Book Review: “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle

Title: The Last Unicorn
Series: No.
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Pages: 212
Published: 1968
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A unicorn, hearing that she may be the last of her kind, sets out to find the other unicorns, with the help of an almost-incompetent wizard and weary woman who has lost her way in life. To do so, they must confront the infamous King Haggard and his terrifying, enigmatic Red Bull.
Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard of it for quite some time, always mentioned with fondness and respect, and finally snatched it up.
Reason for Finishing: A truly beautiful fairy tale, which manages the difficult task of including bits of anachronistic whimsy and humor without letting them ruin the solemnity of the magic.
Story Re-readability: High. It’s short and fast-paced, but expertly written and atmospheric.
Author Re-readability: I would gladly read anything else by Beagle. He chooses only the right words to express himself and can swiftly build charcaters that feel warm and real, yet never too far removed from their fairy-tale roots. He understands that taking fantasy seriously doesn’t always mean being serious.
Recommendation: Yes and again yes, for everyone with the slightest interest in fantasy and fairy tales. This is one of those few books that really deserves the label of “classic.”

Key Thoughts

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.

“She still moved like a shadow on the sea.” The music of this phrase was the first of the hundreds in this book that made me fall in love with it. Mr. Beagle has a passion for words on their own merits, in addition to their meanings and the stories they can tell. Not an image or metaphor is haphazard or ineffective. Each is striking, burbling with life, original, and perfectly fitted to its object. The smell of iron “seemed to turn [the unicorn’s] bones to sand and her blood to rain.” A hostile crowd begins “to hiss like embers.” Firelight makes a sleeping cat “look like a heap of autumn leaves.” The escape of a wicked harpy from her iron cage is described in terms of a terrible blooming flower, the cage falling away as the harpy rises screaming into the air, “her hair swinging like swords.”

The Mel Grant painting from which the cover was taken. His illustrations in the book are sketches and quite effective.

There is a joy and beauty to this book that feels effortless, as if Mr. Beagle had just happened to find the story growing in a strange, secluded grove, plucked it from the tree of childhood dreams, and handed it to us as a gift. It is a fairy tale, and knows it. The characters tell each other so themselves, and discuss the implications of the traditional fairy tale structure on their lives. When the magician tells the mysterious white girl, “You’re in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no…you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard’s castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you,” there is the sense that there is a sort of Fairy Tale Providence that guides its characters down predestined paths, often against their will, but most likely for their own good.

The plot ebbs and flows, sometimes stopping to visit a curious place by the side of the road but never straying too far. It moves quickly, but not hastily, if you catch my meaning. Like an experienced traveler who never fails to take in all that is around him, even while his gait is so assured that he always seems to arrive at his destination right when he needs to.

But let you not think this is some verbose or dreary tale of philosophy masquerading as entertainment. Far from it! The Last Unicorn is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It is filled equally with pathos and humor, beauty and terror. There are beautiful, magical forests populated by obscure, slightly incompetent outlaws who think themselves Robin Hoods and eat tacos. There are gypsies running a farcical circus that happens to contain a genuine, dangerous harpy. There is a butterfly who sings in pop songs and poetry, and there is the Red Bull, one of the most genuinely terrifying creatures in any story I have encountered.

The main law of his existence seems to be inevitability: you can never escape him, because he is always fast enough to catch you, large enough to squash you or small enough follow you through caves, smart enough to corner you or herd you in the direction of his will, and just mindless enough that you cannot reason with him. He is a force, whether of nature or of magic, or perhaps of something else. He is a riddle that remains largely unsolved, and is the more effective for it. I can still feel the rumble of the earth as he rages down the mountain.

Also by Mel Grant.

The unicorn herself is superb. She is just how I would imagine a unicorn might be, were she real. Wise and beautiful beyond anything purely natural, of course, yet also aloof, because of her immortality, and somewhat disconnected from the world around her. We are privy to her thoughts, but they are rarely the thoughts any mortal creature would have. And so it is that we feel as though we get to know her, but cannot claim that we really understand her. There is an element to the unicorn that is always unpredictable. We cannot fully comprehend her being, nor can she fully comprehend ours. It is a phenomenon that her human friends, Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lír all try to come to grips with. It also leads to some interesting arguments. Just because the unicorn is uncannily wise and probably thousands of years old does not mean she is infallible. And her judgments are even and final, sometimes ruthless. Mr. Beagle has written the most iconic and best unicorn I have come across.

