“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood…”

The Last Unicorn bookPeter S. Beagle.  The Last Unicorn.  New York:  ROC – Penguin, 1991.  212 pgs.

. . . . . . . .

Tell me that opening line doesn’t make you go all glittery-eyed with childlike wonder.  So far, this is my favorite Classic Juv/YA Fantasy.  It certainly helps that it’s not trying to preach some message about being a good girl or boy; there are messages, but they’re more subtle and sophisticated – more like themes, really (le gasp!).

This doesn’t happen in the book. Not exactly. Remember that “subtlety” thing I mentioned earlier?

Having seen the Rankin-Bass film ages ago, I already knew the basic plot…or thought I did, anyway.  Seeing it again, of course, I realize how much it simplifies the story—the film version is pure fairy tale, sweet and goofy and magical.  And of course I love it.

[And what’s goofier than a guy getting stuck between a bright pink lady tree’s giant throbbing boobs?  This… is a kids’ movie, right?]

The original story is much more meta and satirical…though, again, without getting preachy or keeping me from enjoying the journey for its own sake.  It’s as if the narrator is telling the kind of story he wishes was still being written by others, one of those nostalgic epic fairy tales full of kings and princesses and the healing power of unicorns’ horns:

… the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.  She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

The setting is some ageless medieval land, the kind of place with cliff-edge castles, merry wandering outlaws, and forests always in spring.  Though, oddly, there are little bits of the 20th century thrown into a certain butterfly’s rambling:

He jigged and twinkled on her horn, singing, “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home, where once he could not go.  Buckle down, Winsocki, go and catch a falling star. …” [1]

. . . .

“… Hasten, Mirth, and bring with thee a host of furious fancies whereof I am commander, which will be on sale for three days only at bargain summer prices. …” [2]

. . . .

“I must take the A train,” he said politely.

Apparently the butterflies in this land are known to suffer from Search Overload.

Perhaps these are remnants of Beagle’s original-original version of The Last Unicorn, which was set fully in the 20th century.

What I love:

The smooth blend of meta-storytelling and just plain storytelling.  The story has mock-fairy-tale moments, but it’s not (just) a mock-fairy-tale; it does take itself seriously, and it does feel like one of those good old fantasy adventures.

In fact, in one interview, Beagle says he was purposely channeling some of his favorite writers (including Tolkien) as a way of bringing them back to life (that part didn’t refer to Tolkien, of course, since he was still living) —

“…all these writers [I] loved were dead.  We’d already had all of their work that we were ever going to get.  So I wanted to write the kind of book that might have existed if all of them were alive now and writing together.” [3]

In terms of characterization, I like the mix of straw/trope-y characters used by Beagle to poke fun at fairy tales, and the meta-aware ones who actively choose their roles – who choose, on principle, to follow the fairy tale “order of things”:

“… The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock at the witch’s door when she is 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 …” [4]

What I don’t:

  • Some un-ironically negative portrayals of women

Exhibit A:  The girl in the story of the wizard Nikos, described as a “giggling virgin” and “aimless child,” and “all she really needed was a good man.” [5]

Exhibit B:  Witches are bad, wizards are good.

Exhibit C:  King Haggard to the Lady Amalthea:  “It is said that love makes men swift and women slow.  I will catch you at last if you love much more.” [6]

Exhibit D:  As stubborn and snarky as she usually is, Molly Grue gets “light-headed” and “silly” as she gets closer to the Bull, until Schmendrick – still strong and clear-headed – has to carry her.  And it’s she and Amalthea who argue for abandoning a quest, while the men argue for doing the right thing.

  • An unanswered question and a plot hole:

How did [Proper Noun] meet the [noun] in the first place?

And if [Proper Noun] is supposedly so connected to the [noun], why can’t [pronoun] go through the [noun] to the [place]?

. . . . . . . .

LastUnicorngraphicnovelThe graphic novel

Peter S. Beagle.  The Last Unicorn.  Adapted by Peter B. Gillis.  San Diego: Idea and Design Works, 2011.  167 pgs.

Overall, this is a lovely, faithful adaptation that understands the tone and mood of the original story.

Artist Renae De Liz captures the mood of Beagle’s text and the personalities of each character perfectly.  Her unicorn is an ethereal, graceful creature, her wide, gleaming eyes both wise and

I love the texture and coloring she gives to the wizard Mabruk in this one scene -- like a stone being washed over by a stormy green sea.
I love the texture and coloring she gives to the wizard Mabruk in this one scene — like a stone being battered by a stormy green sea.

innocent. Her Schmendrick is a sweet, scruffy, weary young man longing for more respect.  Her Haggard is a hard, cold man whose masks have been crumbling for years, and whose face betrays as much sadness as cruelty.

Even the side characters are done well.

The not-so-good stuff:  The pacing starts to feel rushed by the last third or so of the book.  The abrupt scene transitions were confusing enough to someone who’s already read the original story and can mentally fill in the blanks.  If I hadn’t read the

Granted, the artwork here is awesome. Just take out the name boxes and those corner illustrations are a fantastic, subtle way to show the passage of time.
Granted, the artwork here is awesome. Just take out the name boxes and those corner illustrations are a fantastic, subtle way to show the passage of time.

Beagle version first, those scene changes and skipped information would’ve been quite.  Frustrating.  Indeed.

But you know what’s even more irritating?  Those text boxes that start popping up in the page corners during the castle scenes, announcing the name of one of the characters featured on that page.  As if I didn’t already know who these people/creatures were.  Seriously, there’s even one for the cat.

Overall, though, it’s a very well done adaptation (be sure to check out the interviews with Peters Beagle and Gillis in the end pages), certainly more in sync with the original source than the film.  Which, again, is still fun and sweet and nostalgic.

Sorry, Lir.

. . . . . . . .

P.S.  When I first saw the movie as a kid, I wished Amalthea would fall for Schmendrick instead of Lír.


Other Classic Juv/YA fantasies I’ve reviewed:

Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Lithuanian children’s classics

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald.

The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum


[1] Peter S. Beagle.  The Last Unicorn.  ROC edition.  Pg. 8

[2] Pg. 9

[3] Beagle.  The Last Unicorn.  IDW edition.  Pg. 157

[4] ROC edition.  Pg 180

[5] Pg 43

[6] Pg 154


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