Since I was a child, I have loved unicorns.
And since I was a child, every unicorn I see or dream of will be compared to this one.
I, like many others, came to Peter S. Beagle, and specifically, his magnum opus “The Last Unicorn” because of the animated movie that captivated me when I was very young. The story is about a simple unicorn who one day realizes she is the “the last” in the entire world. This takes her on a quest to find her fellow unicorns, which leads her ultimately to King Haggard’s castle, believed to be the keeper of all the world’s unicorns – minus one, of course. Along the way she meets Schmendrick the Magician and the middle-aged, embittered woman Molly Grue. Before they reach the castle, however, the unicorn is attacked by the “Red Bull”, and Schmendrick is forced to turn her into a human girl for her own protection. This girl is then named “Lady Amalthea”, and the rest of the novel revolves around their infiltration of King Hagrid’s castle and the awful secret he keeps. When some of your fondest childhood TV memories include watching a bumbling magician change a dazzling unicorn into a beautiful young woman named Lady Amalthea in order to save her from the menacing beast known only as “The Red Bull,” you’re gonna go read the book.
Because the movie is so ingrained into me, however, I cannot help but compare the two mediums. They usually say the book is always better, but is it true? Of course, many things were cut from the book to make the classic movie, such as the entire “curse” of King Haggard’s castle and the town attached to it. But for the most part, the movie is beautifully faithful to the book, all the way down to the butterfly’s rhymes.
Beagle has a very approachable writing style that both tells a tale while never giving out too much information. He is a master of the omniscient POV, both common for the time period of the late 60s/early 70s, and a personal favorite of mine. While technically the Unicorn is the main character of the novel, Beagle also follows the minds of most of the other characters, and employs a level of sarcastic humor that only he could pull off. The setting is also completely baffling, considering it comes off as very medieval monarchy, but includes pistols and magazine subscriptions. All I can figure is that he leaves the setting completely ambiguous because the existence of unicorns, themselves, are ambiguous at best.
Even when compared to the movie, “The Last Unicorn” remains one of my favorite novels of all time. The characters are real and sympathetic, all the way down to the evil King Haggard who bases his entire life in the search for something to live for. The Unicorn touches everyone’s life in some subtle way, not least of all Prince Lir who falls in love with her human incarnation. Some may call the ending bittersweet, but I find it beautiful and perfect – the book is triumphant, hopeful, but still very, very real. Not everyone gets their happiest ending, but everyone gets what they’ve been looking for.
My bias perhaps clouds my judgment. But even if you’ve never seen the movie (what in the world are you waiting for?) you should still read this fantasy classic. It’s a short read, especially for the time period, and is full of artistic imagery and off-the-wall humor. Oh, and unicorns. Droves of them.
And I love me some unicorns.