Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

This novel (and animated film) by Peter S. Beagle was written in 1968, and remains one of my favorite fantasy works, in part for its lyrical fairy tale language and for its piercingly honest and often sad journey into loneliness, aging, and regret.

Are you excited to learn more?

What’s it about?

A unicorn living alone in a forest overhears a conversation between two hunters saying that she is the last unicorn in the world. She sets out on a journey to learn whether this is true. Along the way, she meets the wizard Schmendrick and the aging Molly Grue, who help her to find the castle of King Haggard and the Red Bull, who are rumored to have captured or destroyed all the unicorns. 

To escape the bull, Schmendrick turns the unicorn into a woman, the Lady Amalthea, and for a time the three of them live in Haggard’s castle, searching for clues about the unicorns. They learn the sad history of the king and his son, and finally discover the unicorns trapped in the sea below the castle, although living as Amalthea has begun to change the unicorn, making her forget who and what she was or is. Schmendrick then turns Amalthea back into a unicorn, who defeats the Red Bull and frees the other unicorns to return to the world. 

What’s the big deal?

Language. Style. Imagery. When someone talks about “lyrical writing” I immediately think about this book first, and then about all Irish writers second. This is a classic fairy tale that is more often sad or scary than funny or exciting. It’s beautifully written, extremely memorable, and quite short. 

Beyond the characters and plot described above, the story includes a traveling circus of illusions and frauds (with one deadly exception), a colorful band of bandits who see themselves as the unromantic reality of the Robin Hood mythos, a talking cat, a thirsty skeleton, a dragon, and whatever else I’m forgetting. I’m probably blurring the book with the movie a little bit, but that’s fine, they’re very similar and both lovely. 

Recommended?

Absolutely. Go read it. Right now. You can read the whole book in one evening, and then come back here to tell me how much you loved it. Seriously, go on, get! Get reading!

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