Side characters also enrich the story. Ironically, their very down-to-earth and realistic natures complement the magical side of the story instead of detract from it. The unicorn is more the perfect fairy tale creature when contrasted with the hopes and sorrows, failures and uncertainties of Schmendrick and Molly. She is more unworldly and pristine beside their many-colored humanity. Prince Lír lacks a little of their depth, but mainly because he is young while Schmendrick and Molly are middle-aged and mature in life experiences. I liked him, but I loved the latter two. Even Haggard himself is layered and surprisingly believable, even a bit sad and lonely, far from the cliché wicked king I initially expected.

Tender. Terrifying. Lovely. Silly. Somber. Magical. Human, in the best way. There is power in this book.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle

  1. What a beautiful review! You know how much I love this book, and I can fully say you do it justice.

    I’m glad to hear that the Red Bull succeeded to evoke a kind of wordless, unexplainable fear. That’s exactly what I’ve always thought of him since I first saw the movie, but because my emotions are also tied to the images and music of the film, I wasn’t sure what it would be like for someone who only knows him from the book. But it’s interesting, the Bull almost seems like an amoral force, too. It’s the force of Haggard’s desire, and because his desire is unrestrained and inordinate, the Bull becomes a force of terror. But the Bull itself seems almost innocent of the evil it perpetrates. I’m not sure what the moral of that is, but it’s fascinating.

    You mentioned that King Haggard had unexpected depth and believability. I love it when he talks about ‘his’ unicorns. He says, “I like to watch them. They fill me with joy. I am sure it is joy. The first time I felt it, I thought I was going to die.” He describes the sight of his first unicorn, and then he repeats, “I thought I was going to die.” It’s exactly like Lewis’s descriptions of joy in his autobiography: a pain that is so sublime that you want keep experiencing it.

    Are you going to watch the film? I think it is a very good adaptation. Schmendrick’s character is a little off, but that is my only real complaint. Beagle helped with the screenplay, so on the whole, it is very accurate. The music (both the songs by America) and the score is pretty much perfect. I loved the movie long before I read the book. I was just a wee thing, but it called to something in me long before I could have described what that was. It’s funny; I only recently have found words for the kinds of things the story symbolizes, but my love for those things has been with me all my life. So if you asked me what the most important story is to me, it’s the Last Unicorn, definitely.

    1. P.S. I forgot to add a recommendation for further Beagle reading. I haven’t actually read many of his novels, but Tamsin was quite good. It’s a modern (ish) retelling of the Tam Lin story, set in England with lots of English fairy folklore. And the narrator has a very fun voice.

    2. Thank you! I’m quite surprised how well it turned out, considering the entire review was written very late last night, when my brain was shot and my mind was tired and I was generally unhappy with myself for having completely wasted the past hour in a bad way. When I finally forced myself to write this, there may have been an element of escaping myself in remembering the wonders of the book. Perhaps that helped.

      That’s a great way of putting it: that the Red Bull is almost innocent of his evil. He has no malice, nor apparently any will or desire of his own. He’s terrifying, but if he served the right Will, he’d become a force for good at the blink of an eye. How he became linked to Haggard is a mystery that I do wish the book revealed, but mostly because I think Beagle is good enough to make the secret worth it. But as it is, I don’t mind not knowing. I’d rather this fascinating mystery, that makes a certain fairy-tale sense, than an explanation that removes any of the magic.

      Aye, that’s part of what made Haggard so interesting. So often villains in fantasy or sci-fi are complete monsters with no comprehension of what is good or beautiful. But Haggard does acknowledge these things. He yearns for Joy and love, but perhaps as something to possess rather than something that comes from giving them to others. He doesn’t want to destroy the unicorns’ beauty, but to possess it, in the hopes that it will make him happy.

      I’ll definitely seek out the movie.

  2. Wonderful wonderful review and I completely agree. I just finished this last month and I thoroughly enjoyed it for so many of the reasons you laid out. My review has been percolating for weeks, but now I just might point people here… ;)

    I was impressed with the subtlety of such an ostensibly “easy” story — and it’s been quite some time since I’ve felt myself transported by a tale like this one. It made me feel both young and old at the same time. Does that make any sense?

    1. It is quite subtle, isn’t it? Moreso than I expected. Deceptively simple. Doesn’t waste a word, a character, or an image. I think it does make sense, what you say, about it making you feel old and young at the same time. The youthfulness is from the sense of wonder and joy it elicits in us comparable to how most stories made us feel when we were young. The elder quality is from the story’s maturity and wisdom. As a child I would have enjoyed this book a lot. As an adult, I am even more impressed by it.

      I’ll never discourage you from linking to me +), but I would love to hear your own thoughts more specifically. As would others, I’m sure.

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