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February 19

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Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

by Ann-Katrina

The Last Unicorn Cover

Back Cover of The Last Unicorn

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone…

…so she ventured out from the safety of the enchanted forest on a quest for others of her kind. Joined along the way by the bumbling magician Schmendrick and the indomitable Molly Grue, the unicorn learns all about the joys and sorrows of life and love before meeting her destiny in the castle of the despondent monarch—and confronting the creature that would drive her kind to extinction.

Three Quick Points About The Last Unicorn

  • Point 1: Nature plays a large role. The textures, the aromas, and the sounds all center around the things that grow and thrive in nature; shifting from air to sea to fire to earth to metal, and sometimes intermingling.
  • Point 2: The unicorn is rather vain, but in such a way that her vanity seems justified. Throughout the text we’re reminded that the unicorn is the most beautiful creature, much of which is her own musing, and when she’s turned human, she’s incredibly distraught because she’s mortal and dying, and therefore no longer beautiful.
  • Point 3: This book is a musical without the sheet music. If anyone had any doubts that Mr. Beagle enjoys writing lyrics, hand them this book. Just about everyone sings something at some point, ranging from the silly and nonsensical to the melancholy.

Full Review of The Last Unicorn

Before reading the full review, please note that there may be some spoilers. I tried to keep it vague enough not to spoil the entire story, but be warned. If you’d rather not take any chances, skip the synopsis and go straight to the final thoughts.

The Last Unicorn Synopsis

A unicorn residing in a lilac wood overhears two huntsmen one day discussing the existence of unicorns. When the unicorn learns that she’s the last of her kind, she decides to find out for herself and embarks on a journey to find her kin.

She travels for many days and nights without any sight of other unicorns. When she comes in contact with humans, they all look at her and see a horse. In other words, men have forgotten unicorns and that gives her hope—maybe the unicorns do still exist, but since the men can no longer see them, they assume they are no more.

After meeting a dizzy butterfly, she learns that her hopes were mislaid. In a roundabout way, the butterfly tells her about the Red Bull which drove all the unicorns away. But where? And are they still alive?

Then one night, the unicorn is captured and placed in Mama Fortuna’s traveling sideshow of mystical creatures. However, the animals in the carnival are not what they appear to be, except one (not including the unicorn). While in captivity, the unicorn learns from Mommy Fortuna that King Haggard controls the Red Bull. The unicorn also meets a magician named Schmendrick who later helps set her free. As repayment, he asks to come with her and reluctantly she agrees.

Along the way, Schmendrick is captured by a bungling group of thieves and it’s where he meets Molly Grue. Molly, having seen the unicorn (who helped rescue Schmendrick), basically invites herself on the quest and they continue the journey to find the Red Bull and find out what truly happened to the other unicorns.

After some travel, they come across King Haggard’s domain. It’s fruitless and desolate, but one town is prosperous. In that town, called Hagsgate, they learn the legend and prophecy of King Haggard’s castle.

When they set out from Hagsgate toward the castle, that’s when the Red Bull strikes for the first time. In a fit of panic, Schmendrick summons up his magic and begs it to do as it will and its will was to turn the unicorn into a human girl. The new form allowed the unicorn to continue on to the castle without being further bothered by the bull, since it was only seeking out unicorns.

At the castle, the unicorn is introduced as Lady Amalthea and she quickly steals Prince Lir’s heart. Over time, she begins to forget who she once was and her mission altogether, so when the king confronts her about being a unicorn, and tells her where they are, she truly has no idea what he’s talking about—in fact, she’s trying to avoid it altogether. With time running out, Schmendrick and Molly turn up the heat on their mission.

This all leads to the lair of the Red Bull where Prince Lir and Lady Almathea must fulfill their individual destinies, though heartbreaking.

Final Thoughts On The Last Unicorn

If you have no patience for florid language and sometimes overly abstract descriptions, then this is not the book for you. Mr. Beagle loves his similes and adjectives and adverbs; nearly every sentence is rife with them. In any other story, I’d probably admonish the author, but for The Last Unicorn, it works. It brightened up the narration, even in the dreariest of passages (and there were some dreary passages).

From the very first page, I was sucked into the fairytale, into a completely different world possibly long ago or existing parallel to this one. Who truly knows? What I do know is that I felt as though I were standing right next to the unicorn throughout her entire journey and meeting the same creatures and people that she did and escaping from the same dangers. In other words, the story felt real. Intellectually I knew the story was fiction, but deep inside, in a place that’s usually lost to age, it was completely believable.

Each character was built with a perfect balance of strength and weakness. For instance, the unicorn is vain. In the beginning, the vanity seems justified to an extent, but when she’s transformed into the Lady Amalthea who now has human emotions and desires, that justifiable vanity becomes arrogance, mainly to disguise her fear. Schmendrick was a good-natured bungling wizard who occasionally had an off day. It was the off days that made his character incredibly relatable. And the indomitable Molly Grue, the voice of cool reason and support. Together the characters all complimented each other well.

The story had a nice flow, though I will admit some parts tended to slow down, but it wasn’t so bad that I could put the book down and never want to pick it up again. The opposite, actually. Those sections gave me a breather so I could put the book down for the night get some rest and come back to it another day. Frankly, I was glad that the book took a little longer than usual to read because I wanted to prolong the story. Even when it ended I felt a little sad because I wanted to continue on with each character on their journeys.

Rating: Worth Every Penny (?)

Get The Last Unicorn at Amazon

* I watched the DVD after I finished the book and was surprised at how much was taken out. Despite removing some scenes and changing a few of the characters slightly, the movie still worked and was still as captivating as the first time I watched it.

Comments on Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

  1. # 2008 in Books, or the Ten Books I’m Glad I Read This Year - Today, I Read… wrote on February 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm:

    [...] Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (review) The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all [...]

  2. # Jenners wrote on February 19, 2009 at 8:49 pm:

    This sounds like a book I would have loved when I was in the middle of my unicorn obsession as a young teenager! I don’t know about now but it certainly sounds interesting … and I’ll keep it in mind for any unicorn fans I might come across — I think it is a little rite of passage for some girls!

  3. # Connor Cochran wrote on February 20, 2009 at 2:10 pm:

    Thanks for the very nice review of Peter’s best-known work (I’m his business manager). You might want to let folks know that they can buy signed and personally autographed copies at our website ( In addition, Peter only receives money from DVD sales that are made through our site — from sales anywhere else he gets absolutely nothing, and never had, because the English company that owns the film refuses to pay him his contractually-due royalties.

  4. # Vivienne wrote on February 22, 2009 at 4:24 pm:

    I like the sound of this – will add to my TBR list. I see you are reading Tithe. I have just finished it and loved it. I hope you are enjoying it too.

  5. # 2009 Year In Review, or The Nine Books I’m Glad I Read - Today, I Read… wrote on January 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm:

    [...] The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: The movie was something I loved and learning that there was a book left me breathless. I only wish I could have continued the journey. (review) [...]

  6. # BTT: Shakespeare or Hemmingway? - Today, I Read… wrote on March 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm:

    [...] good examples to illustrate my point are The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (review) and I heart you, You haunt me by Lisa Schroeder (review). (Bet you thought I was going to say [...]

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