The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn.jpgThe Last Unicorn is a strange combination of anachronistic satire and a beautiful prose poem about depression and the meaning of beauty.

The story is about the Unicorn who hears from some hunters in her wood that she is the last unicorn and from a butterfly that the Red Bull has driven them all down the road long ago. She sets out to find them, saddened by the news.

Along the way she meets Schmendrick, a bumbling wizard who can’t seem to gain control of his magic and Molly, a middle-aged woman who has grown bitter and cynical due to her experiences of depravity. The three seek out the Castle of King Hagard in an attempt to find the unicorns that he has trapped in the sea.

This book is full of metaphors and similes that twist and turn on their own heads so that they are both surprising and lyrically visual in a way that no other phrase could possibly be.

She laughed with a sound like snakes hurrying through mud

Beagle is not just turning a story into a poem. He is turning legends and myths and tropes and stereotypes upside down. The band of thieves tell themselves they are like Robin Hood but later they admit they don’t rob from the rich to give to the poor, they rob from the poor because they don’t fight. The story knows it is a fairy tale and is happy to acknowledge that fact.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

But, somewhere in the twists and turns of phrase, hidden behind all the humorous details and bumbling wizards and self-aware stories and twisted tropes hides a deeply emotional story about depression, bereavement and the meaning of love and beauty and how those things play together and against each other.

This is a book that deserves to be read many times. There is depth in here that I have not plumbed in a single reading. I can see that this book is a great metaphor itself, built around a number of other powerful and imaginative metaphors but I can’t see the whole picture in one encounter.

I definitely believe that this should be read (the movie is pretty great as well) and it contains so many depths and layers I wish there was a literary class I could take that would pick it apart and examine it in detail. This is one of the best books and has some of the most fascinating writing that I have ever read.