The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I’ve had my copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle since 2007 and when I noticed that the edges are starting to turn yellow, I decided that it’s high time I read it. This is a fantasy classic that’s a popular favorite. I can’t even remember where I got the original recommendation for it. And no, I haven’t watched the movie. I didn’t even know there was a movie until I started reading the book.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea-foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician – whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended – when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his unmerry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.

The unicorn doesn’t usually care for humans but one day, she overhears two men talking and realizes that she might be the last unicorn in the world. She decides to leave her lilac wood to find out what happened with the rest of her kind. She’s aided in her quest by friends she meets along the way – Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue. This book made me realize that I should read more novels with unicorns in them. I don’t think I’ve read any other novel that has a unicorn as a main character? I’m kind of sad that I didn’t read this book sooner because I feel like this is the kind of book that I would have fallen in love with when I was in my early teens. The story started out a bit slow for me but quickly picked up once the unicorn faced the Red Bull, sorry for being vague, I don’t want to give away spoilers. I was also able to appreciate Peter S. Beagle’s writing, it’s lyrical without being too heavy. Does that makes sense? I feel like his writing is perfect for this kind of story – one that has elements of magic and a fairy tale-feel to it. And it’s not the usual kind of fairy tale either. Here’s a sample of the writing:

“The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”

Doesn’t that make you curious about this book? I can see why The Last Unicorn is a favorite of so many readers. I’m surprised by how much I liked it considering that I normally go for epic fantasy with strong female protagonists although the unicorn IS female and she can be considered a strong character in her own quiet way. I also liked the secondary characters in this book – Schmendrick, Molly and Prince Lir. Each had his or her own quest and I was rooting for them to find the things that they’re searching for. If you haven’t heard of this book and you enjoy reading fantasy, you should definitely grab a copy as soon as you can. It’s a story filled with magic, warmth and truths about what it means to be an immortal magical being as opposed to being human. For a book that’s been out for a while, it doesn’t have that many reviews in the blogosphere. I should read Peter S. Beagle’s other books. I’ve noticed that I mostly read novels by female authors and while I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it would be a good idea to add more males into the mix. So let me know what are your favorites out of Peter S. Beagle’s backlist and I’ll try to check them out.

Other reviews:
Good Books and Good Wine
Belle’s Bookshelf

25 thoughts on “The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

  1. A Fine and Private Place is pretty amusing, with a cute premise, though i have to admit i don’t remember actually finishing it; just that nothing i’ve read of Beagle (or any other generic fantasy author, come to that) comes anywhere near what he did with The Last Unicorn – although, i do hear the recent story collections are particularly good, one of which – point of possible interest – contains a sequel of sorts to Last Unicorn.

    Hi Chachic. followed you over from Chris’s blog, hope you don’t mind. i’ll show myself out now.

    • Hi skinnyblackcladdink! I definitely don’t mind that you followed me over from Chris’ blog, I love Ficsation. πŸ™‚ Looks like you’re a fantasy reader too.

      I’ll add A Fine and Private Place to my wishlist. I know The Last Unicorn is his most well-known book and the movie probably contributed to its popularity but I’m hoping that his other books are just as good. Is this the short story that you’re talking about – Two Hearts? Haven’t read it, found the link just now.

      • Yes, skinnyblackcladdink was referring to “Two Hearts.” You could also try Peter S. Beagle’s “Tamsin” or “The Innkeeper’s Song.” He also has a few short story collections that are good: “Giant Bones,” “The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances,” “The Line Between,” and his newest “Sleight of Hand.” I just started reading “The Urban Fantasy Anthology” which he just edited, but it has stories from Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Holly Black in it. On that note, “The Secret History of Fantasy” is another good collection he edited.

        He’s working on some new stuff too! A magical realist novel titled Summerlong, a collection of Schmendrick stories to be called Green-eyed Boy, and a new collection of six unicorn tales based on different mythological traditions from around the world. I’m REALLY looking forward to Summerlong.

      • Hi Kat, thanks for all the info about his books! You seem to know a lot about them, are you a big fan? πŸ˜› I’m not a big short story reader, I don’t know why. I don’t end up finishing the anthologies that I buy and usually, I only read short stories tied to novels. So I’ll probably start on Beagle’s novels and work my way from there.

        Summerlong sounds good! I want to read more magic realism novels so I’m going to watch out for that.

    • April, thanks again for tweeting about my review! I saw that you gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads so I knew that you loved it.

