Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: "The Last Unicorn" by Peter S. Beagle

The unicorn has dwelled in her quiet woods for centuries, untouched by the passage of time and unconcerned with the world. She is disturbed when passing hunters mention that all other unicorns have gone--if they ever existed. Reluctantly, the last unicorn leaves her woods to find her kin. She promises to return quickly, but already the leaves begin to fall from the eternally blossoming trees.

Unicorns are not questing beasts, and the world no longer recognizes her. Those who do know a unicorn when they see one aren't young and innocent at heart, but hungry and desperate. The only magical beasts remaining are monsters. But despite the Red Bull, King Haggard, and the Midnight Carnival, the greatest threat to the unicorn come from the people who want to love her.


The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: none that I can think of
Overall Response: The prettiest book in the English language and a must-read for any lover of fairy tales.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, are you familiar with the original novel of The Princess Bride by William Golden? It begins with the line "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." That is how I feel about Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

Of course, I have read the book, and dog-eared every corner, and written a fourteen-page thesis about it for my own amusement, and, most recently, read the entire thing aloud to my audiobook-loving former roommate in a 48-hour timespan. (Pro tip: The attempt to pull off a proper "King Haggard" voice may result in permanent damage to one's vocal cords.)

Even so, every time I read The Last Unicorn, it feels like the first, most wonderful time.
The book is both a fairy tale in its own right, and a commentary on fairy tales as a whole. It mistreats neither. The meta-analysis demands an unusually wry insight into storytelling tropes. The story being told at the same time requires an uncommonly complex and tender heart.

For example: the ongoing debate about the nature of Beauty as it relates to mortality is philosophically fascinating. But applied to the characters embroiled in the debate--a unicorn feeling the touch of death for the first time in her life, a wizard who earnestly wants to be getting older after a few centuries of wandering, and a middle-aged kitchen drudge past the age of romantic dreaming--it's gut-wrenching.

I mentioned in my review of Uprooted how much I love the organic, familiar rules of fairy tales (as opposed to the rigid and overly complex laws of magic created for high fantasy novels.) The Last Unicorn is built on such rules, and even if you have never read the book before, you will feel their rightness as you read, like hearing an instrument coming perfectly in tune. Rules that tell you "never run from anything immortal, for it attracts their attention"; rules that "real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver"; rules about cats that any cat owner can agree upon

Depending on when you ask, I would tell you that any number of things about the book are "my favorite thing." It could be the mesmerizing language it is written in, every word perfectly chosen to paint an image without resorting to cliches and purple prose. Sometimes it is the meta-commentary on fairy tale tropes and the characters who are consciously exploiting them. Occasionally it is King Haggard's "For my need is very great" speech, which hits me like a hammer to the heart.

At this particular moment, "my favorite thing" about The Last Unicorn is how terrible and human all of the characters are: selfish and foolish and needy, tired and troubled and restless. I tip my hat to Beagle's decision to characterize the unicorn as perfect in beauty--the angelic sort, rather than the human, the kind of beauty to make its viewers cower and hide their faces, and justifiably vain thereby. But as a perfect, immortal being, she is also strangely heartless, capable of mercy but not compassion and sorrow without regret. Where the other characters look for comfort and empathy, the unicorn is ice-cold.

"You may come with me if you like, though I wish you had asked me for some other reward." 

Schmendrick smiled sadly. "I thought about it." He looked at his fingers, and the unicorn saw the halfmoon marks where the bars had bitten him. "But you could never have granted my true wish." 

There it is, the unicorn thought, feeling the first spidery touch of sorrow on the inside of her skin. That is how it will be to travel with a mortal, all the time. "No," she replied, "I cannot turn you into something you are not, no more than the witch could. I cannot turn you into a true magician." 

"I didn't think so," Schmendrick said. "It's all right. Don't worry about it." 

"I'm not worrying about it," the unicorn said.

Another favorite thing that only struck me on this last reading: how subtly the relationship between Schmendrick and the unicorn changes from one of protective friendship to one to fear.

There is nothing I can say about The Last Unicorn which the book will not say better in its own words, and I recommend it as highly as I have recommended anything. I forget that other books are necessary, sometimes, after reading this one. Dear reader, if you haven't ever treated yourself to this last great fairy tale, now is the time.

The Rankin-Bass animated version from 1982 is not a terrible rendition of the story, should you care to watch it in your free time this weekend. It's a little sillier at times than the novel, but pulls off the correct atmosphere and makes some great character design choices. (Also, it stars Christopher Lee as the villain.) The more recent graphic novel, illustrated by Renae DeLiz and released by IDW Publishing, is... very lovely, but in my opinion, flattens out the story significantly. It also gives away major plot points too quickly, by making full-page spreads out of off-handed foreshadowing one-liners.

Beagle himself recorded The Last Unicorn in 2005, so if you prefer to listen to your tales instead of turning pages, you should hear it in the author's own (Bronx-accented) voice!

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