The Last Unicorn
by Peter S. Beagle
The unicorn who dwells in the lilac woods senses that she is the last one. The others of her kind have gone… and she does not know where they went. She sets out to find them.
Along the way she finds a circus of fakes… and one true terror. She encounters the great magician Schmendrick who does no magic. She is captured by a deadly gang of noble thieves. A woman claims the unicorn as her own.
And at the end of the world, she finds a castle by the sea, a terrible creature that would destroy every last unicorn, and a prince who needs to be taught to be a hero.
Many of you might know this better from the animated movie by the same name (and written by the book’s author, as well!). I have fond memories of watching the movie when I was young, but I really don’t remember any of it, so I won’t be able to compare the two versions.
The prose’s whimsy captured me from the beginning. The book owed far more to Dunsany and MacDonald than Tolkien, that’s for sure. This isn’t “epic fantasy” at all, but a wondrous journey through mystical lands with truly bewitching characters. I get the feeling that Beagle didn’t plan out the full plot ahead of time – the plot meanders through a number of episodes before getting to the “meat” of the story. Other than the gathering of secondary characters, the episodes don’t feed into the climax at the end.
The writing is almost magical. If read aloud, I get the feeling the reader would utter all the prose in a hushed voice, although the characters would certainly speak and laugh with gusto. Yet, it’s also very clear that the author didn’t take himself terribly seriously. Intentional anachronisms abound. The characters, at least at times, know they’re in a story and act accordingly. Schmendrick in particular will comment on the necessity of this or that action, because that is how stories must go.
I mentioned the episodic nature of the plot; that quick sequence of events kept the story rolling early on. However, once the unicorn and her entourage reach the castle by the sea, the action… simply stops. I lost nearly all interest once they gained entrance to the castle, despite the fact that Beagle had set up great characters and a compelling plot up to that point. I don’t know if the fault is in me or the writing, but I struggled through a few chapters at that point. Perhaps I can blame the antagonist, who seems to suck all joy out of everything around him until the unicorn arrives.
I did love how magic works in this world. I’ve heard of fantasy authors struggling to create magic systems that are magical and can’t be copied in real world applications – after all, there are too many nuts that will try to mimic the magic of such stories. (David Eddings writes about this at some length in his Riven Codex.) Here, magic simply works when it feels like working… for the most part. It’s not a magic word (though such words can help coax magic along) nor is it necessarily a certain something in a person, though of course talent also helps. Beagle never really digs into his system – magic is merely a plot device, wondrous though it is.
I’d recommend this book, especially to see a fantasy distinct from the Tolkien school. Despite slow sections, the magical writing will capture your imagination as well.