The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Two of my favorite books tonight/today because I feel like it. Both are the base for popular cult films.

Last Unicorn is one of those books that IS like the movie. There were differences of course. Singing and animation and a few key scenes left out. Re-phrasing of dialogue was practiced. But all in all – and I think it’s because Beagle either wrote the script or helped write it, the movie remained remarkably similar to the novel.

Unicorn is one of those books (and I think I’ve said this before) reading it makes you fall in love with it, but in the end, if you are me, you despair a little because you know you will never, never, never write anything as good. Every other sentence is splendid and like a note of music. It all goes together to create a brilliant symphony of color and sound and emotion.

From the dedication in the first page: To the memory of Dr. Olfert Dapper, who saw a wild unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673, and for Robert Nathan, who has seen one or two in Los Angelos to the last page, which ends with a song, the book is riveting and fascinating.

Now before you go rushing off to google Dr. Olfert I have to tell you that I have already done it and it’s rather disappointing. Olfert never left his native Holland, even though he was a writer and ‘expert’ on distant lands. (How is that possible? you may query. Rightfully so. It was 1670. Most people were not well-traveled. To be fair, Dr Dapper never said HE saw one, he merely describes the unicorn in it’s natural habitat.)

It seems that Beagle was probably trying to be more humorous than not, and that in itself is not surprising as the whole book is a satirical fairy tale.

Our story begins with the Unicorn, who lurks about her trees and small forest and makes everything always spring. One day, she eavesdrops (and eavesdroppers never hear anything good of themselves) on two hunters one of whom is describing how she must be the Last Unicorn in the world since no one has seen a unicorn since his grandmother was a young girl.

The Unicorn begins to think about this and be unhappy as she debates on whether or not to go and look for the others. She hates to leave, but of course she does go and so begins our story. Along the way she is captured by a traveling carnival run by a sham witch who slaps a fake horn on her so the villagers can see her.

Schmendrick the magician is the carnival’s employee, and he alone sees the Unicorn for what she is and frees her. He tags along with her and they run across Molly Grue, who is a satire of Maid Marion, but who can also see the Unicorn. Little by little, the three make their way to King Haggard’s country and the castle that houses the Red Bull.

Not an energy drink!

Although an interesting comparison.

The quote is from King James.

“His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.”–Deuteronomy 33:17

The Red Bull has rounded up the Unicorns and herded them into the sea where they float around on the tide for King Haggard’s delight since he is this guy who NOTHING makes happy except watching Unicorns. Hes one disgruntled King. He only enjoys his life when other people are miserable. The three get attacked by the Bull and Schmendrick the bumbling magician uses his brief grasp of magic to turn the Unicorn into a woman.

Here is one of my favorite parts of the whole book. The Unicorn is lamenting her change into something mortal and wonders how anything that can die can be truly beautiful. In answer Schmendrick tells them the story of his own life.

Because of his inept ability to practice magic, his teacher explains to him that he is either the worst failure in the world or the most amazing magician that he, the teacher, has ever seen. In order to find out, the teacher casts a spell on Schmendrick, giving him immortality until he figures out his skill. When he can discover his magic, he will begin to die. So essentially because he has been mortal and is now immortal, he knows that dying is best and is the thing that makes one live. When the Unicorn says she does not understand, Schmendrick tells her that she will and that now she is in the story with the rest of them.

With that they name the Unicorn ‘Lady Almalthea’ and set off to find out how to kill the Bull and save the other unicorns.

Way to step out of a funny, ironic, fairy-tale and lay some heavy ideas on the reader. But Beagle does it marvelously. And he does it throughout the novel, shifting back and forth between humor and thoughtfulness and passion and despair with an ease I can only envy him for. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know what happens, but trust me when I tell you that you are missing some important depth to the story if you never read the book.

The gorgeous writing itself is worth picking it up for.

I suppose what I like best about this book is that it is completely one hundred percent original even though it draws on a number of well-known tales and myths. It’s funny and it has it’s dark moments, too. It’s sad, but it is hopeful. In the end you feel invested in all the characters and curious to know what happens to them.

Aside: Beagle wrote a follow-up novella called Two Hearts that gives you a rather vague and somewhat depressing end to the love story of Lir and Almalthea, but that’s another review.

The Last Unicorn stands by itself when it comes to fantasy works. I can’t think of any book that is like it. I guess that is the reason it’s one of my favorite stories.

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Filed under Fantasy, Literature

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