two pairing of “Come Lady Death” and “Lila the Werewolf” in The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle back in 1978.

The Tachyon collection came along a good deal later, in 1997, and even though it also included the above two stories, I snapped it up for what else was there, including the title story which I had managed to miss in its first print appearance, plus “The Naga” (likewise) and a story original to this volume, “Julie’s Unicorn.”

Assuming you haven’t read the stories I’m talking about, capsule summaries seem in order. That is, they seem to be in order, and that would certainly be considered polite, I fancy. The problem with Beagle, as with most writers working at his level, is that telling you what a story is about doesn’t tell you anything. For example, the title story, “The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche.” An ex-pat Swiss professor of philosophy, on what appears to be a near-random visit to the local zoo, encounters a talking rhinoceros who decides to leave the zoo and live with him. Or “The Naga,” an unhappy king finds his soul-mate in a divine serpent. Or “Julie’s Unicorn,” a friend of Farrell (Beagle’s recurring character) frees a unicorn from a ratty old tapestry and together they try to find it a new home. So. See the problem? I appear to have told you what the story is, but that’s an illusion. What the story is about isn’t what it’s about, if you know what I mean and you really should. Besides, they’re stories, and stories are to be experienced, not pre-digested. The only correction for that is to read them yourself. Then, maybe, you’ll know what the stories are about, not before.

I don’t pretend to know if Beagle took an actual hiatus from the field or it just seemed that way before he returned with The Innkeeper’s Song, but it did appear that the mid-nineties marked a flurry of creation which has yet to ebb, and thank goodness for that. The value of the Tachyon collection is that it gathers stories from that time and earlier, which give more of a career overview than a standard “best of.” Also of interest to anyone following Beagle’s career are several early non-fiction pieces of the sort that Beagle himself claims were just to “put bread on the table,” but speak to his worldview and vision just as the stories do, and are thus interesting in and of themselves. Overall this collection is well worth any reader’s time, and especially those of us who had loved the stories for years but had never encountered that side of Peter Beagle’s writing before.

Better late than never.

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