Published by Penguin Books Ltd. on July 2008 (first published 1968)
Genres: Fantasy, Modern Classic
The Last Unicorn is one of the true classics of fantasy, ranking with Tolkien's The Hobbit, Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Beagle writes a shimmering prose-poetry, the voice of fairy tales and childhood:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician--whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended--when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his unmerry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.
This is a book no fantasy reader should miss; Beagle argues brilliantly the need for magic in our lives and the folly of forgetting to dream. --Nona Vero
“We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream.”
In my mind, the movie The Last Unicorn will forever be known as the first and so far only book, movie or TV show to ever give me nightmares. I think I saw the film for the first time when I was about 5 or 6 and I remember being completely entranced by it. It immediately became one of my favourite movies, despite the fact that I couldn’t sleep for a week after watching it for the first time. I never realised it was originally a novel, not until now.
Having read the book and re-watched the film after finishing it, I now know why it gave me nightmares. This story is not for children. My grandmother (who gifted me the film) must have fallen into the trap that so many do these days, namely that any cartoon is for kids, just because it’s animated. Anime lovers will know the struggle.
But there is nothing childish about this novel (or movie). Yes, it’s about a unicorn. Yes, it’s about a wizard and an evil king and a heroic prince. It still isn’t for children. Cliché, you ask? Predictable, you say? You couldn’t be more wrong.
The story centres around a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind. She decides to leave the safety of her forest behind in order to discover what happened to all the others. On her journey she encounters a variety of unique and memorable characters who support her in achieving her goal.
The Last Unicorn is a classic for a reason. Although the movie follows the storyline of the book very closely, they are completely different in tone. The movie is very serious and somewhat tragic, whilst the book is a lot more satirical with many funny moments in between. And it is those satire elements, which truly make this book a masterpiece. Peter S. Beagle takes fantasy tropes and puts them on their head. And he does so very well. The novel reads like a fairy tale, and perhaps it is to a certain extent, but it’s ironic to the point of being hilarious. A parody. The author goes so far as to make his characters acknowledge that they are in fairy tale.
“Robin Hood is a myth,” Captain Cully said nervously, “a classic example of the heroic folk figures synthesized out of need. John Henry is another. Men have to have heroes, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl. Not that it isn’t a remarkable trick, of course.”
The book has stunning prose that is easy to get into. It flows and keeps the plot moving at a steady pace. I never felt bored or discontent, the story was calm and suspenseful at the same time.
The characters were phenomenal. Are you sick of seeing the same recycled types of people in classic fantasy literature? Well, this book will give you something else entirely. We have these typical fairy tale characters that are placed in very atypical roles. They provide comic relief while also delivering subtle social commentary. They were incredibly self-aware.
“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”
Additionally, every single character in this story is fundamentally flawed. The unicorn is proud to the point of being vain, Schmendrick overconfident, Molly Grue deeply regrets her lost youth, King Haggard is selfish and depressed, rather than one-dimensionally evil, and Prince Lir fails to see the difference between real heroism and posturing.
My last point is perhaps the biggest reason why I say that this novel is for adults (or at least young adults). The themes. The mood is very melancholy at times. Death is clearly depicted and discussed and the element of time and growing old plays a big part. Dreams do not come true.
“I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.”
The ending is bittersweet. Definitely not your classic fairy tale ending. Ultimately, it’s not a very hopeful story, and I admit that this may be why I enjoyed it so much (I’m such a cynic, aren’t I?).
Overall, I highly recommend both the book and the movie! They are completely worth it.