The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle

I'm quite honestly surprised I haven't come across Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn before now. After all, as a fantasy loving child of the eighties I should at least have seen the animated film, even if the usual bugbear; lack of audio availability, kept me from reading the novel that inspired it. Fortunately, one of the happier consequences for me of the digital revolution is an access to media, both audiobooks and animated, that I hadn't experienced before, so this is a lack we can easily fix, and (as indeed several characters in this book prove), one is never too old for tales about unicorns.

The unicorn has lived alone longer than she can remember, taking her endless time as it comes, walking beneath the summer trees of her wood, blessing the land with her presence, and occasionally letting herself be glimpsed by mortals. She doesn't think to question anything, because unicorns just are. All this changes however when she overhears a hunter in her wood describing her as the last unicorn in the world, and sets out to find out what has become of the rest of her kind.

Gathering companions along the way such as Schmendrick, the world’s worst magician, and Molly Grue, a lady looking for a new life, the unicorn will confront monsters both human and inhuman, becoming the object of greed, avarice and even love, and find that ultimately the only way of avoiding the terrifying fate that has befallen the rest of her kindred is to change her unchangeable self.

The first and most obvious thing about The Last Unicorn, is that the book is as much poetry as prose. Published in 1968, a time when descriptive writing wasn't so often dismissed as unnecessary filler, the book's style is simply gorgeous, combining simile and metaphor with fairy tale language and emotional honesty into true word painting. It is easy to see why writers such as Patrick Rothfuss and Neil Gaiman count Beagle's book as a favourite; citing it as a heavy influence in their own work. Also like Gaiman, Beagle is able to drift from the mundane, to the fantastic, to the terrifying with consummate ease. Despite the very protagonist and title character of the novel being a fantastic creature whose wonder and beauty is a major point in the story, it's a testament to Beagle's skills as a wordsmith that I never felt his descriptions of the unicorn's unearthly appearance became overly florid. Also, like Gaiman, Beagle is able to switch subject matter and apply his descriptive gifts equally to the fantastic, horrific or even the mundane, able to show how flawed, human and frequently even plane characters such as Molly were, yet never be dismissive of their qualities, making their very flaws something almost admirable.

Speaking of characters, I admired the way that nobody here is quite what they seem on the surface. Schmendric for example meets the unicorn when he frees her from captivity, the act of a seemingly decent person, yet at times can be arrogant, a little mean and (in his pursuit of bettering his magic), even occasionally completely self-regarding, if not actually selfish. Molly Grue meanwhile, far from being the kindly princess or naïve young girl we'd expect in a tale about unicorns, is actually a seasoned woman in her thirties whose already been disappointed by life, and whose wonder at the unicorn is tinged with regret. These nuanced depictions even go as far as having the soldiers of a wicked king prove to be more than faceless minions, and the wicked king himself being as pitiable, as he is villainous.

Then again, Beagle never lets his desire to be fair to his characters turn him too far away from being epic, indeed the monsters in this book are truly as monstrous as the wonderful creatures are full of wonder, as of course they should be, since what is any fairy tale without its light and shadow.

Unfortunately, Beagle does fall into the trap that many heavily descriptive writers, from Erin Morgenstern to Mervin Peake have before, and get to the point where it is the poetry, not the actual force of the events in the plot or the pace of the writing that carries matters forward. Of course, this isn't to say the book doesn't contain surprising ideas to explore, such as a town of people cursed to prosperity who still lived severely austere lives since they were so afraid their prosperity would end, or a magical menagerie caught somewhere between shoddy trickery and Lovecraftian reality. However, amazing though many ideas are, they usually just seemed strung together like pictures in a gallery with an on running theme, or different movements of the same symphony rather than the careful stone by stone building necessary to create a really tight plot. Of course, part of this is just the nature of fairy tales, after all there is no other genre of stories where you can legitimately have characters do something just because a cat suddenly started talking and told them so, or where "the magic", can just decide to change the hole direction of the story because that's what magic does. However, even in the best written fairy tales (such as Niel Gaiman's Stardust), there is at least a little internal consistency and coherence, and an idea that the world has rules, even if we don't entirely understand them.

This lack of momentum also meant that when beagle's individual situations didn't capture my attention, there wasn't really much of a central narrative to ride on. One passage for example, when Schmendrick was captured by a band of outlaws and their swaggering leader, a passage which first hammered the captain's archetypal egotism a little too hard, and then referenced Robin Hood as historical character, mythic figure, legend and even summoned spirit in the same scene simply fell flat. In general, the book's occasionally rather anachronistic and self-referential references to real world historical ideas and literary tropes reminded me unpleasantly of some of the more hard going aspects of T H White's Once and Future King, with its constant historical and political prevarication, which was not really something I cared about much when set against the monsters and magic.

That being said, there were still plenty of moments Beagle's superlative style simply carried me along, the unicorn's confrontation with the book's major antagonist, albeit a confrontation which seemingly comes out of nowhere, is one of the most sheerly terrible things I've read for quite some time, and a chapter I won't soon forget.

Unfortunately, the book's second half almost overstays its welcome, partly due to the unicorn herself. For half of the plot, the unicorn remains more of a catalyst than a character, and though she is the one on a journey to seek her people, she tends not to act herself, but promote action in those around her, whether Schmendrick's desire to help her out of a bad situation, Molly's longing for her regard, or just the many simple villagers who try to capture what they perceive to be an ordinary; if extremely beautiful, horse.

