Closing the Circle with a Skewer

Jonathan Bellman

I have recently been enjoying a book I had not read in probably thirty years, though I probably read it twenty times in the early-to-mid 1970s: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. A simultaneous fantasy novel and self-satire of the genre, the book is rife with anachronisms and Yiddish-inflected humor (a main character’s name is Schmendrick (=“not bright”), and withal still packs some of the most achingly beautiful and deft prose I’ve ever read. This was one of the books in my Tolkien/fantasy literary mix (which I treated like a slow-motion playlist) in high school, read so often I wasn’t reading it anymore. Had anyone at that time asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I would have assured him or her (after perhaps an eye-roll and a suggestion that I be left alone) that 1) I didn’t know, 2) the one thing for CERTAIN was that I wasn’t going to be a professor like my Dad, which was a certain waste of time, and 3) perhaps I could sit and read Tolkien and play Billy Joel and Steeleye Span songs for my whole life. Now, will you please go away?

My Dad has gotten much, and well deserved, mileage out of my eventual career path, and though I didn’t become an English prof as, for example, a revered English teacher in high school suggested (“Would you like to be an English prof like your Dad?” “GOD, NO”), my writing about music text probably demonstrates that the acorn fell about as close to the tree as possible. What I apparently completely missed in Beagle’s book, though, is the skewering of a certain kind of academic, a kind of free mix of folksong collector, historian, musicologist, and ethnomusicologist. One character, named Captain Cully, is a leader of adventuring rascals and incompetent legend-in-his-own-mind who keeps hopefully mistaking Schmendrick for the folksong collector Francis J. Child and trying to sing him merrie songes he wrote about himself. The episode ends with Schmendrick bound and forced to listen, against his will, while Cully sings this repertory—thirty-one songs in all—and offers commentary: “’Whoever you are, you know very well that Robin Hood is the fable and I am the reality. No ballads will accumulate around my name unless I write them myself; no children will read of my adventures in their schoolbooks and play at being me after school. And when the professors prowl through the old tales, and scholars sift the old songs to learn if Robin Hood ever truly lived, they will never, never find my name, not till they rack the world for the grain of its heart. But you know, and therefore I am going to sing you the songs of Captain Cully. He was a good, gay rascal who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In their gratitude, the people made up these simple verses about him.’ …Whereupon he sang them all, [and] paused often to comment on the varying rhythm patterns, the assonantal rhymes, and the modal melodies.”

I am neither folksong collector nor ethnomusicologist, but that last sentence sounds painfully close to some work in musical archaism that I’ve done. Ouch! I both laughed aloud and blushed. That was a punchline it took me thirty-plus years to get.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Closing the Circle with a Skewer

  1. That’s a lovely take on rediscovering the book. I work with Peter S. Beagle, and I’m going to make sure he sees it. (There’s a new edition of THE LAST UNICORN out, by the way, which includes the sequel tale, “Two Hearts.” You can learn more about it at http://www.conlanpress.com.)
    Another tidbit: Peter chose “Schmendrick” as a name not just for its meaning in Yiddish, but also because it worked as a parody of the comic-strip character name “Mandrake the Magician.”

  2. Peter S. Beagle says:

    Well before he wandered into THE LAST UNICORN, I used to tell my eldest daughter bedtime stories about the adventures of the world’s worst magician…
    Thank you for the kind words!
    Peter S. Beagle

  3. Jonathan says:

    And a deep bow of gratitude to you, Mr. Beagle. This conversation gives me the odd sense of meeting a commitment made to my adolescent self, decades ago. Now I’m going to chase up “Two Hearts.”

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