Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club
The Last Unicorn (1968)
new Roc trade paperback - 212 pages
interior illustrations by Mel Grant (left)
1970s Ballantine books paperback - 248 pages
cover art by Gervasio Gallardo (right)
Peter S. Beagle - The Last Unicorn
An immortal unicorn leaves her grove, seeking others of her kind. So few people have seen an unicorn, many think her merely a pretty white mare. A butterfly says the other unicorns passed by a long time ago, with The Red Bull close behind them.
An old witch, Mommy Fortuna, captures the unicorn and puts her on display in the Midnight Carnival, a show of exotic creatures most of which are unreal. Schmendrick, an inept magician, helps the unicorn escape. He asks the unicorn to take him with her.
Schmendrick encounters a band of "Robin Hood and his Merry Men" wannabes, lead by Captain Cully. Molly Grue, a tattered version of Maid Marian, is enchanted with the unicorn and joins the unicorn's quest.
They journey together to the barren lands of unhappy King Haggard. The frightening Red Bull attempts to drive the unicorn towards Haggard's castle. To save the unicorn, Schmendrick the transforms her into the Lady Amalthea.
Schmendrick and Molly Grue serve in the meager court of King Haggard, and look for signs of the other unicorns. Prince Lir, King Haggard's adopted son, falls in love with Lady Amalthea and becomes a dragon slaying, poetry writing hero to win her heart.
After the other unicorns are found and freed, the land blooms into spring.summary written by
10 Wow! Don't miss it
8-9 Highly recommended
5-6 Mild recommendation
3-4 Take your chances
1-2 Below average; skip it
0 Get out the flamethrower!
U Unfinishable or unreadable
- Skipped or no rating given
Peter S. Beagle - The Last Unicorn
You could say that the plot of this novel is not terribly involving. You could say that the characterization is merely adequate. The unicorn is never much of a protagonist, and the only character who generates any real interest with the reader is the ineffective magician Schmendrick.
You could say all that, but you'd be missing the point. This book is not to be read as a compelling adventure story. Beagle never takes the story line terribly seriously, at one point even allowing Schmendrick to break character and ask someone else, "Haven't you ever been in a fairy tale before?"
This book is to be read for the sheer enjoyment of Beagle's prose. He always has a clever turn of phrase ready, as when Schmendrick issues the curse, "I'll change your heart into green grass, and all you love into a sheep." Beagle has a delightful sense of whimsy, as when he gives us a brief glimpse into the life of a blue jay. (The blue jay interrupts his wife's song to the children, promising them various regurgitated foodstuffs, to proudly tell her he has seen a unicorn. She wryly observes, "You didn't see any supper, I notice," and soon has him on the defensive about his philandering ways.) Beagle employs many familiar fantasy devices, but repeatedly finds a fresh way to use them. The overtalkative skull guarding a secret passage near the end particularly struck my fancy.
Whatever extraordinary things happen in his fairy tale, Beagle always manages to make the people they happen to seem like ordinary folk. A would-be Robin Hood's merry men wonder why they haven't given any of their spoils to the poor in recent memory. One of them bemoans, "There may be truth somewhere, but it never gets down to me." The people of Hagsgate offer a wonderful glimpse into human nature: They are never able to enjoy their life of plenty, simply because they know it is cursed some day to end.
Let us avoid the fate of Hagsgate and appreciate what we have been given - Beagle may not be a great storyteller, but he is a terrific writer.What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to
The Last Unicorn (1982) - the animated movie
88 minutes, color
Produced by Rankin & Bass, screenplay by Peter S. Beagle
Voice actors: Alan Arkin (Schmendrick), Jeff Bridges (Lir), Mia Farrow (Last Unicorn / Amalthea), Paul Frees (Cat), Tammy Grimes (Molly Grue), Robert Klein (Butterfly), Angela Lansbury (Mommy Fortuna), Christopher Lee (King Haggard), Keenan Wynn (Cully)