The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Originally published 1968
Del Rey, 23rd printing, 1984
Synopsis & Review:In a quiet lilac wood lived a unicorn, alone but for the animals she watches over. Watching two hunters in her wood one day, she learns that there are no other unicorns left in the world, that none have been sighted in at least three generations. Frightened at the thought of being the only unicorn, she leaves her wood in search of the others. Out in the world again, the unicorn discovers that things have changed. No one believes in unicorns any longer, and so they no longer recognize her, thinking her just an odd white mare. Thanks to hints from a capricious butterfly, the unicorn searches for King Haggard and the Red Bull, for they hold the key to the mystery of where the unicorns went. Along the way she gathers companions, the largely incompetent Schmendrick the Magician and also Molly Grue, a sometime Maid Marian. When they encounter the Red Bull, the unicorn cannot resist him, and Schmendrick is forced to use magic to transform the unicorn into a human girl to save her. In human guise, she and her companions enter King Haggard’s castle, seeking the unicorns before the last unicorn forgets what she is forever and becomes mortal.
In 1984, Rankin/Bass made an animated movie of The Last Unicorn, scripted by Beagle, and with a stellar cast of voice actors, and it was enshrined in the hearts of countless little girls. Scratch most of the young women of my (non)generation, and you find fans of the film even today. Because the film had so enchanted me as a child, I snatched up a copy at a library book sale several years ago. (I also sought out and read The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride, but those are other stories.) A large part of The Last Unicorn’s resonance lay in the excellent source material, the novel of the same name (unsurprising, considering that Beagle also wrote the screenplay). It is a journey novel, a quest story, and one composed of many unlikely heroes; Schmenderick is inept, Molly disillusioned, and King Haggard’s adopted son Prince Lir is silly, but the unicorn affects them all, and all our heroes undergo tests of self-discovery in Haggard’s castle over the sea.
The story is deceptively simple, with the unlikely heroes journeying to the villain’s castle to defeat him and save the unicorns in distress, but Beagle’s lovely prose gives it a dreamlike feel while hiding gems of observation and humor. As one of the earliest post-modern fantasies, The Last Unicorn shines with wit and absurdity, often in tiny stolen moments that are easy to miss and delightful to catch, auguring the works of Pratchett and Gaiman. In what when is it set? The long ago, or the yet to come? Who knows when there are princesses co-existing with tacos, and folk heroes with field recordings. Beyond the lively humor, it is also unexpectedly moving for such a slight-seeming premise, as Beagle successfully makes his point that the humanity gained by the unicorn’s passage from her wood to mortality and back was more than worth the difficulty. This is the only novel that had me on the verge of tears within the first chapter, never mind the haunting and bittersweet ending. A beautifully written and imaginative fairy tale.
Schmendrick attempted a few simple spells for escaping, but he could not use his hands, and he had no more heart for tricks. What happened instead was that the tree fell in love with him and began to murmur fondly of the joy to be found in the eternal embrace of a red oak. “Always, always,” it sighed, “faithfulness beyond any man’s deserving. I will keep the color of your eyes when no other in the world remembers your name. There is no immortality but a tree’s love.”
“I’m engaged,” Schmendrick excused himself. “To a western larch. Since childhood. Marriage by contract, no choice in the matter. Hopeless. Our story is never to be.”
A gust of fury shook the oak, as though a storm were coming to it alone. “Galls and fireblight on her!” it whispered savagely. “Damned softwood, cursed conifer, deceitful evergreen, she’ll never have you! We will perish together, and all trees shall treasure our tragedy!”
Along his length Schmendrick could feel the tree heaving like a heart, and he feared that it might actually split in two with rage. The ropes were growing steadily tighter around him, and the night was beginning to turn red and yellow. He tried to explain to the oak that love was generous precisely because it could never be immortal, and then he tried to yell for Captain Cully; but he could only make a small, creaking sound, like a tree. “She means well,” he thought, and gave himself up for loved.
Then the ropes went slack as he lunged against them, and he fell to the gorund on his back, wriggling for air. The unicorn stood above him, dark as blood in his darkened vision. She touched him with her horn.