The Last Unicorn

by Peter S. Beagle

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 1968
Printing: May 1978
ISBN: 0-345-27505-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 248

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The unicorn has lived in her forest for longer than time has meaning. It is always spring, always beautiful, and the unicorn loves watching the life around her. But one day, she overhears two hunters talking, saying that all the unicorns are gone from the world. Suddenly caught by fear and loneliness at the idea, she leaves her forest to search for other unicorns. Along the way, she joins up with a failed magician, discovers a cursed land, and learns far more about humans than she expects.

This book surprised me. From its reputation, I was expecting a charming fairy tale; instead, it's more of a self-conscious, postmodern story that reminded me slightly of The Princess Bride. In fact, it's self-conscious enough and thin enough in its mythic veneer that it's not really enjoyable as a pure adventure fantasy. There are too many deliberate anachronisms (characters in a medieval setting reading magazines, lots of very modern attitudes by the characters) and not quite enough in the world. One comes away with the feeling that Beagle's world is populated only by a few hundred people at most, and people are created only when they have some purpose in the story.

This isn't necessarily a problem, though, since trying to read The Last Unicorn as a straightforward fantasy would be ignoring what it tries to accomplish. It is, instead, an extended metaphor on the nature of perception and myth. Beagle's world is full of people creating their own realities through their beliefs, not seeing the amazing when it doesn't fit their expectations, and being unable to change their perspectives even when their whole world changes. It is a fairy tale about belief, but it's also a fairy tale about accepting truth even when it isn't what one wants to believe in.

The tone is set early on, when the unicorn encounters a farmer who tries to capture her, thinking she's just a pretty white mare. The horn and the different body type didn't fit his perception of the world, so he just didn't see them. The point becomes more obvious after she's captured by a travelling menagerie, where a mostly failed magician uses magic to make people see ordinary beasts as mythical creatures, including the unicorn. People go in expecting to see the unbelievable, so the illusion works, but they're also half-expecting to be fooled, and so it takes illusion magic to fool them into seeing the unicorn for what she really is. And, in the best part of the scene, one of the captured creatures is a spider who truly believes it has touched Arachne the Weaver, and who is destroyed by the breaking of the menagerie magic.

Beagle keeps playing with these themes throughout. There is a band of outlaws styled after Robin Hood but slamming into realistic problems.

"And we don't steal from the rich and give to the poor," Dick Fancy hurried on. "We steal from the poor because they can't fight back — most of them — and the rich take from us because they could wipe us out in a day. We don't rob the fat, greedy Mayor on the highway; we pay him tribute every month to leave us alone."

A village given unnatural bounty from a curse that blights the rest of the land continues to live like misers because they don't want to be too used to the bounty when the curse is broken. The king who is a magical power in his own right, who can take everything he wants, is dissatisfied by everything and doesn't know how to take pleasure from what he has. And the magician is sunk deep in depression because he can't cast spells properly, even though he is capable of great feats when he's swept up in the feel of the moment and not analyzing too much.

There's quite a bit here to unpack, although Beagle's presentation isn't always successful. He's at his best when portraying the sense of unworldly wonder that people feel towards the unicorn; that's the part that feels the most like well-written traditional fantasy, except he avoids the pat ending and maintains an inhuman distance between the way the unicorn sees the world and the way people do. Wonder is not something that one can embrace and hold close; by doing so, it loses its power to inspire and becomes something entirely different. Beagle makes a subtle and intriguing argument for loss and distance as integral components to wonder. Unicorns are what they are because they are rarely seen and even more rarely recognized; people have to make their own wonders based on fleeting memories and glimpses, or the wonder becomes a trap.

Less successful are the texture of the plot and the thinness of the narrative. The ideal book of this sort for me is enjoyable on multiple levels, both as a story and as a metaphor. The Last Unicorn has only the metaphor; the world in which it's told makes little sense and achieves consistency only through sly references and self-referential jokes. As a result, the elements Beagle throws in as references to standard fantasy tropes (the singing butterfly, for example) sometimes feel strangely out of place, and the incidents along the quest stand out as isolated parables rather than fitting into a particularly coherent story.

If you like analyzing symbolism, there's a lot here to have fun with. I've only touched on a few major themes; I could go on and on (the Bull's light as the light of reason that overcomes wonder and files it away in its proper place, the path to becoming a true king passing through the loss of the innocence of idealism, the competing definitions of hero). But still, I found the book vaguely unsatisfying. The skeleton was so obvious that I never got swept up in the illusion of story, and as a result, while I can unpack metaphor as an intellectual exercise, The Last Unicorn resonated with me emotionally in only a few places. This is the exact opposite effect from what I was expecting.

I recommend it as a classic, and for the crying spider, the unicorn herd, and Molly's interaction with the unicorn. But I wouldn't call it one of the great fantasy stories.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-01-15

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