Book Review – The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

For once, I can barely hear the clack of the keyboard as I write this. Instead, my office is overwhelmed by the jilted crash of my $30 printer doing its damnedest to give me a refined physical copy of The Steel Armada.

It’s mostly working. It can only print about 20 pages at a time, so I have to keep stopping to refill the paper, and the contraption is housed in a less than convenient place, so I have to get out of my seat, grab a sheaf of papers, and then kneel under my desk to actually feed the beast.

But, having a physical representation of all the hard work that went into making draft #2 look as good as it does feels amazing. Now that it’s sitting here, all pristine and shiny, I almost feel bad about tearing to pieces over the next few months.

Almost.

But, we’re here to discuss The Last Unicorn.

This was the flast-unicornirst book of Book Club session #3. We were all pretty excited for it, and it was a quick read. I was thankful for that because I cut it pretty close trying to read a million other things. But, it only took about two days to read Beagle’s fantasy classic. Only myself and one other person showed, the rest being ill. So it was a quick meeting too!

I would say that this story is a modern fairy tale. It doesn’t follow any of the writing conventions I’ve been taught, which made it a little difficult to read. Sentence structures are often awkward, and character perspective shifts all over the place. These are things that would be a death sentence for a book seeking publication today, but Beagle’s novel managed to get away with.

Probably by the virtue of its romantic whimsy.

Like most fairy tales I’ve read, there are a lot of consistent themes in this book, and when they raise their head they take the form of lines so startling in their beauty and truth that they stand out from the rest of the clunky prose.

The Last Unicorn is a book about beauty, love, and time. The Unicorn, for she has no other name, is a creature whose beauty is unmatched, and her immortality leaves her immune to love and time. She wants nothing, needs nothing, and likes it that way.

But, when she hears two hunters say that all the unicorns have vanished from the world, she is driven to leave her secluded wood to seek them out. An unwilling adventurer, the Unicorn soon realizes that men cannot see her true form, because they no longer believe that unicorns even exist.

schmendrick-meets-the-unicorn

Schmendrick meets the Unicorn, artwork by Mel Grant

But, not everyone is so convinced, especially not those who have any hint of magic in them. Schmendrick is one such man. A magician of the bumbling variety, he is plagued with doubt and ineptitude to the point that his rescue of the Unicorn from an evil circus owner turns into the Unicorn rescuing him from a furious Harpy.

He’s also my favorite character.

Ever hopeful and bumbling, Schmendrick accompanies the Unicorn on her quest, and they soon meet up with Molly Grue who is a bitter and cynical woman who lived with a would-be Robin Hood. But, the glory days of their robberies were far behind them, if there ever were such days, and upon seeing the Unicorn Molly Grue leaves the band of thieves behind.

haggards-castle

King Haggard’s Castle, artwork by Mel Grant

And so the story goes on, and it follows a very fairy tale formula, while at once mocking the fairy tale formula. I think that tongue and cheek element also redeems the story from its choppy delivery.

In order to save the Unicorn from certain death, Schmendrick turns her (quite accidentally) into a startlingly gorgeous human woman. The three of them then visit the castle and gain employment with the bitter and cursed King Haggard. Ah, but the cursed king has a noble son, Prince Lír, who promptly falls in love with the Unicorn, now known as Lady Amalthea. And the longer she’s human the less she remembers of herself and the more she falls for the Prince.

But, in the end, Molly Grue and Schmendrick figure out how to release the unicorns, and help Amalthea return to her true form. But, her love for Lír has changed her forever. She tells Schmendrick that some small part of her will always be mortal, will always long for something, though she wants nothing, and that time suddenly matters to her, though she is immortal again.

molly-meets-schmendrick

Molly Grue meets Schmendrick, artwork by Mel Grant

And that’s all sad and whatnot. But what I think was the more powerful element in the story is the love that blossoms between Schmendrick and Molly Grue. They started out as bitter opponents, literally keeping to their own sides of the Unicorn, and by the end they were an unspoken team. After the Unicorn leaves their presence, Schemndrick watches Molly laugh and shake her head until her hair fell loose around her shoulders, “and she was more beautiful than the Lady Amalthea”.

They came together naturally, and their normalcy is only enhanced by the presence of the Unicorn. Her undeniable otherness shows just how beautiful normal love can be. Another line that struck me was when Schmendrick lifted he and Molly Grue up the cliff face. “The magic lifted her as if she were a note of music and it were singing her.” It’s such a delicate and pretty line, made all the more meaningful because it’s Schmendrick’s newfound magic it refers to.

I should add that I’ve never seen the film, though I hear it’s currently on Netflix. I’ll have to add it to the queue. And, I’ll have to add this book to my shelf. It deserves a place with my other favorite fairy tales, Howl’s Moving Castle and Stardust.

I really wish I’d seen the movie and read the book as a child. I think it would have been more powerful and influencing to me then. Now, as an adult, I read everything a little too critically to fully appreciate the magic in it. At least, I feel that way sometimes. The clunky passages wouldn’t have mattered to 12 year old me; I probably wouldn’t even have noticed. But 27 year old me got stuck on each one.

But, 12 year old me would have had a completely unhealthy crush on Schmendrick, so at least I avoided that. Who am I kidding? I loved the guy! I just get to move on a bit quicker. On to Jackaby!

Anyway, this is mandatory reading for fantasy fans. It’s an essential of the genre, that knows its tropes and uses them purposefully to show how silly they are. It’s clever, and poignant, and fun to read.

Now, I just have to watch the movie!

 

BZ

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5 thoughts on “Book Review – The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

  1. Look up the plight of the author Peter Beagle. He was quite badly conned by a predatorial manager who said he was doing a lot of business to support Peter and get his rights back from previous bad deals. A lot of fans believed it and paid for a movie tour. He stole all that money and Peter has been suing the former manager since 2015 for fraud and elder abuse.

  2. Like many girls, I was obsessed with unicorns as a kid and saw the movie about 1000 times (give or take a 100). When I discovered the book as a pre-teen, I immediately attached myself to it and have probably read it at least once every few years. It’s just a lovely story. That’s terrible to hear about the author, though.

    • I wish I’d been exposed to either the film or book as a child, because it’s the perfect story to help shape an imagination and would cling to you through adulthood. But I’ll settle for meeting the Unicorn now, just like Molly Grue.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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