The Last Unicorn Book Review
Strong prose and great characters.
I had higher expectations for this story.
What Is Gone Is Gone
I never had the chance to read this book when I was younger, but I’m glad that I did finally get to read it. Resembling something between a fable and a fairytale, The Last Unicorn was not what I expected. Peter S. Beagle tells his tale about a unicorn searching for others of her kind with a quaint charm – which was expected – and some really quirky metaphors and dialogue – which was unexpected.
The thing that intrigued me most was how The Last Unicorn was not as morally straight forward as many of the fairy-tales that inspired it. Still great over forty years later, Beagle’s story is worthy of the denotation, classic.
The Last Unicorn Plot Summary
A unicorn that believes that she is the last of her kind sets out to find the other unicorns. Her travels introduce her to the bumbling magician Schmendrick and the wife of a fugitive Molly. Together, they try to help the unicorn confront the Red Bull and Haggard, the king that controls the bull, into freeing the world’s unicorns.
The Last Unicorn Analysis
The simple prose used to tell The Last Unicorn is what really makes this story work. The words charming and enchanting are two words that I’m sure a lot of people throw around when talking about the way this story was written – and they’re absolutely correct in using those terms. However, I was really struck by a lot of the quirky descriptions and dialogue between the characters. For example when Beagle describes Haggards castle as:
“Beyond the town, darker than dark, King Haggard’s castle teetered like a lunatic on stilts.”
or when the author has Schmendrick threatening to use his magic on Mommy Fortuna’s wicked servant Rkuh with:
“I’ll turn you into a bad poet with dreams.”
With writing like this inserted in between the “charming,” prose; instances like these had me doing a lot of double takes.
Fairy tales are known for having clear cut protagonists and antagonists. The Last Unicorn, is no exception. The Unicorn and her friends are the primary protagonists, and the King and the Red Bull are the primary antagonists. What’s interesting is that the protagonists and antagonists moralities are not clear cut.
Haggard is an extremely sympathetic antagonist, almost to the point where it’s not even feasible to call him one. The only reason you do is because he controls the Red Bull, which is the enforcer of an evil decree. Meanwhile the Unicorn loses reader sympathy due to the way she treats Haggard’s son, Prince Lir. Schmendrick is often a very selfish character, only focused on learning magic and becoming a great magician, and that can make him hard to like.
The only classically true hero is Prince Lir, who slays dragons and fights all other sorts of monsters. Lir is frequently mocked by the author and turns out to be a great parody of the heroic character construct. Ironically I often found Lir to be the most sympathetic character in the story, rather than the titular unicorn, but even his naivety and ignorance can make him unlikeable.
Although characters have subtle complications, the larger over arcing plot is very simple – and in that sense it is true to most fairy tales. With the author going so far with his characters and his prose, I had hoped he would push the limits of his story in that manner, too, but he doesn’t. The Last Unicorn tells a mostly conventional fairytale, and in this sense the story is fine, but I will say I was expecting a bit more.
This book is recommended for people who were fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles – the author has frequently stated this is one of his favorite books – and by reading this you can see a lot of the inspiration for the prose in that story. Overall The Last Unicorn comes recommended to children (there is one instance of profanity in the book, but it’s really not that bad), and to adults looking to indulge in some fairytale nostalgia.