THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle (BOOK REVIEW)
“We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference ‘twixt the two—the false shining and the true, the lips’ laugh and the heart’s rue.”
The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle is a book I have been wanting to read for many years. As a child, I adored the animated film also titled The Last Unicorn and as soon as I discovered it was based on a book I needed to get my hands on it. The only problem was that it wasn’t available in the UK and so I patiently waited. To my delight, this year (2022) Gollancz reissued the book with a stunning deluxe edition and brand new cover art. When they offered to send me a copy in exchange for an honest review, well as you can imagine I jumped at the chance!
The Last Unicorn is a tale of courage, identity, friendship, love and loss. At its heart this is a timeless children’s classic but with Beagle’s added depth and subtext it is also perfect for adults to equally enjoy.
Deep within the Lilac forest where all things are immortal, roams a unicorn of such dazzling beauty she enchants all who gaze upon her. Her life is idyllic, frolicking amidst the woods and enjoying the nature surrounding her, but when whispers of the disappearance of unicorns from the world reach her ears, she fears she is the last of her kind. In her despair the unicorn desperately searches for answers and when she discovers that “the Red Bull” holds her kind captive she bravely sets forth on a journey to find and free them. Having never left her forest before the unicorn stumbles upon many dangers from an evil witch to a group of bandits. Though she also gains friends—an incompetent wizard, a wilful maiden and a heroic prince—who wish to aid her in her quest. Together they must discover the truth and break an old curse.
The book begins almost identically to the animated film, which isn’t really all that surprising considering Beagle wrote the screenplay. It was apparent that Beagle had directly taken scenes and even quotes from his book and injected them into the adaptation, and I thoroughly enjoyed spotting those. Yet this doesn’t continue throughout and it wasn’t long until I discovered just how much the book differed. Most notably, Beagle’s prose is lyrical with much melancholy, this had the effect of creating a bleak atmosphere as sorrow seeped from many of the characters. I realised this isn’t quite the charming and whimsical story about a unicorn on her first adventure that it initially appears to be, underneath Beagle packs in a great amount of emotion. In each of the lands the Unicorn travels through poverty and hardship can be found. Her grace and beauty only works to offset the misery of the people struggling to survive and of those who simply wish to be worthy of remembrance. A darkness has taken hold and it leads the Unicorn to finding a selfish King with a curse upon him.
Though Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue, the unicorn’s closest companions, bring more light hearted scenes and warmth to the narrative, their backstories are also filled with sadness. This is where the book, in my opinion, surpasses the film as we get a clearer understanding of each of the characters, their fears and their motivations. Beagle fantastically represents themes of identity and loneliness here, the Unicorn is often mistaken for a mare and this cuts her deeply, how must it feel to not even be acknowledged for who you truly are and to realise you no longer belong, you are utterly alone? Schmendrick and Molly also both struggle with belonging, and are often perceived as less than they truly are, which leads to them being dismissed by others. Even Mommy Fortuna, Rukh and King Haggard, who we identify as the villains of this tale, are ultimately alone in this decaying world.
“They had a moment to look at each other, the two women: the one fair and foreign in the cold, low room; the other appearing quite at home in such surroundings—an angry little beetle with her own kitchen beauty.”
Yet it is perhaps Prince Lír, our besotted valiant hero, who has the purest heart, something we don’t really come to understand until the end. Together these characters form strong friendships with each other, a strange found family who help each other grow. In fact, all the characters transform in one way or another by the end and though I won’t spoil how, I will say that our tale ends on a beautiful mixture of sorrow and hope.
“I never looked at you without seeing the sweetness of the way the world goes together, or without sorrow for its spoiling. I became a hero to serve you, and all that is like you.”
The Last Unicorn is packed with adventure and peril, grace and tragedy, with depth and heart. I can clearly see why it remains a classic.
ARC provided by Jenna at Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! The Last Unicorn is out now!