BOOK REC: The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

Author: Peter S. Beagle (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: N/A

Genre: Fantasy

See Also: The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. So she ventured out from the safety of the enchanted forest on a quest for others of her kind. Joined along the way by the bumbling magician Schmendrick and the indomitable Molly Grue, the unicorn learns all about the joys and sorrows of life and love before meeting her destiny in the castle of a despondent monarch–and confronting the creature that would drive her kind to extinction…

I first encountered The Last Unicorn when I was a fairly small child. I was given the VHS of the film as a birthday present, and it was the first video I owned that was just mine, not one bought to share with my brother. MINE. I watched it over and over again, I can quote along with it, sing the soundtrack. I re-bought it on DVD when VHS became obsolete. Even when bits of it scared me – I remember finding the butterfly section particularly sinister for some reason, and I can only attribute that to the musical scoring of that particular scene – I was enraptured. As an adult I discovered it was based on a book, and made it my mission to try and find it and read it, as I had done with The Princess Bride.

This proved more difficult than anticipated. It wasn’t in print in the UK, hadn’t been since the 1980s. There were graphic novel editions, but that wasn’t what I was after. I could import it from the USA, but I was put off by the price. I treated myself to an anniversary book box, imported from the USA, thinking I would be getting a beautiful anniversary edition, but, instead, discovered the book was a print edition of the incomplete first draft. I was baffled, bereft, confused.

It turns out, there was a reason for all this. Peter S. Beagle had been involved in a long legal battle with his former manager (with charges including fraud, defamation and financial elder abuse). His manager had taken full control of the IP rights to The Last Unicorn and Beagle had no control over its publication. When Beagle won his case, the manager declared bankruptcy, leaving the rights in limbo. It was only at the beginning of 2021 that he managed to reclaim the rights to his work, including The Last Unicorn. It had been published in the USA more recently than in the UK, hence why import editions were available when local ones weren’t.

Anyway, after years of bemoaning my sad fate to my husband, he very kindly bought me a copy for my birthday last year. Possibly this was a self-interested action because he was fed up of listening to me sulk about it, but either way we have both benefitted. I then spent the better part of four or five months carrying the book around the house instead of reading it, because I wanted to really savour it properly and make sure I was in the right space and frame of mind to enjoy it. That happened in April.

Much like Howl’s Moving Castle, reading The Last Unicorn was a strangely familiar experience, even though I hadn’t even seen a physical copy of the book in my life. But as Beagle wrote the screenplay to the film, some dialogue was lifted entirely from the page and transferred to the screen. I could hear the voices of the Unicorn, Schmendrick, Molly Grue as Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, their speech rhythms perfectly translating to my internal narrator. Much like William Goldman and The Princess Bride, there is a real value in getting a writer to help adapt their own work, because the know the characters and the story better than anyone. They know how to get to the essence of the character, the important things to keep in the adaptation that will retain their core elements and story arc, while stripping the narrative parts which need to be lost to streamline for film. Goldman did it, and Beagle did it.

What I really enjoyed about this was the way it fleshed out the characters further. The Unicorn became more inhuman, while the humans become more real. Most notably I found it really interesting the complete difference in Schmendrick’s character. In the film – possibly as a result of the animation – he seems like a callow youth who hasn’t finished his training. In the book we discovered he’s older than he looks, a magician who was apprenticed to a powerful wizard. The wizard saw that Schmendrick had great power, but it worked in the opposite direction from the way he wanted it. So he “gifted” Schmendrick with immortality until he was able to access his powers and use them properly, never aging until he had the opportunity to wield the magic inside him. Since then he has travelled trying to find someone or something which will help him unlock his skill. This explains how he ends up with Mommy Fortuna – desperation, trying anything to break this spell – but also his cynical and somewhat cold attitude which is emphasised in the book too. He’s older than we could know, he’s seen so much, and he’s tired of life.

I felt like this added an additional dimension to his relationship with the Unicorn as well, particularly given the extra time given to the way men in particular and also other animals interact with Unicorns. Schmendrick is jealous he cannot touch her where Molly Grue can, because to touch a Unicorn as man or beast is to give yourself entirely to it (this is not the case with women). He has age, like her, but he has humanity of a sort instead of power, where she has power and no humanity. She gains some humanity when she spends time as Amalthea, while he unlocks his powers, and they draw closer together as the story ends. There’s a deeper level of understanding and balance with the more fleshed-out narrative.

Structurally, the story doesn’t change any of the narrative essentials from the film, but it adds a few extra scenes while adding more flavour and emotion to others. Like Howl’s Moving Castle, this felt like reading a book that I knew immediately would be a Forever Favourite. In some ways, that was a relief! I felt I had built it up so much in my head, from loving the film so much, I worried a little about what I would do if I didn’t love it as much, or it disappointed me. Given that Beagle wrote the screenplay, I was silly to worry. His voice carries through both, but the warmth and emotion of the film is only deepened in the book, and richer.

I can’t wait for The Last Unicorn to be available in the UK again, so people can rediscover this sadly lost classic.

Briefly:

  • This story has all the hallmarks of a fairy tale in its narrative style and story, with magical ideas and phrasing, but it has some very modern humour and references that cut through and add a flavour of gentle satire to it. It manages to be heartfelt without being too earnest.
  • If you enjoyed the film, this is almost like a Director’s Cut, with extended scenes that flesh out the characters and make the story feel fuller. The mythos is built up further, and you get more of a sense of the world.
  • There are also sequel stories, although not included in this edition. One of the bonuses of Beagle regaining his copyright is that it means he can seek publishers for these sequels, and also he has expressed his intention to potentially write more. I’d be really excited to see these, as for all my life this has been a a single, stand-alone piece of media, and I’m just now seeing how much richer it is than I realised.

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