A tale as sorrowful as the night and with as much subtle enchantment as moonlight. True to his best writing, Peter S. Beagle weaves magic, beauty, and timeless fantasy into The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon, his final story in his anthology, Sleight of Hand.
Originally, the elegance and implied romance and fairy tale of The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon compelled me to purchase Sleight of Hand. Plus, the Locus review spoke of it favorably.
Beagle has a gift with language. I have not figured out all its specifics, and perhaps, I don’t really want to because it would ruin the magic of it. There’s something about his diction, choice of subject, characters, and the emotion of his stories that spins a spell of exquisiteness colored with love, longing, and sorrow. He reaches into the human soul and delicately displays its deepest hues while adding a brush of the fantastic, and the result is resonating.
But before I gush away over one of my favorite authors, let me summarize the story and touch on the few issues I had with it.
When Schmendrick—Yes, the same Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn—falls from a tree at the feet of Mourra and her brother, Findros, their problem of finding their way home takes a hopeful turn, for surely a “gician,” as Findros calls him, can help them get unlost. But Schmendrick’s magic fails him, and they find themselves more lost than ever. Sadly apologetic, Schmendrick tries one last thing, which too appears to fail, but a neighbor of the children comes upon them then and shows them the way home.
Safely returned, Mourra and Findros inform their mother, Sairey, of Schmendrick’s magical aid, which he does not believe in himself. In thanks, Sairey invites Schmendrick to stay long enough for a good meal. After falling asleep that night, Mourra wakes to the sound of her mother and Schmendrick talking beside the willow outside her window. In an effort to instill faith in him, Sairey shares a story about the woman who believed so certainly that The Man in the Moon would one day come down to her that she pledged she would marry him if he did. In exchange for the little faith Sairey inspires, Schmendrick gives her a gift and reveals the face of The Man in the Moon once more.
On to the critique: The tale comes in two parts, and the first, when Schmendrick and the children find their way home, ends in such a way that the story feels like it should be over. Instead, Beagle keeps writing and takes us into a second half that I struggled to adapt to because so much of the story’s premise seemed to change.
Secondly, The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon had no clear protagonist. The title implies that the children’s mother, Sairey, is the character the story is about, yet we first find ourselves with Mourra, Sairey’s daughter, and, shortly thereafter, Schmendrick. At first, I suspected that the tale would be about Mourra’s character development from bossy, insulting big sister to a kinder, more considerate version of herself. Then I suspected that the children would lead Schmendrick to some important key to solving the mystery of his magic. Both occur to a certain extent but not clearly enough to be considered what the story is about.
Yet when considered from a more literary point of view, the theme of The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon is clearer for all its fantasy elements. The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon is about belief, and it is the journey of all the characters in attaining some measure of this faith that is the real story. Mourra, Schmendrick, and Sairey form a triumvirate that aids each other’s growth in faith.
Schmendrick walks into the moonrise at the end with little beyond an extra grain of belief in himself, yet especially for doubting, sorrowful Schmendrick, a grain is a significant amount. In exchange for inspiring this belief, Schmendrick grants, through magic, a glimpse of the face of The Man in the Moon for Sairey. Both help Mourra move past her wary skepticism as she witnesses these exchanges. Further, by helping Mourra find her way home and pulling a flower from her hair that may never die, Schmendrick inspires Mourra, who grants him his first affirmation that he can do real magic and provides the impetus for her mother to further water that seed.
I could go on for many pages joyfully analyzing The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon, exploring its use of elemental imagery, its blurring of fantasy and reality within the tale, its application of theme that transcends the page to apply to the reader, for Beagle leaves it up to the reader to decide if, in this tale, Schmendrick’s magic is real. All in all, though, it is a lovely story that I highly recommend and am proud to have as a permanent part of my collection.
What are your favorite short stories? Do you like tales with subtler journeys or ones with more blatant conflicts? Why?