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.

No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links

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Welcome back to another Monday of writer’s links on No Wasted Ink.  This week I have articles about editing, fountain pens, and general writing tips.  I hope you enjoy them!

Fountain Pen Guide For The Left-Handed Writer

20 Deadly Grammatical Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

5 Analog Tools I Can’t Live Without (and Why)

The Other Side of the Desk: What I Learned as a Writer Editing a Lit Mag

Paralyzing Fear and Creative Professions

8 Ways to Write Better SFF

THE ADVANTAGES OF SELF-PUBLISHING

5 Rules for How to Write a Sequel to Your Book

ADVICE FOR YOUNG WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS

The Single Best Way to Become a Mega-Author

Using Ideas to Start A Story by Alicia Rasley

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Thanks, Wendy, for inviting me to talk today about “idea” as a way to start a story. Some stories, especially those classified as “speculative fiction,” start not with anything concrete like character or setting, but with an idea to be explored.

As science fiction writer Orson Scott Card explains, “Idea stories are about the process of seeking and discovering new information through the eyes of characters who are driven to make the discoveries.”

That’s really the appeal of an idea story. No matter what it turns out to be, it starts as an intellectual puzzle. In the spirit of that sort of intellectual mission, let’s consider some ways an idea can start a story.

Questions. For example, many mysteries start with a scene that presents a question, one of the oldest questions of all, “Whodunnit?” But most authors add some additional complication, like, what could kill a man alone in a locked room? (Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal detective story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was perhaps the first to pose that question.) The point of these “idea-mysteries” is to challenge the intellect of the sleuth (and author and reader) to go beyond the expected and familiar to speculate, innovate, and interrelate clues to come up with possible though unlikely solutions.

What-ifs. This is a specialized question that truly is speculative, as it seeks to imagine something that hasn’t happened (and probably won’t). This is more of an experiment than an exploration. A good recent example is The Martian, which poses the question, “What if an astronaut was left behind on Mars?” A great classic example is Oedipus the King, which asks, “What if the detective learns he’s actually the murderer?”

There’s also a what-if variety that experiments with the past, in alternative histories like Harry Turtledove’s The Great War inspire the author and reader to consider how the present might be changed if an important past event were changed. These alternative histories have a point beyond the mere alteration, however. Philip K. Dick’s “Man in the High Castle” takes the question “What if the Nazis had taken over the United States?” to pose the deeper question, “Would Americans resist?”

Themes. A theme is a message, a “moral to the story,” that can usually be stated in a sentence, but is better developed through story events. The film Chinatown, for example, uses the “water wars” of southern California to explore the theme of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The difficult task in theme-based stories is to avoid being preachy. I’d suggest having the theme in mind and creating characters who have to discover that truth, but only at the END of the story. That way, the theme evolution will be a more organic process.

Perspective. A perspective-based story requires, you guessed it, an alteration of perspective, demonstrating that what you see is dictated partly by where you’re seeing from. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities juxtaposes the experience of the French Revolution in Paris with that of London, that of a victim with that of an observer. A variation of this perspective-test is the “fish out of water” plot, where our world is viewed through the eyes of an alien or stranger.

In my opinion, this is one of the most socially important genres, as it forces our notoriously solipsistic species to examine ourselves objectively—something more and more essential in a diverse culture.

Concepts. A concept is the simplest and yet most profound of ideas, often expressed in a single word— Freedom. Dispossession. Exile. The speculative aspect of this comes from recognizing that simple concepts are actually the opposite of simple and that only a story and a character can truly portray the complexities. For example, the film Casablanca explores the concept of “neutrality” through the cynical and detached character of Rick, a symbol of the isolationist United States trying to stay isolated in those dark months before Pearl Harbor.
Starting with the concept but developing it through the complications of a 3-D person within a culture is a good way to avoid the sort of closed system that readers of speculative fiction loathe.

Twists. This story takes something conventional and twists it to produce something both familiar and exotic. You’ll often see this in novels aimed at teens and pre-teens, as connecting the normal with the unusual trains them in the important mental skill of skepticism and imagination.

The trick here is to make the base story perfectly plausible (Harry Potter really is going to boarding school and taking courses, but they’re about incantations and potions), so that the twist is more fun, making the familiar unfamiliar.

All of these idea types pose the risk of becoming just tricks. To avoid that risk, consider that each of these should lead to a deeper question, and that is in the end what we want to explore in the story.

When I read Ender’s Game, for example, I found the deeper question to be, “Why do we sacrifice our children for war?” That deeper question leads to the plot development that the adults deceive the children that this is just a game.

Another way to make an idea into a full-fledged story is to embody the idea inside a character’s journey. Ask yourself who needs to learn this theme or experience this twist? Oedipus, for example, is an arrogant man who will not accept the power of the gods over him. So he has to be forcibly confronted with the fact that they control his fate.

The most successful idea stories start with an idea… but they don’t end there. The idea is more than just a statement or speculation, but rather a process whereby the reader and characters experience the idea and come to understand what it really means.

alicia by dmac croppedAlicia Rasley would rather write about writing than… well, write. Nonetheless, she has written many novels, including a best-selling family saga and a contemporary mystery novel. She teaches writing at a state university and in workshops around the country and online. Her website has articles and posts about the craft of writing. Sign up for a writing newsletter and get 13 Prime Principles of Plot and other free plotting articles!

Author Interview: Katie Taylor

With fifteen professionally produced book titles under her belt, Author Katie J Taylor is an experienced pro.  I am delighted to introduce her here on No Wasted Ink.

