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Book Review: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn
By Peter Beagle
Roc Trade, 2008 (originally published in 1968)

In a tradition to which even Homer is heir, humans have always passed down stories from generation to generation. While on the surface these myths – fables, folk tales, call them what you will – are about gods and monsters, their audience have always been meant to include adults as well as children. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (newly repackaged by Roc Trade in honor of its 40th anniversary) has the requisite props of a standard fairy tale – a wizard, an evil king, a beautiful princess and a crumbling castle – but like every good tale it is about more. The story touches upon the essence of beauty, the magic that is all around us, and the search for who we are.

Beagle is often likened to Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien, and while I can see the resemblance, I feel this comparison does not do him justice; Beagle creates something unique, and in my opinion, better. His writing has the wit and charm of Carroll, but is more touching and tender. His prose can recall the elegance and beauty of Tolkien, but without the burdensome “epicness” to which he sometimes succumbs. Beagle transports the reader to a different world, one populated by mythical creatures. But what makes this so exceptional are the similarities to our own surroundings.

The Last Unicorn begins with the unicorn (no name is ever given to her) wondering if she is the last of her kind. She runs from her forest in search of others, who she feels must still exist, though it has been centuries since she has seen them. During her quest, she acquires two unlikely allies – an extremely mediocre magician and a scullery maid who’s a little rough around the edges. In a lesser novel, these two could easily be straight from central casting. But Beagle has created entirely believable and extremely human characters.

While never heavy-handed or didactic, The Last Unicorn makes us pause and contemplate how we see the world:

“How can it be?” she wondered. “I suppose I could understand it if men had simply forgotten unicorn or if they had changed so that they hated all unicorns now and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see nothing else – what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or horses, or their own children?”

Part of the delight of Beagle’s novel is its ability to swing effortlessly between philosophy and pure entertainment. Only pages after the poignant quote above, I found myself smiling at a song being sung by a butterfly. The story flows easily, and as usual, I finished far sooner than I wanted. While the novel does not end with “And They All Lived Happily Ever After” I still recaptured something of that childhood feeling. I wanted to believe in good triumphing over evil, in true love, and in magic – and I did again.