Author: Peter S. Beagle (twitter)
UK Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Genre: Fantasy, first draft
Buy now: hardcover
Peter S. Beagle first imagined his beloved heroine when he was twenty-three, half a decade before she sprang into the world. Now the Last Unicorn’s fantastical origins are recaptured in this lovely commemorative hardcover. Here you will discover the eighty-five page genesis of Beagle’s masterpiece, his own wry musings upon his early career, charming original illustrations, and tributes from modern fantasy legends Patrick Rothfuss and Carrie Vaughn.
In this wonderfully strange adventure, a brave unicorn leaves her solitary life behind, determined to discover if she is the last of her kind. She is forewarned by a forlorn dragon and befuddled by a chatty butterfly; her unfamiliar traveling companion will be an exiled demon with a split personality and a penchant for philosophy.
Somewhere between mythology, modernity, and magic, the Last Unicorn has found herself on the road less traveled by . . . until now.
The Last Unicorn was a film which was a large part of my childhood. I got it on video for one of my earlier birthdays as a present from a like-minded older cousin, and have been obsessed with it to a greater or lesser extent since then. I was a delicate soul as a child, traumatised by Pinocchio and Jumanji, but even though I found parts of the film extremely sinister (particularly the butterfly, I recall, for some reason), I rewatched it continually. I’ve memorised the soundtrack, I can basically quote alongside the dialogue.
But I’d never read the book. It doesn’t appear to even still be in print in the UK – available only as a US-import paperback, and a hardback of mysterious provenance, both only through third-party sellers on Amazon. There are a a handful of versions of the graphic novel, but again most of those are only available through second hand means.
So when I saw this Unicorn Crate being advertised for the 50th Anniversary, with a special edition of the book, I got super excited. I would finally get to read the book! And it would be a beautiful edition to treasure forever!
Approximately 50% of that was true. Maybe a little less.
It turned out that The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey isn’t the book, but instead a publication of the first draft. With a different plot. And different characters. And no ending. It has two introductions, and an afterword, but no ending. This wasn’t made clear in the crate information, and although it is clearly stated in the blurb of the book, the blurb wasn’t included in the crate information – and of course, you wouldn’t think to ask “oh by the way, does this book have an ending?” – so all in all it was a bit of a let down.
There are scenes which are clearly identifiable as remaining in later editions and being carried across to the movie, but largely the book seems a little confused about its identity at this stage – as it would! It was a first draft written across a summer whilst Beagle was locked in a cabin being furiously creative in a self-funded artist’s retreat. There is no mention of Schmendrick or Molly Grue – even the Red Bull is missing! Instead we get a narrative which involves the Unicorn meeting two demons, set in the modern day as they walk along tarmac roads and dodge cars and busses.
It’s well written, and often funny, but it doesn’t have that same magic. It’s satirical, but mostly because of modern day sensibilities rather than of the genre. And it ends abruptly, probably finishing with Beagle’s return home after his summer of work. The afterword, by the author, explains that he explored it more fully several years later, and began to work on it seriously after telling stories to his children.
For me it was disappointing – it felt like getting the special features but not the main item. I would have been interested in the origins of the story, but perhaps this could have been included in the back of a special edition which included the actual novel. Without having read the original, there was limited meaning I could glean from this bit of archival material, and whilst it was a short read it was a disappointing one.
The book itself as a physical item is somewhat disappointing too. The art inside it and on the dust jacket is gorgeous and I adore the illustrations, but the hardcover underneath is upsettingly plain. It seems like it would have been easy enough to put a foil debossing on the cover using a lineart unicorn from the very simple and distinctive jacket art. For a special edition, it looks a lot like a plain red book, and it doesn’t excite me.
All in all, this just feels like a publication characterised by missed opportunities and lack of thought for the final product.
- Not actually the Last Unicorn.
- It probably has some archival value, but without having read The Last Unicorn (which this isn’t, btw) it’s hard to appreciate the origins fully.
- It doesn’t have an ending, because it’s a first draft.