In Defense of “The Last Unicorn”

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle is one of my all-time favorite books, and I re-read it like it’s air.  I recommend it quite often.  And yet, people very rarely take me up on my suggestion.  I think it’s because of the title.  I mean, let’s be honest, it sounds like the final book of a trilogy where the other books are Giggle Glitter and Rainbow Smiles.  I get it.

But no.

This book routinely polls as one of the top 10 fantasy novels of all time.  It is stunning.

These are the reasons I love it so much:

1. The lyrical writing.  It’s like this completely gorgeous narrative poem!  On every page, you encounter a gem so beautiful you want to put it in your mouth like rock candy.

“Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.”

“Her voice left a flavor of honey and gunpowder on the air.”

“When you walk, you make an echo where they used to be.”

2. The humor.  Beagle’s timing for tossing out a laugh-aloud moment is impeccable and doesn’t distract from the story, only adds.

“The magician stood erect, menacing the attackers with demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments, and secret judo holds. Molly picked up a rock.”

“You pile of stones, you waste, you desolation, I’ll stuff you with misery till it comes out of your eyes. I’ll change your heart into green grass, and all you love into a sheep. I’ll turn you into a bad poet with dreams.”

3. The meta-writing.  Story about story.  The characters have this self-awareness that they are a part of a story, and it’s a fascinating device I’ve rarely seen used.  Beagle does so with flawless charm.

“Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?. . . . The hero has to make a prophecy come true, and the villain is the one who has to stop him — though in another kind of story, it’s more often the other way around. And a hero has to be in trouble from the moment of his birth, or he’s not a real hero. It’s a great relief to find out about Prince Lir. I’ve been waiting for this tale to turn up a leading man. . . .”

“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.”

If you like the fantasy genre, or even just world-class writing despite genre, then you need to read this book.

last unicorn