Peter S. Beagle is an author wound deep into the fabric of my childhood. I’ll never forget the revelation of The Last Unicorn. He had a story on the finalist list for the Million Writers Award last year as well. This year’s story, “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri,” published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, is a twist on the trope of the animal wife.
To speak of the story on its own for a moment, it’s structured in the classic way of the fairy tale. Junko is the classic hero–a smart, handsome man of low birth who struggles with the glass ceiling he faces because of his class. As is the classic way, a beautiful woman is the vehicle for his ascension, in this case, an animal wife.
An animal wife story, however, is never one of contentment. The archetype, I believe, gets at the way lovers are always strangers to each other on some level. No matter how well two lovers know each other, and no matter how much two strive to be one, at some point two become two again. Sleep brings dreams that can’t be shared, and there are endless mysterious thoughts and glances that can never be opened to the other. To me, the animal wife story acknowledges this by having the woman take on other shapes, becoming an entirely different, and unknown, creature.
The ordinary story is of love and loss. The man can’t leave well enough alone and tries to claim the wife beyond what is possible, and so the wife slips away. Beagle, however, tells a different story. This is the tale of misguided ambition, and his animal wife takes on the role of Lady Macbeth. She reads his secret desires for murder and becomes the force of her husband’s id.
Beagle’s story is about the dangers of being understood, the dangers of the heart’s desire. It is about how the grace of love can conceal something much darker.
I’m talking about the story and its meaning and neglecting its lovely language. The story’s language functions to set a consistent scene, and to clue the reader to the archetypes in play. It then carefully guides the reader into the new territory that Beagle is exploring. A close analysis could do more by way of showing how this is done.
I found this story incredibly satisfying. It has a plot, it has emotional depth, it takes old, venerable archetypes and reveals something new about them. The ending is perfect. It’s great to be in the hands of a master.
I thought about “The Fisherman’s Wife” as I read this (I commented on that story here). The stories are in similar territory, doing quite different things. I prefer this more classic approach. It is easier, because the story can be read either lightly or deeply. I like stories that reward both sorts of reads.
I’ve scheduled several posts on the Million Writers Award today, since this is the last chance to vote.