This makes sense given what Beagle says about unicorns, and that their nature is presumably quite elemental.

However, halfway through the book, the unicorn is turned into a human by a magical accident, giving Beagle the perfect chance to have her grow, and experience life and change. The problem however, is she doesn't, she remains simply more of a figure than a character. Admittedly Beagle, with his usual descriptive flair, tells us in detail of her confusion and disorientation at her new human form, especially when a prince starts paying court to her. However, the unicorn herself does not really alter her outlook or experience much of human feelings along the way. She goes from being an aloof, immortal, amazingly beautiful magical creature, to being an aloof, mortal, amazingly beautiful princess.

I'd have loved to see the unicorn learning far more about being human, having friends, growing, changing, perhaps even helping Molly in the kitchen or even (Grim forbid), being a mite less than astoundingly beautiful! Unfortunately this is not what happens, she simply remains, passive and cold and distant upon a pedestal while others (especially the poor prince), run around on her behalf.

This is particularly problematic for the book's conclusion, which centres around the unicorn's ability to experience love. However, "love", in this case seems extremely one sided and stylised to the point of tropes, with a prince desperately trying to win the unicorn's affection or even get a kind word out of her, and her being unresponsive as a porcelain doll, no matter how many acts of rather overblown knight errantry he commits on her behalf. With the prince introduced at such a comparatively late point in the novel, and all the damsels he saves and dragons he slays given a rather ironic and almost cynical description, I thought the point was perhaps going to be that both he, and the unicorn, had to actually experience real, down to earth, none stylised human love, (especially with Molly's exasperation at the pair of them), however this never appeared, and in the end Beagle seemed to indicate that this impersonal process of a beautiful woman remaining silent and unapproachable whilst a man throws himself into ever more baffled efforts to become worthy of her really was the essence of "love." From any other writer I'd accept this as a genuine miscalculation, especially for a book written in the sixties when stories of knight errantry and courtly love were far more in the public consciousness than they were today, but for Beagle, who otherwise shows himself to be so nuanced, and who even acknowledges the intrinsic coldness of fairy tale tropes, this seems an extreme oversight.

All that being said, the writing is just so plain good, that much of the time, I found myself just skating past character inequity, especially when it came to fantastic landscapes or gorgeous monsters, and even if from a character perspective I didn't find the courtly affair of the prince and unicorn to be particularly convincing, at the same time, Beagle's evocation of this in the final confrontation still worked as a static word picture, if not quite a moment of character, something which was true of the unicorn's final destination as well. Fortunately, Beagle did indicate slightly more for Molly and Schmendric, letting their journey continue, even as their current adventure came to an end, and subtly hinted at where their characters (both sadly far more developed than the prince or the unicorn), could end up in the future.

The Last Unicorn is an odd novel. It contains many nuanced characters, even down to its villains, yet a rather cold protagonist whose journey isn't really what we think it should be. It contains a plot which jigs and jags and occasionally lapses almost into parody, yet encompasses some wonderful ideas executed with absolute skill. Above all, it contains some of the most honestly lovely writing I have seen. Is it a truly timeless classic? With its anachronisms, odd asides and slightly jerky plot, perhaps not. A classic however most certainly, and one which every lover of fantasy should definitely experience.

8/10 Where now the horse and the splendour, and the horn that was glowing?

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4 positive reader review(s) for The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn reader reviews

from United States

This book is the greatest Fantasy novel of all time, in my view. Its lyrical writing, its memorable and very human characters, and its exploration of mortality, immortality, and the meeting of the two never fail to move me. Looking across the various Beagle books that I've read so far, each one has to do in some very deep and profound way with love, and loss, and the value of love... which in the case of the unicorn becomes important enough to surrender immortality to possess. There are also recurring themes of loss and grief, and the contemplation of the meaning and purpose of life (and death). Beagle's beautiful, carefully wrought prose tends to grab me even at the individual sentence level, and his paragraphs manage to say, or imply, much more than most writers' do. I'm left humbled, and deeply thankful that such a thoughtful heart as Beagle's would share so generously of his feelings on such universal and important themes, and thereby enrich our sense of our own lives and selves. Few such writers have ever existed.
10/10 ()

from Austria

I fell in love with the movie first but the book is fantastic, even if you already know the story. Beagle brings a depth to his prose and characters that makes every page enjoyable. The writing is lyrical and beautiful and every word has its place. There is literally nothing I would change about this story. A full review can be read at:
9/10 ()

from US

One of my favorites as a young teen. Really pulls your heart.
10/10 ()

from New Zealand

My favourite fantasy. It is one of those stories that will not leave your head, and when you read it you don't quite know whether to laugh or cry. It's poignant and hilarious by turns, the writing is lyrical and beautiful, and the unicorn is everything I ever half-dreamt a unicorn had to be. It is one of the few truly magical books I have ever read, and even this praise is too little. There's a novella-length sequel called "Two Hearts", which has many of the same qualities and is therefore fantastic, but nothing - *nothing* - matches the original.
10/10 ()

9.5/10 from 5 reviews

All Peter S Beagle Reviews