Author K.J

My name is Katie J Taylor, and I was born in Canberra, Australia in 1986. I have a Master’s Degree in Information Studies and when I’m not writing I work as an archivist. I love movies and have a ridiculously huge collection of soundtracks, and I also enjoy drawing and various crafts – I sew custom-designed plush toys for fun and occasionally take commissions.

When and why did you begin writing?

In Primary School, when I was quite young. We were often given class work writing short stories and poems and such, and I took to it right away. I had a fascination with expressing things I’d felt and experienced through little poems and the like. I remember once when I was upset because the bullies had had a go at me, I sat down and wrote a poem about it and that made me feel better. I didn’t start trying to write novels until was about thirteen, though.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I think it was when I was in my mid teens and had decided I wanted to be published more than anything. Then it stopped being a hobby and became a calling and lifelong ambition.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

The Price of Magic is set in a world where the sick and handicapped have magical powers. The worse the affliction, the more powerful the magic. The protagonist, Pip, is a chirpy undersized boy with a crippled leg. He isn’t particularly powerful, but he has a gift other mages like himself lack: the ability to truly listen to another person. When he meets Seress, one of the most powerful mages in the world, Pip must find a way to help her through her crippling depression in order to save magic from being destroyed forever.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was having a bit of a rough time, suffering from severe anxiety – a problem which troubles me from time to time but had never been so bad before. I did the sensible thing and went to see a therapist, and while I was waiting for my next appointment I started to feel angry and resentful. True, I had the ability to create things many can’t, but why did I have to be such a screwup? It occurred to me then that most artists are screwups or sick in one way or another; some of us suffer from chronic illnesses (myself included), some of us are bipolar, some of us are depressed – the list goes on. I came up with the idea for The Price of Magic right there and then. The magic in the series is analogous for art and creativity, and in some ways this is my most personal work to date.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I write in a very straightforward manner and avoid flowery language or overly elaborate description. I also keep my dialogue relatively straightforward and without any frills – characters only use fancy language when they’re making speeches, which doesn’t happen often, and often not even then. I suspect my style is influenced by a lot of the English novels I read when I was younger.

How did you come up with the title of this book?

Simple enough! The theme of the story is how art (or magic) always comes with a price. This is one of the rare titles I was able to nail on the first try.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I avoid putting overt messages in anything I write, so any messages that are in there emerge naturally and it sometimes takes me a while to figure out what they are. True, I started out with a very definite theme, but I had no particular “lesson” in mind. I deliberately treated all the characters as even-handedly as possible; I have nothing but contempt for the cliché of the “noble retard” or the “inspirational sick/crippled person”. As someone who is mentally, shall we say different from other people, I just want to be treated like a human being and I’m sure the rest of us feel the same. If there is a message here at all, it’s that no matter what your difficulties in life, you still have something to contribute, and you are still a person no matter how strange and abnormal you and others may think.

Are experiences in this book based on someone you know or events in your own life?

I have Asperger’s Syndrome which wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16, so I’m pretty familiar with feeling like an outsider too weird and “stupid” to fit in. Pip, the protagonist, isn’t an Aspie but he has something of the excitement and curiosity I had about the world around me when I was a child (before I became bitter and cynical, hahah). When it comes to Seress, I drew on experiences I’ve had in dealing with severely depressed people, which is why I didn’t sugercoat it. Having depression is terrible, but it takes almost as much of a toll on the sufferer’s loved ones. Hence Pip is seen slowly succumbing to sadness after trying to cheer Seress up eventually exhausts him. But I wanted to emphasise that Seress isn’t just “the depressed character” – she’s a very nice, kind-hearted and intelligent woman who happens to be sick.

What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?

William Horwood is a big one. His Duncton Wood series has been a lifelong favourite of mine, and his themes of spirituality, redemption and the mysteries of the past always fascinated me. J.K.Rowling is an inspirational figure to me as a person because in the face of everything she has always stayed classy and has refused to let wealth and success change her. I really enjoyed Harry Potter as well. When I was younger I was a massive Discworld fan, which is where I got my interest in deconstructing and subverting genre tropes.

Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?

The illustrator and cover design were chosen by the publisher.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

I could rattle off a few platitudes about how you should write every day, etc. etc. but instead, I’ll say this: Publishing is hard. Incredibly, ridiculously, painfully, I-want-to-jump-off-a-bridge-in-frustration hard. Therefore, if you want to be happy in your chosen profession, make it about the writing and to heck with money and success, because for most of us there will never be any. If it makes you happy, that’s great. If it makes other people happy as well, that’s even better! After over a decade in the business, it’s all I truly care about now.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

All I have to say to them is in my books. What I myself have to say in person is really not that important.

Price of Magic CoverK.J.Taylor
Canberra, ACT

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The Price of Magic

Cover Artist: Sabrina RG Raven
Publisher: Black Phoenix

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No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links

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Happy Monday everyone!  It is time for another top 10 of writing links here on No Wasted Ink.  Most of the links are general writing tips this time around, but there is an amusing article about male authors and another one about science fiction writing that I found very interesting.  I hope you do too!  Enjoy.

Proofing, editing and cover art turn great storytelling into a great product

Novel Point of View is NOT Camera Angle

This Hashtag Shows That Male Authors’ Wives Are Unsung Heroes

Storytelling Through Costume: The Woman in White

FACING THE BLANK CANVAS

WRITERS, STOP NOT STARTING! UNDERSTANDING AND BEATING PROCRASTINATION

Are These Filter Words Weakening Your Fiction?

Description: Effective Sensory Impressions

Cheat Sheets For Writing Body Language

Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future

Author Interviews * Book Reviews * Essays * Writer's Links * Scifaiku

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