Fiction Reviews

The Last Unicorn

(1968/2022) Peter S. Beagle, Gollancz, £25, hrdbk, xvii + 393pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60696-7


This is a special fiftieth anniversary reprint edition of a truly delightful poetic fantasy novel that makes me wish I'd read it decades before.

The unicorn has been left alone in the World when all the others have inexplicably vanished. How the last one has escaped the fate of the other unicorns is never stated. She embarks on a quest to discover their fate. Few creatures or people see the unicorn in her true form, mistaking her for an ordinary if beautiful white mare. When she is captured by the owners of a travelling carnival, she is given a fake horn beside her unseen genuine one, and displayed as the real deal by people oblivious that she really is.

Distortions between real and perceived run throughout the novel. Another captive of the carnival is an ordinary spider presented as the Goddess Ariadne, which leads her to believe tragically that she really is the deity. Schmendrick, a wizard assisting the carnival hucksters has only limited skills and his spells usually go amusingly wrong, though with consequences that often set up important consequences later. He is doomed to immortality until he gets his spells right, and prefers the thought of mortality over living forever but being incomplete. Recognizing the true nature of the unicorn he frees her sensing rightly that his own destiny ties in with hers in some unknown way.

A group of bumbling outlaws modelling themselves on the exploits of Robin Hood are unimpressed when Schmendrick conjures up visions of the real Robin and his famous friends.

When the unicorn escapes the circus, Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the Maid Marion of the faux outlaws, accompany her in her quest as she seeks out the deadly Red Bull she believes to have played a part in the vanishing of the unicorns.

The Red Bull is owned by King Haggard, a dark lord who has grown weary of his own great evils. The Bull, owns or simply assists and uses Haggard, (it is purposely never explained). There is also a village that Haggard and the bull are unable to destroy or conquer, unlike others that the King has ruined, as it is cursed to prosper for its part in getting Haggard into power, and knows that it will fall only when the King is overthrown. The people of the village are trapped in despair despite their protection and prosperity as they know a day of terrible reckoning hangs over them. The arrival of the Unicorn, Wizard and Molly tells them their time may be almost up.

When the Red Bull almost kills the Unicorn she is saved by Schmendrick turning her human, in the guise of Lady Amalthea, an identity she intensely dislikes, but unless Schmendrick can find a spell to give her back her true form she is trapped in a woman’s body and even in danger of forgetting who she truly is. Worse, she has drawn the love of a besotted prince, Haggard’s adopted son, Lir, who is tired of slaying dragons and undertaking other seemingly suicidal missions and quests that he ends up accomplishing with soul destroying ease, with only his yearning for love eluding him.

There is humour, romance, drama, tension and even horror. The Red Bull, representing omnipotent, but blind fury, seems to be everywhere at once. The Unicorn flees in terror on their first clash, only to find the creature ahead of her as well as behind her.

The Unicorn is content as herself, while surrounded by characters longing for change and development. Once transformed, the Unicorn only desires getting things back as they were before, and returning to her beloved enchanted forest, and uncovering the fate of the missing unicorns, but adventures may mean things may never fully become as they once were.  A magician must become mortal,   a prince must become a king,   and times will change all.

Along the way, there are songs, poems, ballads, a riddle reciting butterfly, witches and furies.

Schmendrick is no Rincewind, (the reluctant wizard protagonist of several of Pratchett’s Discworld novels). He is a man on a learning curve. His name is drawn from the Yiddish for someone out of his depth. He is easily allowed to replace Haggard’s more efficient and skilled court magician, Mabruk, because the failings of the newcomer amuse the miserable dictatorial ruler who is bored by the ease with which Mabruk achieves all he sets out to do. There is a strong sense that far from wanting to conquer more, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Sauron style, Haggard seems content to allow his kingship and crumbling castle to be destroyed. Only the terrible and formidable Red Bull comes over as a true threat to the heroes throughout.

There is both a simplicity and complexity to the tale. Casually delivered asides and cute rhymes in the very lyrical songs take on profound importance later. The text starts to shine like precious gems and crystals, with writing as magical as the World presented. This is fantasy at its most fantastic, whatever age you are when you discover it.

An animated film of the book was made in 1982 with (among other luminaries) Mia Farrow voicing the Unicorn and Christopher Lee cast as Haggard.

Arthur Chappell


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