A charming story is a difficult quality to articulate, as is the definition of ‘magical’ that leaves the reader feeling all warm and fuzzy afterward. I think it’s about having a strong emotional link with the written characters; but rather than using this link to make you care more strongly when the characters are imperiled, the link is used instead for the readers to feel the fictional joy and hope and optimism.
Beagle is able to achieve this delicate mood with great regularity. Case in point, today’s story.
Professor Gottesman lives the secluded life of a Philosophy professor and prefers it that way, even avoiding the staff lounge and all but the most compulsory ceremonies. He has a seven-year-old niece, Nathalie, who has come from his native Germany for a few weeks, and she requests they visit the nearby zoo.
So they go to the zoo, with Nathalie bringing along her toy tiger named Charles, and they enjoy themselves. Then Professor Gottesman hears someone calling his name. He looks around, but all he can see is the rhinoceros enclosure, with a large rhinoceros staring at him. Who again speaks to him by name.
No need, surely, to go into Professor Gottesman’s reaction: to describe in detail how he gasped, turned pale, and looked wildly around for any corroborative witness. It is worth mentioning, however, that at no time did he bother to splutter the requisite splutter in such cases: “My God, I’m either dreaming, drunk, or crazy.” If he was indeed just as classically absentminded and impractical as everyone who knew him
agreed, he was also more of a realist than many of them. This is generally true of philosophers, who tend, as a group, to be on terms of mutual respect with the impossible. Therefore, Professor Gottesman did the only proper thing under the circumstances. He introduced his niece Nathalie to the rhinoceros.
Nathalie, for all her virtues, was not a philosopher, and could not hear the rhinoceros’s gracious greeting. She was, however, seven years old, and a well-brought-up seven-year-old has no difficulty with the notion that a rhinoceros—or a goldfish, or a coffee table—might be able to talk; nor in accepting that some people can hear coffee-table speech and some people cannot. She said a polite hello to the rhinoceros, and then became involved in her own conversation with stuffed Charles, who apparently had a good deal to say himself about tigers.
“A mannerly child,” the rhinoceros commented. “One sees so few here. Most of them throw things.”
Professor Gottesman finds himself in conversation with the rhinoceros, who insists he is really a unicorn (on account of the horn). They have a short argument over the logical fallacies employed in this claim, and in confusion the professor leaves.
After a week or so Nathalie has to fly back to her family. Professor Gottesman returns from the airport to find the rhinoceros dozing in front of his fireplace. As the old saying goes, a fully-grown rhinoceros can sleep wherever it wants to, so all the professor can do is to call his one good friend and insist she come over in the morning. When she arrives, of course, the rhinoceros isn’t there, and she leaves before the professor finds his bathtub occupied with 4,600lb of Rhinocerotidae.
Even when he goes to teach his class, the rhinoceros is in the back row. But when he comes home that evening the rhinoceros greets him, praises his lecture, and begins to ask some pointed questions about St Augustine and the Neoplatonists. And with that, they fall into conversation until five in the morning.
It feels paradoxical to say that a story with such a lightness of style should induce a heavy emotional effect. But that seems most apt. It’s not that Professor Gottesman was unhappy with his prior solitary life; all indications are that he was quite content. But in the rhinoceros (or is he a unicorn?) he has met his ideal argumentative partner. I guess this story could be summed up as the adult incarnation of the best invisible friend. Except that the rhinoceros (or unicorn) most definitely exists, as he would be the first to tell you.
Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros by Peter S. Beagle
Word count: 9,000
First published: Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn, edited by Peter S. Beagle, Janet Berliner & Martin H. Greenberg, 1995, HarperPrism
Where to find it: Modern Classics of Fantasy, edited by Gardner Dozois, 1997, St. Martin’s Press
The Rhinoceros who Quoted Nietzsche and other Odd Acquaintances, collection, 2003, Tachyon Publications
Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle, collection, 2010, Subterranean Press