Book Title: The Last Unicorn
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Style: Chapter book
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Page Count: 304
Format: Hardcover (Trilogy collection reprint)
Reading time: 3.5 hours
Date Finished: 2/21/17
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In a word: Fantastic!
My full impressions: I never read The Last Unicorn or watched the film adaptation of the book as a child, and though I had a friend who was a big fan of both, I couldn’t bring myself, as a teenage boy, to read a book about unicorns. It just sounded too feminine to me, and it wasn’t until I saw the film as a grown-up that I realized what a unique and interesting story Peter S. Beagle had crafted, filled with excellent fantasy, great humor, unique characters and a soulful plotline that worked hard to keep its titular unicorn special and distinct. It’d never occurred to me to read the book until I realized I already owned a copy, and now that I’ve read it, I’ve even had to go back and re-watch the film (which has a screenplay by the author and which is astonishingly faithful) because I enjoyed this book so much.
The story of The Last Unicorn involves a unicorn who realizes that she may be the last of her kind and who leaves the safety of her forest to find out what happened to the other unicorns who once existed in the world. On her journey, she discovers that they were all gathered up and captured by King Haggard and his mysterious Red Bull, and she finds herself on a quest to rescue her kin. Along for the ride is a failure of a magician named Schmendrick (truly one of the great comic characters in fantasy storytelling) and a middle-aged woman named Molly Grue who’s somewhat of a grown-up Maid Marian from a band of forest outlaws who pretend to be as high-minded as Robin Hood, but who are really just a bunch of brigands.
Things go awry when Schmendrick saves the unicorn from an encounter with the Red Bull by turning her into a human, and the unicorn becomes Lady Amalthea, a beautiful human girl who becomes the beloved of King Haggard’s son Prince Lir, but who also begins to lose a sense of being a unicorn as she becomes accustomed to being a mortal human instead.
In many ways, this is a very weird story, because it has constant references to the fact that the characters understand they’re part of a fairy tale and they have some extant knowledge of the modern world (famously, the brigand Cully’s band refers to making recordings of folk singers in the woods and eating tacos). This is all played very tongue-in-cheek, and the story has some great moments of humor. Schmendrick, in particular, has a good laugh at many of the strange things he encounters. At the same time, there’s a quite serious heart to what’s going on, and the unicorn lacks any sense of irony or ability to laugh at the absurdity of what goes on around her. This makes her story all the more compelling; she takes things just seriously enough that the reader is drawn to her point of view, and when she feels pain or loss, it is felt powerfully by the reader as well.
The result is a story where I laughed and felt tears, particularly in my edition’s inclusion of an extended epilogue (a coda of a short story called “Two Hearts”) that introduces a new character, the 9-year-old Sooz, who seeks out the aging King Lir to dispatch a griffin that’s eating her village’s children. The story effectively gets the gang back together, and it’s warm and heartfelt, providing some closure for one of the unresolved plot threads regarding unrequited love in the novel itself.
My edition also included some insightful interview and essay material from the author; it’s fascinating to see how much Peter S. Beagle loves this book and at the same time, has experienced so many mixed feelings about handing it off to an audience. He confesses he struggled with not only the writing (which took two years and an entire rewrite from his original 85-page draft), but the notion that what he’d written was good for anyone but himself. Clearly, he wrote something that touched a very deep chord in his readers, and both the book and the film are rightly beloved today.