The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle

pub 1968
Review by Jenn

Book Cover A lot of fantasy/quest stories came out after the publication of Tolkien's popular Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most of them were rip-offs of the Master's finest, but a few stand forth on their own as credits to a genre perfected by Tolkien, and I happen to feel that Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is one of these.

If any fault could be found with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga, I would say that it was definitely a complicated work; with a multitude of characters (too many to really "get to know," as it were, beyond the principals) and events to make it seem at times a bit bewildering, almost unwieldy. No, I think better of that last - definitely not unwieldy; Tolkien was too skillful for that - but perhaps involved enough to make certain events rather unmemorable. There were times while I was reading those books when, like the characters, I longed for respite from the unending adventure and activity.

While Beagle does not exactly go quite as far as the opposite extreme, his story is deceptively simple. The premise: a solitary unicorn, living alone in a wood, learns through various means that she may very well be the last of her kind, and so sets forth into the world to seek out her fellows. She finds herself travelling through a changed world from the one she renounced centuries before, a world in which most people look at her and see only an exquisite white mare. Along her lonely road she is joined by two human travelers who recognize her for what she is: Schmendrick the Magician, whose ridiculous name lends credence to his paltry and clumsy magic skills and gives no hint of his untapped potential; and Molly Grue, a thirtysomething, disillusioned former scullery maid, who grows young in spirit within the unicorn's sphere, and brings some much-needed order to the expedition.

A problem I had with the story at times was Beagle's occasional over-satirizing. I dearly love a good sense of humor in a story, but if a tale is slated to take place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," as it were, then it should do just that and not, in my opinion, include elements of an unknown future/modern world merely for comic effect. But as I have said, these moments are occasional, and Beagle more than makes up for them with his beautifully lyrical prose that includes some clever original rhyming.

This next is a spoiler, so you may want to skip it: without going into specifics, I will say that the ending of the book somewhat parallels the ending of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy; in effect, the protagonist loses what he or she was struggling so hard throughout the story to retain - his or her well-loved way of life. This is not necessarily a completely satisfying ending to a reader who has learned throughout many adventures to hold a noble character dear, but it is perhaps a more meaningful one than a trite "and they lived happily ever after."

All in all, I would recommend this book as one of the better quest stories to come out of the LotR era. There is also a film of the same name that was a collaboration of Japanese and American artists, and so combines some lovely Japanese animation with a script and story very faithful to the book - as well it should, for Peter Beagle wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it also contains Mia Farrow as the voice of the unicorn - which would be a good thing except for her singing. Luckily one needs only to endure this for one song - this is not a Disney animation musical; there is actually one point in the book where the unicorn sings.

Wikipedia article on The Last Unicorn.