Book review of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn
In my last review of Ship of Magic, I mentioned how I was going to take a departure from the more grown-up world of fantasy for a quick stop on the young adult shelf. The Last Unicorn, while a shorter novel, is not what I could classify as a light read. This is a fairy tale, but a satire about fairy tales, with strong undercurrents of truth strewn throughout. I had considered picking it up in the past, but was discouraged by the fact that there was a unicorn on the cover. Never, and I mean never, judge a book by its cover. It make take some a while to become comfortable with what others may judge of reading such a novel. All I have to say to that is, get over it. This book is fantastic, beautiful, magical, and hilarious. If you’re not into that type of stuff, then I’d recommend you go elsewhere. If you’re into completely absorbing fantasy, and are in for a change of pace from the hulking epic fantasies that are commonplace these days, then I invite you to read The Last Unicorn.
Being a fairy tale, the novel takes place in a few fantastic settings. The landscape can seem to stretch and contract as Beagle moves from one scene to the next, but it is the locations and characters that truly anchor this novel to reality, which is a tough thing to do when you have a cat that can blink into existence out of a fold in the air. In this sense, the novel shows some similarity with Alice in Wonderland. The irony comes in when the characters themselves acknowledge that they are in a fairy tale, speaking of what heroes and magicians are or should be, and how happy endings should actually end. All of this is accomplished masterfully, with real meaning hiding just under the surface. I can perhaps best illustrate with example:
“Robin Hood is a myth,” Captain Cully said nervously, “a classic example of the heroic folk figures synthesized out of need. John Henry is another. Men have to have heroes, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl. Not that it isn’t a remarkable trick, of course.”
Captain Cully, leader of the band of merry men that is undoubtedly a parody of Robin Hood and his merry men, speaking plainly of the mythology of Robin Hood, but delivered with a clear insight into the fact that we as a society like to have people to look up to and uphold as idols. Brilliant! The Last Unicorn is full of wonderful moments like this.
The characters in this novel are classic. From Prince Lir, a character based on Irish mythology, to Schmendrick, a bumbling magician who always seems to have the words to his spells on the tip of his tongue, these characters feel right. They all have their place in the novel, and while not overly developed, they all serve their own purpose perfectly.
Peter S. Beagle uses so many classic examples of fairy tale plots, I don’t believe it possible to detail them all here. What is worth mentioning, is how they are spun uniquely into a new yarn, woven with precision and intent, with the final product bearing signs of originality you wouldn’t have previously believed possible.
The pace is quick. The chapters are light, and I would definitely recommend this book for a younger audience, although it is just as enjoyable at an adult reading level, even refreshing in a sense.
The Last Unicorn is, in a word, delightful. If you have yet to read this classic fantasy fairy tale, I would highly recommend you give it a shot. You may be in for a few surprises.
You can purchase The Last Unicorn over at Amazon.com.