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The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle

Disclaimer: I don’t often gush in reviews. Any gushing is my own gush without any outside influence or pressure to gush. Those easily offended by excessive gushing should read no further.

A very brief, spoiler-free summary: This is the story of a unicorn who believes she may be the last of her kind. She sets out on a quest to discover what has become of the other unicorns. During her journey, she meets several characters who attempt to help or hinder her.

 

The Last Unicorn is one of those books which I kept hearing great things about over the years, but never got around to reading. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the title that didn’t quite appeal, or perhaps it was the various covers I’d seen which put me off. I don’t know. It just didn’t call out to me in a loud enough voice. It turns out this was my loss as The Last Unicorn is a fabulous story.

So, what made me read it after all this time? Well, I started reading a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s latest collection of short stories: The Overneath and it just blew me away. In this excellent short story collection, there are two stories featuring the magician Schmendrick, first encountered in The Last Unicorn. Halfway through the second Schmendrick story I stopped reading and quickly sought out a copy of The Last Unicorn as I wanted to know where it all started.

Beagle’s prose seemed simple at first, but as I read on I realized he is a born storyteller and his writing is wonderful. It was like reading something you know but have forgotten; something from the past or from old myths. If ever a book should not be judged by its cover or title alone, The Last Unicorn is that book. It is labeled as “fantasy” but it reads like truth, like wisdom. Here are some examples:

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‘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.’

‘Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.’

‘Only to a magician is the world forever fluid, infinitely mutable and eternally new. Only he knows the secret of change, only he knows truly that all things are crouched in eagerness to become something else, and it is from this universal tension that he draws his power.’

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Beautiful prose by Beagle! And there is so much of it throughout the story.

The three main characters are the unicorn, Schmendrick, and Molly Grue. It is difficult to pick a favourite because they are each so well written. The unicorn is a fascinating character that is powerful yet vulnerable because of her innocence; she quickly makes the reader care for her. Schmendrick is a well-meaning yet bumbling magician who becomes more interesting as the story progresses. Molly didn’t leave a strong impression on me, but she still felt real. She helped to ground the more fantastic parts of the story.

First edition Cover Art: Viking 1968

I’m struggling to write this review because this is a book that demands to be read. What more is there to be said about it? If you’ve already journeyed through its pages, then you will know what I mean. If you have yet to experience it, what are you waiting for? Forget your tbr piles and find a copy of this magical story. Read it and you’ll very likely want to read it again. I do. I also want to read everything else Peter S. Beagle has written, starting with The Innkeeper’s Song which arrived in the post a couple of days ago. (Thanks for the recommendation Johnny Mac!)

So-high-it’s-astronomical-ly recommended!

 

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