If you are looking for a classical story with beautiful writing, then The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle is for you. Written in 1968, The Last Unicorn has the rhythm and pacing of a classic bard’s tale. It focuses on the narrative and on deep, existential ideas. It has themes of loss and seeking, of identity and belonging and of magic and battles. The storytelling mode is different than the adventure and character focused writing that is typical with more recent fantasy novels.
The writing style is very formal – lending to the bard-like quality. The description of the unicorn also has a unique perspective. Many of the passages read like beautiful poetry. Some lovely descriptions include:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and 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.
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
Sometimes she thought if men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it. But she knew beyond both hope and vanity that men had changed, and the world with them, because the unicorns were gone.
At one point, the unicorn is captured and displayed as part of a traveling circus. The circus master shows off the mystical creatures in the cages. Most of them are actually regular animals with magical glamours over them. But the descriptions of them are powerful:
This here’s the manticore. Man’s head, lion’s body, tail of a scorpion. Captured at midnight, eating werewolves to sweeten its breath. Creatures of night, brought to light. Here’s the dragon. Breathes fire now and then—usually at people who poke it, little boy. Its inside is an inferno, but its skin is so cold it burns. The dragon speaks seventeen languages badly, and is subject to gout. The satyr. Ladies keep back. A real troublemaker. Captured under curious circumstances revealed to gentlemen only, for a token fee after the show. Creatures of night.
But there are also elements in the story that take a more cynical – almost satirical – view. Throughout the novel, the characters discuss their roles in the story. Are they the hero, or the villain or the princess needing saving or the magical being? This analysis of the roles done by the characters themselves lends a feel of gentle teasing regarding the fantasy and science fiction genre.
For example, in this passage, a band of robbers is explaining that they are NOT like Robin Hood and his band of merry men:
And we don’t steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Dick Fancy hurried on. “We steal from the poor because they can’t fight back—most of them—and the rich take from us because they could wipe us out in a day. We don’t rob the fat, greedy Mayor on the highway; we pay him tribute every month to leave us alone. We never carry off proud bishops and keep them prisoner in the wood, feasting and entertaining them, because company for a bishop. When we go to the fair in disguise, we never win at the archery or at singlestick. We do get some nice compliments on our disguises, but no more than that.”
The story concludes with a bittersweet victory, including the unicorn’s own brush with being mortal:
I will go back to my forest too, but I do not know if I will live contentedly there, or anywhere. I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.
The Last Unicorn has remained popular over the past few decades and has been re-published multiple times in multiple languages. Ultimately it is a tale of magical unicorns, redemption and the triumph of good over evil. If you are seeking a classical and magical read – this is for you. Enjoy!