The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

At a used book sale back in April, I picked up a copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.  When I first saw the title, my reaction was “Either this is a classic and it sounds familiar because I’ve heard people mention it before, or it sounds familiar because it has a really generic-sounding fantasy title.” After reading it, I can say that it definitely is a classic, but I also have a lot of mixed feelings about it, which I am going to lay out for you today.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle Paperback Book #TwistyMustacheReviews


One day, while an immortal Unicorn is minding her own business and doing unicorny things, two hunters come through her forest and realize that the presence of a unicorn is the reason they've had no success. Before they leave, one of them calls out to let her know that she may be the last unicorn. Disturbed by this, the Unicorn leaves her forest and goes on an expedition to find the other unicorns. On the way, she gets a cryptic musical clue from a butterfly, which points her toward King Haggard’s dark domain. She is also shocked to discover that most people have no idea what a unicorn looks like anymore. On her journey she is joined by Schmendrick the magician (who sucks at magic) and Molly Grue, the work-worn wife of a bandit who just needs some adventure and magic in her life.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle was published in 1968 by Viking Press. I read a Ballantine 1974 paperback edition (pictured).

Things I Liked

This book has a lot of interesting characters. My personal favorites are Schmendrick, Molly Grue, Captain Cully, and Prince Lír. I enjoyed some because of their entertaining flaws, and others because they’ve had crappy lives but are still nice people. There are also plenty of unlikable characters. Most are antagonists to at least some degree.

The plot is pretty original. After reading a while, I got the feeling that Beagle must have sat down and thought “Now, what would people not expect in this scene?” and then wrote a bunch of that in. The Unicorn’s quest weaves it all together, and that part is kind of predictable, but most of the events leading from the beginning to the end were as weird as ancient myths. As I read, I kept thinking “I’m not sure where this is going exactly, but it’s interesting.

Also like ancient myths, there’s often not a ton of setting detail and the narration isn’t very close to the main characters. I found that there was enough description to give me a mental image of the big picture of a place, but most of the smaller things were left to my imagination.

This book has a fair amount of in-story philosophizing, sometimes paired with humor. That makes for a lot of great quotes on things like the nature of story, imagination, and what it means to be a hero.

There is an abundance of interesting metaphors, which contributes to the overall otherworldly and mythical style of the book.  I’m unsure whether this was supposed to happen, but it caused me to question the sanity of multiple characters at one point in the story. Kinda trippy.

Things I Didn’t Like

I’m not sure if this is true of all editions/printings, but the formatting decisions of my copy don’t all make sense to me. Occasionally the story breaks from a third-person narrative to give a first-person character thought, and there are no italics or anything like that to set it off. There are also a couple of instances where the narrative has a time jump, but there are no scene breaks to make that clear. Anytime I encounter an issue like this,  it pulls me out of the story for a moment while I work out exactly what’s going on.

As I said before, Beagle uses a lot of metaphors in this book. While I don’t mind the occasional well-placed metaphor, he tends to pile them on to a level that I sometimes find confusing. And again, anytime I’m confused, I’m not immersed in the story. Between those two things, I had difficulty staying focused.

On top of that, I couldn’t relate to the Unicorn, so I didn’t really care about her or her quest. She’s probably more realistic as a mythical creature/animal than she would be if she thought and acted more like a human, but it was much easier for me to appreciate Schmendrick and Molly Grue.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. I’m still trying to decide if it’s a pacing issue, a structure issue, the lack of a happily ever after, attempts at emotional resonance that fell flat, or something else entirely. The Unicorn’s “The power is in you” moment manifested in a way I found kind of boring after all the bizarre events earlier in the story.

Mental Associations

There are some setting aspects and dark undertones during the travel sequences of this book which reminded me of Pigs Don’t Fly, But Dragons Do… by Mary Brown. It made me wonder if Brown was at all influenced by The Last Unicorn or if the authors were both inspired by similar historical settings.

Some of the mini-villains early on in the story remind me of the witches in Stardust. Again, this makes me wonder if Neil Gaiman was at all influenced by this book.

When some new magical elements are introduced, especially various talking animals, it reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol. Of course, a lot of myths and tall tales also have a similar feel.

Bottom Line

The Last Unicorn is a peculiar story filled with interesting characters, strange events, talking animals, and a glut of metaphors. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist and I often had difficulty staying immersed in the story, but when I could, it was a fun read. I’m kind of conflicted about what rating to give this book. On its own merits, it probably deserves a 5 or 6-mustache rating, but it just wasn’t my cup-of-tea, so I have to rate this book 4/7 twisty mustaches and recommend it for people who like small-quest traveling stories.

Do you think The Last Unicorn would fit your taste? Or have you read it before? Are there any other books you would like me to read and review? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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