Book Review: The Last Unicorn

Book Name: The Last Unicorn
Author: Peter S. Beagle
First Published: 1968

Peter S. Beagle was born and raised in New York City. He was a heavy reader from an early age and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his interests in becoming a writer. He was a contributor to his high school literary magazine and his work there caught the interest of the fiction editor of Seventeen Magazine. Beagle entered a poem into this magazine’s Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and took first place. The prize was a college scholarship that sent him to the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Beagle continued to create, prolifically turning out stories such as A Fine and Private Place and took first place at Seventeen Magazine’s short story contest with a tale called Telephone Call. He graduated with a degree in creative writing, a minor in Spanish language, and retained his passion for writing.

After a year abroad, he returned to the States and enrolled in a writing workshop at Stanford University where he met Enid, whom he would later marry. When the workshop ended, he bummed around the Eastern United States until he realized he would rather be with Enid who lived in California. He and a friend began a cross-country motorscooter journey that he would chronicle in his memoir I See By My Outfit. He and Enid moved in together and married. To support himself and his new family, Beagle wrote more short stories and novels, including his popular book The Last Unicorn.

The Last Unicorn took Beagle two years to write and he found it a difficult process. The idea came to him during an artistic retreat in Berkshire Hills after Viking Press had rejected one of his novels. The idea for The Last Unicorn intuitively appeared in his mind, it was inspired by all the fantasy tales he had loved during his childhood and by the book The Colt by Dorothy Lathrop. Beagle also stated that a painting by artist Marcial Rodriguez about unicorns fighting bulls added to the mix. The result was an 85 page manuscript that needed much revision and polish. The original story was set in modern times and the unicorn is accompanied by a two-headed demon named Webster and Azazel. This version is published as a limited edition by Suberranean Press and entitled: The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version. In 2005, Beagle published a sequel called Two Hearts which can be found in the anthology The Line Between. Two Hearts won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novelette.

During the 1970s, Beagle shifted from novels to screenplays and developing an alternate career as a folk singer. He plays guitar and sings in English, Yiddish, French and German. A performance of when he played at The Palms in Davis, CA is available. Between 1973 and 1985 you could find Beagle performing his music at the club L’Oustalou in Santa Cruz, CA almost every weekend. In 1980, his marriage to Enid ended and in 1985, he moved to Seattle, WA for a few years.

Today, Beagle is still writing stories and screenplays. He has remarried to Indian author and artist Padma Hejmadi. They reside in Davis, CA. Beagle is a regular on the university circuit where he gives readings, lectures, and concerts. He conducts writing workshops at the University of Washington and at Clarion West.

“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”
― Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

What is the nature of love and mortality? In The Last Unicorn, we explore this idea by following the story of a unicorn who believes she is the last of her species. She decides to go on a quest to discover what happened to the others. Leaving her magical forest, she is dismayed to learn that humans no longer see her as she is, but instead mistake her for a white horse. She is captured by a wandering gypsy and added to the woman’s traveling menagerie of “mythical” beasts. Only the magician Schmendrick, who is employed by the gypsy woman, sees the unicorn for what she truly is. He frees her and joins her quest.

Hints of where the unicorns may be lead to the castle of King Haggard where a monster known as “the red bull” lives. On the way to the castle, the pair are beset by bandits. They come to attention of the bandit’s wife, Molly who laments that she only finds her unicorn when she is middle-aged and no longer innocent. Still, she joins the pair on their quest to Hagsgate.

The trio is then attacked once again, this time by the red bull itself. During the battle, the unicorn is unable to escape, so Schmendrick transforms her into a human to confuse the bull. Thus, the unicorn becomes “Lady Amalthea” and the three ingrate themselves into King Haggar’s court.

As they stay in the castle and try to learn what was the fate of the unicorns, Amalthea undergoes a mental transformation. She forgets that she was once a unicorn and instead allows herself to be romanced by King Haggard’s son, Prince Lir.

What was the fate of the unicorns? Will Amalthea regain her memory in time to save them? Will Prince Lir become the hero he longs to be and capture the fair lady’s heart? You will have to read this classic fantasy tale to find the answers.

Book Cover The Last UnicornMy introduction to The Last Unicorn was the animated feature produced by Rankin/Bass in the 1980’s. Peter Beagle wrote the screenplay himself and the animation was done by Topcraft, a forerunner of Studio Ghibli. It is a wonderful film and stands the test of time. Viewing the movie caused me to seek out the book, which is much richer and subtle than the cartoon and it served as my introduction to the work of this author.

What stays with me is it is not a standard fairytale, but a story that stands traditional tropes on its head. First, the hero is female. Either as a unicorn or a woman, this is Amalthea’s story and transformation. She does not set off on her journey because of a love interest as many female heroines do, but in the noble pursuit of discovering what happened to her people. Her two sidekicks, Magician Schmendrick and Molly McGure, are both well-rounded characters who are far from the typical companions of a hero. Prince Lir, a name taken from a Celtic sea-god and having Shakespearean overtones, is comical as he attempts to play the hero and full fill his destiny, a fate that is far from what he suspects. In this, he is also atypical, a male that plays a secondary role in the story. Although there is a feminist bent to the tale, it is not overt and I believe that anyone who enjoys stories about fantasy or unicorns would enjoy the story. This is a classic tale that should not be missed, not matter if you are young or young at heart.

One thought on “Book Review: The Last Unicorn”

  1. I’ve seen the film many years ago and fell in love with it.
    A few years ago, I was lucky enough to find a 1970s version of the story (though it is in Italian, ma native language, not in the original English) and one copy of the limited editon.
    I still have to read the book, but I certainly do. It’s a wonderful story with a deep message.

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