      Yeah, I saw a clip of the movie on Youtube and I really want to watch it now. I just need to find a copy.

  2. OMG The Last Unicorn! Hehe. I loved the movie when I was growing up. And when I found out later that a lot of the animators who worked on the film later moved on to form the core group of Studio Ghibli… *squees*

    I even have the original soundtrack for the movie in my CD collection. And I’d lend you my German PAL DVD, except I can’t seem to find the disc so I might need to buy a new one soon. 😦

    I have Tamsin, Folk of the Air, and two Unicorn anthologies edited by Beagle. I’d say you might enjoy Tamsin. It’s a coming-of-age story with ghosts and British folklore mixed in, so it’s probably closer to the YA alley than TLU.

    • Why wasn’t I aware of the movie when I was growing up? It probably wasn’t shown in any of the local channels, I think that’s my main source of visual entertainment back then.

      Really, Studio Ghibli people made the movie? Makes it more interesting now. I really need to find a copy of that. You’re going to look for a copy, right? Let me know if you find it in a local store!

      Added Tamsin to my wishlist. I was actually wondering if The Last Unicorn can be considered YA? The characters were all adults, maybe except for Prince Lir, but I think the novel as a whole can be YA. Just thinking out loud here. I think YA nowadays is more about the age of the characters than the actual content.

      • It was shown in local channels, but I doubt that they advertised the screening times. And I noticed that I when I did chance upon a screening, it was usually late in the evening.

        Studio Ghibli released Nausicaa in 1982. The TLU movie also came out in 1982. So I’m guessing they formed Ghibli immediately after completing the TLU project?

        As far as I know the DVD was never made available here. I’m planning to order one off amazon and sticking it into my cousin’s balikbayan box soon. If you’re interested in a copy I could probably add one to my order if/when I place it. ^_^

        I remember Peter Beagle specifically saying that TLU was written for adults. Then again, YA as a genre wasn’t around back in those days. You had children’s books and adult fiction, nothing in between.

      • one of my fave quotes in response to the whole ‘appropriate for kids?’ question: It’s a children’s book if the kid can read.

        that said, the nuances of The Last Unicorn as a text do appear to be of a kind you wouldn’t normally expect the ‘average kid’ (whatever that means these days) to be attuned to – e.g., the metafictional elements (although, on second though, Julia Donaldson does straight-up meta really well, so maybe that’s not a ‘non-kid-appropriate’ element after all), some of the humor, the anachronisms – although i understand all of that’s being done in books specifically marketed with the YA label these days as well anyway (like maybe with Patrick Ness &c, i believe – obv i’m not a big reader of books in that…category?…that particular bookstore shelf) so i think i’ve lost my point.

        i’ll show myself out.

      • the movie, however, btw, was clearly made with kids in mind – at least, that is, to be precise, with the same target market at which Disney aimed their movies of the same period, & using the same Disneification formula. i’d say i love the movie unreservedly (Mia Farrow! Alan Arkin! Jeff Bridges!) if it wasn’t for the fact that, re-watching it in my mid-20s, i found the songs – & singing! i mean, Jeff Bridges! singing a ballad! – superfluous, inappropriate, & ultimately pretty insufferable.

        sorry, i don’t mean to be hatin’ on the film – which i still actually love, honest – but, yeah, that was a terrible experience for me, having the idea of it being perfect taken from me.

        i’ll show myself &c.

      • Kim, I had no idea it was shown in local channels. Must have missed it because I focused on cartoons that were dubbed in Tagalog. LOL.

        Hey, I have a copy of Nausicaa but I haven’t watched it yet. I really should do a Miyazaki marathon one of these days. I have other things lined up to watch (BBC Sherlock, Game of Thrones) so I have no idea when I’ll get around to that.

        Aww thanks for the offer! But I’ll try to find a copy locally first before I have it shipped from abroad.

        Yep, YA wasn’t around in those days so maybe he went for adult instead of children’s. I really think I would have enjoyed reading this as a pre-teen although some of the more serious aspects of the novel would have flown way over my head.

      • skinnyblackcladdink, seems like a reasonable response. πŸ˜› Like I said in my reply to Kim, I would have loved reading this as a child but I probably would only remember the fairy tale aspects because I wouldn’t have understood the rest.

        I always thought of YA as a genre but I heard that people don’t like to refer to it as that, more of a classification? Or you’re right, a category. You don’t like reading YA books? 😦 I love them.

