Peter S. Beagle – The Last Unicorn

This is one of those books that are more famous for their movie adapation. I have grown up with the beautifully animated movie and fallen in love with the story, the music and the myth surrounding Beagle’s unicorn. But – and that’s an important but – the book made me fall in love with this fairy tale even more.

by Peter S. Beagle

published: Viking Press, 1968
pages: 294
copy: paperback

my rating: 9/10

first sentence: The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

The last unicorn leaves the safety of her forest to find out what happened to the rest of her kind. On the way, she meets Schmendrick, the magician, whose magic rarely works, and Molly Grue, who has waited her whole life to meet a unicorn. Together they make their way to King Haggard’s castle to confront the dreaded Red Bull and save the other unicorns. If it isn’t already too late…

Reminiscent of Le Guin’s Earthsea, Beagle’s style takes you to a place where fairy tales are real, where myth comes to life and where immortal beings don’t behave like your next-door neighbour. Poetic and poignant, the last unicorn’s story is character-driven as well as full of backstory. If you’ve only seen the movie, you know the basic plot this tale follows. But you don’t know how much depth even the less important side characters have until you’ve read the book. Schmendrick, the clumsy magician and Princ Lír especially, become more real and more interesting than they are in the movie. And the unicorn’s innate alienness comes through much better. Any immortal being should behave in what seems like strange ways to us mere mortals. She does and she’s not always likable.

It is the style that made me love this book but it must also be said that the characters are surprisingly well drawn – certainly better than some authors manage on twice as many pages. My favourite is probably the cat, talking in riddles and caring only about himself. The author manages to make animal characters talk and yet retain their wildness.

The bittersweet ending was nothing if not appropriate. It made me weep when I watched the movie as a kid and didn’t even know why I was sad. Now, as an adult (officially at least) I understand what it is that makes the story tragic,  hopeful  and so full of magic. I have reread The Last Unicorns a couple of times but I feel obligated to mention the beautiful graphic novel adaptation. Sure, some of the backstory and depth gets lost in “translation” and the plot will not surprise you if you’ve ever seen the movie. But it features some of the most stunning art I’ve ever seen and is worth reading. Especially if you’re unsure about diving into the novel or if you don’t like Beagle’s style. The language can get a little flowery at times and while it’s a slim novel, if you don’t like the style, you won’t like any of it.

The Last Unicorn has been considered a classic of fantasy literature and, if you ask me, rightly so. I found it more suspenseful and interesting the A Wizard of Earthsea, though similar in style and pacing. Beagle did make me care for his characters and it’s obvious for anyone who’s ever read any of his books that either he’s simply really passionate about them, or he is a true believer in the existence of unicorns.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, doesn’t need many words to bring characters to life, creates a mythical but believable world.
THE BAD: A bit flowery, won’t give you much new information if you’ve seen the movie.
THE VERDICT: A book that undeservedly stands in its adaptation’s shadow. A true classic of fantasy literature that is full of magic and beauty.

RATING: 9/10 Enchanting

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