Review of ‘The Last Unicorn’ by Peter S Beagle

A magic-soaked, hallucinatory quest novel first published in 1968, The Last Unicorn rather captivated me, although towards the end I wasn’t sure what was going on. I hadn’t seen the animated film and knew nothing about the story, so I dived in hoping to be pleasantly surprised (which is my preferred way of reading a classic book).

The story is about a unicorn who journeys to find the rest of her species. Early on, she is captured by a travelling carnival and escapes with a wizard, Schmendrick, and after running into bandits they are joined on their adventure by a woman, Molly Grue. The three of them are on their way to the cursed castle of King Haggard, where they must brave the Red Bull and fulfil a prophecy to find the rest of the unicorns. The strength of the novel, in my opinion, is not the plot, but the writing style, which is full of unusual imagery and phrasing. I don’t think I have read any style like it before. Dialogue can take unexpected turns and there are occasional bursts of mockery which play on our expectations of the fairytale format.

Unicorns are extremely popular these days – browse any products aimed at little girls and you’ll be sick of the glitter-horned, rainbow-maned creatures – so I’m not quite as fond of them as I should be, which perhaps influenced my enjoyment of the book. However, I think the author very effectively portrayed the ethereal beauty and immortal magic of the unicorn in this story (simply called ‘the unicorn’ and when transfigured into a human, ‘the Lady Amalthea’).

In summary, this novel is worth a try, even if, like me, you’re not much of a fantasy reader. The edition from 2022 has a fabulous introduction by Patrick Rothfuss; it’s his favourite book.

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