Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn

imageThe Last Unicorn was originally published in 1968, and has never been out of print. There have been innumerable editions; my favorite covers are the original Viking hardcover (inexplicable Peter Max-style titles on a black background) and the original 1969 Ballantine paperback (a serenely levitating unicorn in a medieval landscape).

Millions of readers have loved The Last Unicorn. It has been included on lists of “Best Fantasy” for 38 years, and been viewed variously as an allegory, a fairy tale, a modernist send-up, adult fantasy and a children’s story. It is not a “fat” fantasy or a trilogy or a series: the original hardcover runs only 218 pages. But The Last Unicorn is not a little book. Although simply told, it is richly detailed and carefully crafted. It deserves examination and more than just reflexive praise.

The plot is a classic quest structure — an impossible goal, a motley company, heroes, villains, monsters, magic, desperate chances, bittersweet success. The last unicorn in the world sets out from her enchanted wood to discover the fate of her kin. She finds danger and challenges. She acquires companions. She battles evil, loses, suffers a form of exile, then wins and frees the unicorns. In the process she becomes, briefly and agonizingly, human. Then she goes home.

What makes The Last Unicorn unique is the way Mr. Beagle transcends the ordinary fantasy quest trope with his incomparable storytelling skill. This book is a triumph of wordcraft. The writing is as precise and beautiful as mosaic tiles, colored glass backed by gold, sharp and glittering. Part of the wonder is the effortless way Mr. Beagle combines fairy-tale imagery with matter-of-fact modernity. He slides easily from heroic fantasy to laugh-out-loud funny: a sorcerer confronts an enemy with “demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments and secret judo holds;” a prince rides home singing in harmony with the severed ogre’s head lashed to his saddle. The story has an intimacy and immediacy that captivates the reader. You don’t read this with the futile wish that such things would happen to you — you read it and believe, at once, that they could.

The characters are exquisitely drawn. Even the bit parts and walk-ons are limned in a way that reveals their breathing souls. A hunter, recounting how his grandmother met a unicorn, explains, “My great-grandmother said the unicorn had a good smell. She never could abide the smell of any beast, even a cat or a cow. But she loved the smell of the unicorn.” The reader knows at once what sort of woman she was, and what sort of grandson listened so closely.

The reader recognizes the villains easily, too, which adds to their horror. Everyone longs for unicorns, so it is dreadfully simple to identify with King Haggard, who captures them all with the aid of his demonic Red Bull. The frightened, selfish people of Hagsgate are also perfectly recognizable and thus perfectly horrible. And Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival (“Creatures of Night, Brought to Light”) is one of the all-time great ghastly places of modern fantasy.

The best characters, of course, are the unicorn and her companions. It would have been easy to make the unicorn a beautiful but flat drawing. Mr. Beagle makes her 3-dimensional by giving her emotions: not human ones, even when she is shaped like a woman, but real nevertheless. You expect a unicorn to be lovely; you don’t expect her to be amused by the antics of a drunken butterfly. Or to be offended at being taken for a mare. Or to be so enthralled by the mirroring immortality of a harpy (“The unicorn heard herself cry out, not in terror but in wonder, ‘Oh, you are like me!’ “) that she is nearly slain in her moment of breathless recognition.

Her companions, Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue, are unique among the True Companions of fantastic literature. Schmendrick is a magician so potentially powerful that his talents are uncontrollable: he cannot die until he masters his magic, and so he wanders the world, unwillingly immortal and hilariously incompetent. But greatness is thrust upon him.

Molly Grue may just be EveryWoman. She is long past maidenhood when she finds the unicorn, and demands furiously, ” ‘How dare you come to me now, when I am this?’ With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, yellowing heart.” Molly Grue’s anger and despair at finally meeting the unicorn is one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read. Molly is angry and fierce, but she blooms like a lost garden in her love for the unicorn; and, for Schmendrick, she ends up more beautiful than the unicorn herself.

This book is gorgeous, frightening, and unexpectedly funny. You will laugh and cry, as Hollywood promises but so rarely delivers. Mr. Beagle has said that people inevitably get more out of it than he put into it — but since he wrote with so much power and joy and compassion, I don’t really see what else the rest of us could have added.

The Last Unicorn is usually described as a timeless classic. It’s been described that way so often and so automatically that no one really thinks about what the phrase means. After a lot of very ponderous thought, I realized that it means the book is good no matter when or how often you read it. Heavy, huh?

But it’s not a heavy book. It is shivering quicksilver, a fluid mirror in a simple bowl, reflecting all your hopes and expectations — whatever they are, at whatever age — and then revealing the sudden mystery behind you, where you can never look without help. That’s good news for the reader. If you’ve never read this book, do so. If you’ve read it before, read it again. The unicorn is immortal, and you will always find something new in her story.

(Viking, 1968)

About Kathleen Bartholomew

Born in the middle of the last century, Kathleen Bartholomew has no clear idea of how she got into the current one, except that she has apparently failed to die.

She is an over-educated product of 12 years of Catholic school, and still pursues the researches in history, herbology, archeology and palaentology that began under the aegis of the nuns during a recent interregnum in religious glaciation. An obsessive reader from the age of 9, she joined Green Man Review to meet the free books.

For the last 30 years, Kathleen has also hosted alternated personalities Kate Bombey (Elizabethan) and Ariadne Bombay (Victorian). Mother Bombey runs the Green Man Inn at the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire at various locations in California; Mrs. Bombay presides over the Green Man Public House at the Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco. This has enabled Kathleen to mix 300 years’ worth of diverse cocktails and given her permanent temporal dislocation syndrome.

She lives in genteel poverty in Pismo Beach, California, with thousands of books,and Harry, a parrot who thinks he’s a space pirate.