I think of The Last Unicorn as a grown-up fairy tale. Not because it has sex, violence, or unnecessary grit, but because of its delicious self-awareness and wittiness. The main plot is, perhaps predictably, about a unicorn discovering she may be the last of her kind and setting out to find the rest of the unicorns. Along the way she meets a hapless magician, a Maid Marian figure, a brooding king, and a dashing prince. Each character helps and hinders the unicorn as her quest takes her further and further from her ageless home and makes her a little bit more mortal with each step she takes.
This is a beautiful story with poetic, lyrical prose that is also bitingly witty. There are endless quotes I could pull from its pages as my favorite – ‘You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.’ ‘Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.’ Almost every page brings another gem as good as the last. My favorite part of the story, though, is the self-awareness I’ve already mentioned. It’s not that the characters know they’re in a book, but rather they know they’re in a story with certain roles they have to fulfill and certain tasks to accomplish. There has to be a magician, a prince, a damsel-in-distress, each with their own part in the story…indeed, as Schmendrick the Magician points out,
‘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.’
And even though each character is there to fulfill their part in the story, as the story progresses we realize that each of these characters is more than their stereotypical fairy tale persona would dictate. The magician is quite acerbic and matter-of-factly cynical and our ‘Maid Marian’ is far from beautiful and charming.
I picked this book up because I actually watched the movie first (shame, I know). To be fair, I was probably five or six when I first watched the movie – it’s an animated film by Rankin/Bass Productions (of Christmas special fame). When I was telling people I was reading the book I realized the movie is not as well known as I thought it was, which kind of surprised me. It was definitely a staple of my childhood, along with The Lion King and We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story. I haven’t seen the movie of The Last Unicorn in at least ten years, but I remember it being magical, surreal, and slightly disturbing only in the way movies you watch many times when you’re young can be. I plan on finding another copy as soon as I can to see how it lives up both to my memory and to the book. But regardless of whether or not this book would evoke movie-based childhood nostalgia for you, it’s still the perfect ‘grown-up’ story for those of us who grew up on fantasy and fairy tales.
Title: The Last Unicorn
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Dates read: June 17-23, 2016
Rating: Four stars