Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Immortal at 50

The cover of The Last Unicorn graphic novel adaptation.

Like many of my generation, I first met the unicorn not in the pages of a book, but in full color, on a screen.

Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn was first published in 1968—50 years ago!—but my entrance into the narrative was via the 1982 Rankin/Bass film adaption. Probably best known for stop-motion holiday perennials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the animation studio briefly had a sideline in adapting fantasy classics, among them J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Beagle’s (then and now) most revered work.

In the U.S. (and particularly in the ’80s), animation meant “for kids.” While neither The Hobbit nor The Last Unicorn were written for children, precisely, they both have charming, conspiring narrators, and are the kind of tales that can be read aloud beautifully. The script for The Last Unicorn was written by Beagle himself, and what resulted is lovely film, and a terrifying one, for children and their inevitable parents. It’s especially striking in the ambiguity of its conclusion—a happily-ever-after more than tinged with melancholy and regret. The animation isn’t quite up to the Disney standard in terms of fluidity; nevertheless it is gorgeous in its design and the expressiveness of the characters. (The subcontracted Japanese studio that handled the animation also produced Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; after it folded, many of the animators went on to work for Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli.)

Original movie poster, 1982

I watched the movie numerous times as a child, often in the waning days of the school year, when teachers showed it to us in an attempt to stave off our cabin fever for a few more hours. I fairly loved it. (I can happily sing you the entire soundtrack, with folksy songs performed by the band America, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra.) When I finally picked up the novel, some years back, I thought I knew what to expect, and was wholly unprepared to be left poleaxed by its delicate beauty.

The Last Unicorn was only Beagle’s second novel, published when he was in his late 20s, but it is an unbelievably accomplished work, both winsome and wistful, happy and sad, longing and fulfilled. My notes, jotted down during that first reading, are just lines of oppositional adjectives, dichotomies that somehow resolve to wholeness within the text.

The story follows a unicorn—who remains unnamed, at least in her unicorn body—out of her woodland enclave. After a group of hunters passes through her wood, thwarted in their hunt by her protective magic, one shouts out upon his exit that she may be the last of her kind. This troubles the immortal creature so much that she eventually sets out in search of her sisters. On her way, she meets butterflies and brigands, is captured and released, and collects a small following: a failed magician and an aging woman. Both follow her unto the end, to a crumbling castle by the sea, inhabited by a cursed king and his fell beast, who have together lured and imprisoned all the unicorns save one. This is a book in which bored princes read magazines. There are jokes about obscure folklorists, talking cats and thirsty skulls, and heart-wrenching choices that will gut you on the horns of dilemma.

The Last Unicorn covers throughout the years.

Immortality in its many forms is a major theme. The unicorn herself is immortal, which makes her kind and cruel by turns, unable to comprehend the simple (and not so simple) mortality in the humans she encounters. Her first companion, Schmendrick the magician, lives in a form of uncomfortable immortality, semi-cursed by his master Nikos to “travel the world round, eternally incompetent, until such time as you come to your full power and know who you are.” Schmendrick is a mix of old and young, inclined to the overdrinking and highhandedness of youth, but as tired and weary as any old man who has fewer days ahead of him than behind. His immortality is conditional on his being no kind of magician at all—on not becoming that which he so very much wants to be—and therefore, he lives in awful limbo, doling out his days with card tricks and sleight of hand.

The unicorn’s second companion, Molly Grue, is met in a merry wood, accompanying a largely unmerry group of outlaws. They are led by Captain Cully, whose most fervent wish is to be discovered by a folklorist like Francis James Child, who collected English and Scottish ballads, honing a personal mythology that has almost nothing to do with his petty thieving. Indeed, Cutty decides Schmendrick must be Child in disguise, and sets to singing all 40-odd stanzas of an original ballad in the hopes that his composition will be immortalized, and therefore he will be immortalized, even if his immortality is a fiction. When Schmendrick (mostly by accident) conjures a ghostly image of Robin Hood in the firelight, Cully and his men hare off into the woods after them, entranced by the immortality of the folk hero and recorded story. Only Moll Grue, careworn lover of Captain Cutty, sees the true immortality of the unicorn, and determines to follow her.

The unicorn, Molly, and Schmendrick travel across the cursed kingdom of King Haggard to his crumbling castle, where they encounter the Red Bull. Haggard is said to have bound all the unicorns by the magic of the Red Bull (or perhaps the Red Bull worked through Haggard; its unclear who masters whom.) When the Bull finds the last unicorn and begins driving her to her doom, Schmendrick, in another bit of reflexive magic, unthinkingly somehow changes her into the Lady Amalthea. The inhuman creature is made human, trapped in a mortal body—named, and dying, as we humans all constantly are. Her time is also running out in another way: the spirit of a unicorn can only exist so long in a body destined to die. If she cannot change back, she will become truly human. Truly mortal.

The final confrontation with the Red Bull, which takes place when the Lady has almost forgotten her unicorn self, is a master class in hard choices: stay with the prince, Haggard’s son, whom she has grown to love, and grow old and die; or return to her nameless unicorn form, and free the unicorns. Neither is the right choice; neither is the wrong. Either choice will lead to grief and regret, a whole possible life going out of the world and into something like death—but more intangible than death, because it was never allowed to be. Beagle somehow manages to be metatextual here, telling his tale with a sly wink and the calculated anachronism, but earnest to the very bones of the story: “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”

The ending of the novel feels final and true, but Beagle has written well more into the unicorn wood since The Last Unicorn was published half a century ago—even as he has adapted the original novel into new forms; see the film’s screenplay, as well as a quite beautiful graphic novel. In Calabria details a pair of unicorns who are almost an inversion of first and last unicorn: wholly bestial, without speech, but with the glimmering immortality that does not and cannot know regret.

Last year’s The Overneath, a collection of short stories about a bestiary of topics, tells the stories of three unicorns, several other monsters, and two anecdotes in the life of Schmendrick, the last of the red-hot swamis. The first elucidates how he ended up with such a horrible name; in Yiddish, a language of the most nuanced insults, schmendrick means something like “one who is out of their depth.” The second finds Schmendrick just after his release from Nikos’ tutelage.

“Two Hearts,” a novelette that won both the Hugo and the Nebula the year it was published, and can be found in the collection The Line Between, is a sort of coda to The Last Unicorn—a telling Beagle resisted for decades. This fall arrives The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey, 96 pages of pages of musings and ephemera that provide a glimpse of an early draft of the novel, written when Beagle was just 23; the promotional copy promises an encounter with a dragon.

Since I first read The Last Unicorn, I’ve fallen into other of Beagle’s works, and every time I read him, I am floored by his command of language, his sly sense of humor, his almost casual profundity. Just this year he honored by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s of America’s as a Damon Knight Grand Master, an award for lifetime achievement. Unfortunately, many of his books have gone in and out of print. Boy, but I would love to see lush, newly illustrated editions of his prodigious catalog, beginning with The Last Unicorn, his most enduring work. He is such a fine writer, and grows finer with age.

Explore the works of Peter S. Beagle. 

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