Saturday, October 04, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn
Author:  Peter S. Beagle
Original Publisher and Date:  Viking Press, 1968
Still in Print:  Yes, by ROC
Current Formats and Length:  Paperback, eBook 304 pages (original length 218 pages)
Availability:  You can find it online or in bookstores easily.
ISBN:  978-0451450524

Brief History

Peter S. Beagle was born April 20, 1939 in Manhattan, NY. He won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh for a poem he submitted and received a degree in creative writing. He would then go on to Stanford University. Beagle published his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, at the age of 19. In the 1970s, Beagle took a break from writing prose to writing screenplays until the 90s, at which point he returned to prose, poetry and nonfiction.

Peter S. Beagle wrote a novelette sequel to The Last Unicorn titled, Two Hearts, which won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It also won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2007 and was nominated as a short fiction finalist for the World Fantasy Award. In 2006, Beagle was awarded an Inkpot Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

It took two years for Beagle to write The Last Unicorn, and he has stated that unicorns have been a part of his life in one form or another since he was a young boy. The first draft of the story was set in modern day with a two-headed demon companion. This first version of the story has since been published by Subterranean Press as The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version.

Back Cover Description

The Last Unicorn is one of the true classics of fantasy, ranking with Tolkien's The Hobbit, Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Beagle writes a shimmering prose-poetry, the voice of fairy tales and childhood:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician--whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended--when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his unmerry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.

This is a book no fantasy reader should miss; Beagle argues brilliantly the need for magic in our lives and the folly of forgetting to dream. --Nona Vero

Brannigan's Review

If you're like me, your first exposure to The Last Unicorn came from the 1982 film by the same title. I was six year's old when I saw this and it has forever been a part of my life. The movie is beautiful, terrifying and peculiar. That being said, I've never tried to read the book. I was afraid the book wouldn't live up to the memories of my childhood, and the way the film etched itself in my imagination. It's how most of us book readers feel about books turned to film, but in this case it was in reverse for me. However, for your benefit, I was willing to attack a cherished memory and read the book.

I really had nothing to fear as I began to read the book. I even heard America playing in the background (little inside wink to those of you who've seen the movie). After only reading 50 pages, I had to stop and do a little research and just as I had suspected Peter S. Beagle wrote the screenplay for the movie. I was both thrilled and a little worried. Would the book be word for word the script of the movie? Would the book be a novelization of the film? I wanted more depth and deleted scenes. Thankfully, as I continued to read I did get more from the book than what's in the film. Something the film was not able to capture as well as the novel is the lyrical skill of Peter S. Beagle--the man can write. I kept stopping to copy down sections of the book that I found profound and beautiful. In fact, it's inspired an additional section to the retro review, which you'll find below.

The story itself is a modern fairytale. It's whimsical and yet at the same time you can tell it was written in the 60s. The story holds deep meaning in each of the character's struggles and yet they at first appear to be very one dimensional. The more you stop and think about what each of them represent, the more you see in the shadows of the book. On the surface, we see Schmendrick the magician as the comic relief guide for the unicorn, but the more we discover about the magician, there is a deep sadness and longing to be the man he is destined to be. In the end, he has to allow one character's story and hope for some happiness to end, so his life may truly begin. The villain King Haggard is a man who has been on an endless quest to find something to believe in, to bring him peace, only to find disappointment at the end of every answer. It's the seeking that has robbed him of happiness and turned him into a bitter vile man. Of course, these are my own interpretations, which for me is an example of any great fairytale.

I don't really have anything bad to say about the book, besides maybe my own personal dislike of the occasional insertion of modern speech, objects or activities that people from that time frame would know nothing about. If you've ever read The Once and Future King, you might know what I'm talking about. I don't want to be more obvious, as I don't want to draw your attention to it as you read the book.

If you're a fan of fantasy and fairytales, or looking for a book to read to your children, The Last Unicorn is for you. If there’s still a child inside you that finds beauty in the world at the most odd times, this is a book for you. If you're none of these things, you should still read this book and see if you might not grow a kinder gentler you inside yourself to be used on special occasions. This is a book to own and add to your personal library. I'm personally going to try to find a nice hardcover I can pass on to my grandchildren. The book is perfect for any age, but for the wee young ones be aware that there are a few scary moments, so take the time to read the book before reading it to a small child. You'll know what I mean. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to everyone alive and some recently passed.

Favorite Quotes from the Book

“Unicorns are for beginnings, for innocence and purity, for newness. Unicorns are for young girls.” Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

“[Y]ou get into the habit of rescuing people, breaking enchantments, challenging the wicked duke in fair combat--it’s hard to give up being a hero, once you get used to it.” Prince Lir in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle


  1. Love that you added a favorite quote section!

  2. Thanks. It doesn't happen with every book, but I like to point out good lines when I find them.