I loved the animated version of The Last Unicorn when I was a kid. All of the films from that studio fascinated me. They also did The Flight of Dragons (my favourite) and the most frightening version of The Hobbit you’ll ever watch. They were all a bit eerie and off-putting, as the motion, the character designs, and the adult voices always felt a bit wrong to me as a kid. That was part of what made them different and interesting, though.
I’m not sure how I didn’t know this, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I discovered this was based on a book. And not just any book, one that many people consider a true fantasy classic. I knew I had to read it at that point. I was worried that I’d be annoyed by the differences between the movie and the book, as happens sometimes when nostalgia gets mixed in, but thankfully I’ve been blessed with the memory of a goldfish. It’s also been nearly twenty-five years (that’s depressing) since I last saw it. As a result, every new scene was a nice flashback to childhood.
Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.
This story is about a unicorn who discovers that she is the last of her kind. They are solitary creatures that don’t keep up with the outside world, but she overhears two hunters discussing how her species are no longer seen in the world, which leads her to leave her home to discover the truth. I’m not sure what else to reveal without falling into spoiler territory, but it’s much more interesting and unique than I’m making it seem. I’m terrible at synopses.
This turned out to be beautifully written. The prose reads like a fable, which would normally be a turn off for me, but it’s just enough that it adds a magical, surreal quality to the story without it becoming irritating. It’s also much more obviously meta than I remember the movie being, although I have a feeling I just didn’t really notice when I was a kid, but I loved how Schmendrick explained the world around them in terms of how fairy tales work.
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.
There’s a great mix of creepy, tense moments (such as Mommy Fortuna’s carnival) and lighthearted moments, but there is always that feeling of dread and mystery in the background. It was that atmosphere, which was perfect from start to finish, that really made this feel special. I glad I decided to finally read this.
Peter S. Beagle has written quite a lot over the years, but I’m unfamiliar with his other books. There is a free short story sequel on his website that I’ll have to eventually read, though.