        Yep, from what I’ve seen from the Youtube clip that I checked out and from what I’ve heard from other people, the movie is a Disney-esque film for kids. I’m sorry to hear that you don’t love the movie as much as you used to. LOL I love watching animated movies even though I’m already in my mid-twenties and I wouldn’t mind having a marathon of all the Disney princess films.

      • i guess from the perspective of someone who does a lot of YA reading it might seem like the case, but i’d rather not say that ‘i don’t read YA’. some books i’ve loved over the years might not be marketed as YA but may well be thought of as such – Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan books, f’rinstance, a personal fave – while others were only reclassified as YA when the label became popular – e.g., Ender’s Game – and still others seem only grudgingly marketed as YA – e.g., Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03; and i do have favorites that were written with children/younger readers particularly in mind – off the top of my head, Mrs Frisby & the Rats of NIMH; The Golem’s Eye; A Series of Unfortunate Events; Coraline; &c. i guess it’s just never been a distinction that i thought mattered to me.

        to be clear re: the movie, i have nothing against Disney’s formula per se; i do however object to it when its application seems to me inappropriate or superfluous, if it doesn’t fit, or is poorly executed. i find the musical interludes in The Last Unicorn all of the above. watching them i almost get the feeling that some marketing exec saw a pre-release version of the film & went, ‘hey, know what this film needs? a good song or two, that’s what!’ of course i could be wrong & the songs could have been built into the plan from the get go – they do have the feel of being more theatrical/operatic than actually Disneyoid – but if so, i find the decision no less misjudged. i dunno, maybe Jeff Bridges can sing. but you wouldn’t know it from watching this.

      • I think that’s actually a good thing, you don’t stop and think of whether a book is YA before you read or like it. I read Ender’s Game when it was already re-classified as YA and was surprised to discover that other people don’t think of it as YA. Oooh, Mrs. Frisby! I think I loved that book as a child? Can’t remember much about it though since I haven’t reread it as an adult. The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a more recent discovery and is included in my favorites. I read all of the Lemony Snicket books but I just borrowed them from a friend, liked the first few but thought the rest were just okay.

        I guess it goes back to what Kim said earlier – there really wasn’t a YA classification back then. Books were either for adults or children and those in between usually fell on the adult side. Now that YA is such a big thing, most people are reading YA books because that’s what’s out there (and that’s what’s popular).

        LOL you’re making me more curious about the movie! I want to see how these musical interludes fit into the scenes. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about what you said while watching the entire thing.

  3. I love the animation movie version of “The last unicorn” and watch it every year on christmas. But I have never read the book, maybe I should get a copy and give it a try.

  4. This is the first time I heard of the book (and its film adaptation) and by the looks of it, the story seems good. Hmm.. Maybe I should buy a copy.. And watch the movie, too. haha!

  5. The Last Unicorn has everything I love in a fantasy story: poetry in the plot, in the characters, in the conflict. Skinny and I disagree on a lot of things so he probably won’t be surprised to read how I still love the animated movie even when I re-watched it as a (grown-up? adult? eeep.) I thought it was still exactly as I had seen it when I was a child. Jeff Bridges singing as Prince Lir gives the movie a whole seventies, folksy vibe. Doesn’t it fit into the medieval romance/courtly love framework? πŸ˜› (That’s probably the sap in me talking. I’m sure it was cringe-inducing to a lot of people haha.)

    Sleight of Hand is his latest collection; as a whole, I liked it better than I did his We Never Talk About My Brother. These two are the most recent collections (had to order them from Conlan Press, although I think you can still find Tamsin in the YA section of our local bookstores).

    • Why am I not surprised to find out that you loved this one, Chris? πŸ™‚ And I find it hilarious that you replied to Skinny’s comments. All this talk of the movie makes me wish that I could find a copy of it soon. Where did you get your copy, by the way? I’m trying to see if I can find a copy in Manila before I explore other options (like ordering abroad).

      Thanks for the heads up! I dropped by the mall earlier today but forgot to look for Tamsin. I asked for The Blue Castle though but it’s out of stock in Fully Booked’s database. 😦

      • My best friend got my copy from the UK. I hope you can find one one here! If I hear of any alternative options, I just might surprise you in September. πŸ™‚ (Skinny, Celina, and I go a long way back so when we end up ‘discussing’ it’s usually all good!)

      • LOL please let me know if you find another way to get it. Oh so you know Skinny from school. Maybe you should encourage him to start his own blog? πŸ˜› Celina now has a Tumblr blog.

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