I know what you probably think when you hear the word “unicorn.” You picture a violet-eyed, snow white horse with a golden horn and glitter in its candy pink mane. It would giggle and frolic and fart rainbows and generally be the most asinine, girly member of the pantheon of mythical beasts. Surely, most of us would rather read about dragons, griffins, or even a nice sea serpent.
Original image found here.
It’s difficult to imagine someone who could take the Lisa Frank/My Little Pony-esque sting out of the image that the unicorn has acquired over the years, but that’s exactly what Peter S. Beagle does through the pages of THE LAST UNICORN. Whatever quaint notions you may harbor about these creatures being the over-caffeinated cheerleaders of the fantasy world, prepare to abandon them. These aren’t your mother’s unicorns.
Beagle’s unicorn comes to life on the page as a strange, majestic beast capable of wonders and horrors, violence and mercy. Her mind is a logical, deliberate place, her view of the world tinged with a cool detachment. Being a supernatural being with the casual arrogance that comes with magical prowess and the wisdom of having seen the centuries pass, she lacks a truly empathetic nature. When she encounters our mortal griefs, the best she can manage sometimes is pity, because our human emotions and concerns are strange to her. Unlike we mere mortals, the unicorn explains to us early in the book that her kind are incapable of feeling regret.
Added to this alien viewpoint is her awareness of her own beauty, which she enjoys admiring in ponds, and her consciousness of her legendary status, which merits parades and fanfare in her view. And yet, these almost unpleasant-sounding characteristics come together across the pages to create a creature who is not one whit unlikeable. Indeed, her vanity has an odd charm to it. And given that she is a creature whose horn can cow a dragon, return the dead to life, and shatter illusions, the reverence she expects is well-deserved. Besides, there is an odd vulnerability to her, beneath all of her supernatural badassery. Like a hermit making her way into the bustling wide world, you find yourself nervous for her as she sets out on her quest, and catching glimpses of the unexpected sensitivity hidden beneath her seemingly dispassionate nature.
The story revolves around the unicorn’s startling discovery that she is the last of her kind left in the world. Unicorns are solitary creatures, so she has not been concerned by the fact that she hadn’t seen another unicorn for some time. Then she overhears a conversation between two hunters, who know that they’re in a unicorn’s forest and lament that the poor beast is the last, as all the rest have vanished. And while she initially can’t believe that it’s true, she has to know for sure. If something has become of her people, she either has to find them or join them in their fate. And so begins her quest.
Pick up a copy here.
It is jarring for the unicorn to leave her forest. Her presence there kept it safe and peaceful and the odd, anachronistic world beyond its limits does not seem kind. Indeed, men in the world no longer know her for what she is, and there are dangers that threaten even a creature like her. However, like any good hero, our unicorn gets by with a little help from her friends. She is ultimately joined on her quest by Schmendrick the magician, a bumbling magic-user with an unusual curse, and Molly Grue, a sensible middle-aged woman who was formerly a cook for a group of Merry Men wannabes. Schmendrick charms as a secret softy who employs the skillful patter of a used car salesman to escape disaster when his magic fails him (as it often does). Meanwhile, though she sometimes comes off as pushy, Molly is a marvelous, practical foil for a grandiose personality like Schmendrick’s, with a deep sense of compassion to soften her and save her from severity. These colorful cast members add humor and humanity to the tale, giving us a more familiar lens through which to view the world. From the macabre wonders of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival to the twisted towers of King Haggard’s castle, these travelers keep us amused, invested, and entertained.
The writing in this book is beyond amazing. Peter S. Beagle’s words have a strange music, where unicorns are the “careless color of seafoam,” cats look like piles of autumn leaves, and no matter how much a magician may seek to school his expression, his nose always gets away from him. My writerly heart when pitter-pat with envy as Beagle described how the spiral staircase of Haggard’s tower squeezed in on them like a sweaty fist and later conjured images of a brisk wind that “leaped here and there in the room like a gleeful animal discovering the flimsiness of human beings.” A master wordsmith, the words he strings together are seldom words you would expect to see standing shoulder-to-shoulder in any sentence, and yet their combination makes perfect sense. Much like a good poem evokes feeling using unexpected imagery, so, too, does Beagle’s artful prose stir one’s heart and imagination to a gleeful frothing.
Likewise, his dialogue has the kind of lovely, poetic logic that makes perfect sense in a fairy tale. In this story, young girls are the ideal questing beasts and one look in a woman’s eyes suggests that she is either mad or just born that morning.
Overall, Beagle’s imaginative and unexpected work was like a beautiful and haunting dream. The combination of his legendary, medieval setting peppered with oddities like a butterfly singing of trains and a prince reading a magazine made me unsure of what world I was dwelling in, but I was absolutely certain that I never wanted to leave it. The plot unfolded with expert pacing, subplots cropping up in flourishes like dashes of paint on an artist’s canvas, and everything tied together in the end exactly as it should. And in the same way that he made a unicorn so much more than a pretty beast, Beagle transformed this fairy tale into so much more than just a bedtime story. There was an epic quality, and yet a humility and a humanity to it. And much in the way that a good song will echo in your mind long after you first hear it, the themes and images in this book resonated in my heart long after I turned the final page.
In the end, I understood the quote from Patrick Rothfuss written along the bottom of the cover: “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again.”
Hear hear, Mr. Rothfuss. I heartily agree.