Book Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

This is going to be a sloppy review. Just to warn you. I will probably ramble on and on about stuff. That’s because I can’t seem to get my thoughts in order. There’s so much to this book, and even if I put down everything I know about the book down here, there’s probably a lot more that I have missed. So if you’re a huge fan of this book, forgive me. I don’t think this review will do it justice. All I can say is, if you haven’t read the book, read it. Or watch the movie. Or listen to the audiobook. Just get it.

Warning. Lots of quotes from the book ahead.

Beagle is an awesome writer. I loved the Innkeeper’s Song, and I have now this book to add. I don’t know if I love the Last Unicorn more or less than this book. The storyline is so deceptively simple–a unicorn learns she is the last of her kind and sets out to find out where the others went. Along the way she meets a magician, who is more or less what he seems. It turns out that all the unicorns have been captured by an evil king and his Red Bull, so they go to rescue them, in typical storytelling fashion.

I made the mistake of watching the movie before reading the book. Of course, I don’t think I would have been prompted to read the book if it wasn’t for the movie, so there’s your catch-22. But in reading the book, I had the images and voices from the movie in my head, and it was truly hard to separate the movie images from the book images. I guess that shows that the movie did an excellent job in capturing the flavor of the book.

And it did. When I saw the movie, what had my jaw dropping was the way the people talked. When the witch spoke about the harpy she held in the cage, “Fool! Be still! I can turn her into wind if she escapes, or into snow, or into seven notes of music. But I choose to keep her.” How do you change someone into seven notes of music? What an awesome line. Or how about when Schmendrick tries to escape the amorous tree, which tells him, “I will keep the color of your eyes when no other in the world remembers your name.” How can you not be affected by that perfect, perfect line?

last unicornAll the characters talk that way in this book. Strange, lyrical, wise, almost in riddles but as plain as day and just as poetic. In fact, that’s the language of the whole book, the narrative told in poetic language that is to be read aloud above the background of accompanying snaps and crackles of a low fire. I have highlighted and underlined so many wonderful phrases in this book, just for the beauty and delight of them.

But for such a simple story, there are a lot of themes running through this book that goes on unawares. You got your basic theme of mortality vs. immortality. (the unicorn transformed from immortal to a human girl: “This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me.”, Schmendrick’s own curse), Beauty vs ugliness. (After becoming a unicorn again, she makes her first ugly sound ever, Molly Grue crying, “How dare you come to me now, when I am this!”, indicating her aged self), Old Age vs. Youth (the curse of Hagsgate, the four guardsmen), illusion vs. reality (the witch’s spell of turning common animals into mythical beasts) and joy vs. sorrow (King Haggard’s constant misery, Schmendrick laughing at the end, the only time you sense pure joy from him). And of course, the Use of Story. Everyone tells a story in this book. Either that or recite poetry. Beautiful

There was however, some rough spots, for all its beauty. For instance, the timelessness of the book: sometimes our own reality intruded on it: for instance, the butterfly singing “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey” (and I thought that was a movie insert. But no, it’s right there in the book) Or even more blatant, when a woodthief says to them, “Come to the fire and tell us your tale. How do they speak of me in your country? What have you heard of dashing Captain Cully and his band of freeman? Have a taco.

Huh?

Don’t get me wrong, I do love the goofiness of it. I can almost see Beagle giggling as he wrote it. And it does give the book a sense of timelessness. However, it still jolted me out of the story sometimes. There are also times when it feels like the fourth wall is about to be breached, such as Schmenderick saying a lot, “we are in a story. This is not how the story ends,” etc.

There are some slow parts to the book too. For instance, when Prince Lir woos the transformed unicorn, the story slams to a halt. Breathing space from all the action, perhaps, but it also gives Lir lots of time to compose lots of poetry. Heros may be good for killing dragons and wooing maidens, but they ain’t good at composing poetry. (And speaking of which, there’s a lot of poetry in this book, including a hilarious one sung by a blue jay that I swear is a parody of the song “These are a few of my favorite things).

Still, despite that, the story is magical. You can’t help but get pulled in, when the Red Bull chases the unicorn, when King Haggard face lights up when he sees his captured unicorns, as Lir and the transformed unicorn grow in love, and you’re woven right into the beauty and ugliness of it…and even the ugliness is transformed. My favorite character, though I don’t mention her much, is Molly Grue. When you first meet her, she’s heartless, cold, mocking. But one sight at the unicorn and her heart melts, she becomes more caring, more sensitive. She literally grew, so to speak. And at the end of the book, as she and Schmenderick rides off together, she laughs, shaking her head until “her hair came down, and she was more beautiful than the Lady Amalthea.”

And if that’s not a happy ending, I don’t know what is.

I bought this book with the intention of keeping it, and that’s what I’ll do. I’m sure I’ll be reading it over and over, just like I do the Innkeeper’s Song. In fact, I have a feeling that when Daniel is old enough, I will be reading it aloud to him, because it’s that kind of book. I give it 4-1/2 out of five talking cats, and the cat in this book made me suspect what I know about cats all along–they only speak when they feel like it.

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5 Responses

  1. i also loved the last unicorn for all the lyrical beauty you described here. peter s beagle is my favorite author, and it is awfully sad that many of his novels are now out of print and difficult to obtain, including the innkeeper’s song, which i have been dying to read. i did recently order some of his titles, and the two which are still in print come with my highest reccommendation: tamsin, an extremely well-written ghost story/coming-of-age tale, and i see by my outfit: a book which gives you a more personal view into of peter beagle in his early career. i also reccommend a fine and private place, another brilliant tale of ghosts written when beagle was only snineteen years old. he is an extraordinary author and is not widely known beyond the last unicorn.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendations, barbara. “I see by my Outfit” sounds particularly good. I’ll see if I can find that around here. Thanks again!

  3. Hey guys, how are you liking my book so far?

  4. […] ever had of any story. It’s one of my favorite lines from "The Last Unicorn", spoken by the tree ensorcelled to life by Schmendrick. I wanted to see what that scene looked like in a science fiction setting, so this prose poem came […]

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