My first exposure to Peter S. Beagle came around two months ago when I stumbled upon Tamsin in the local used bookstore. Although I had heard good things I had never read him, and with Tamsin I was hooked.
The Last Unicorn is Beagle’s most well known book, having been made in to an animated movie which I’ll have to check out now that I’ve read the book.
The Last Unicorn revolves, naturally, around the story of a unicorn who finds herself oddly troubled with the idea that she is indeed the last unicorn in the world and sets off in search of her kin. Along the way she is eventually joined by the Shmendrick the Magician, an individual with his own adventure to fulfill as well.
The thing which ever captivates me about the writing of Beagle is his ability to wrap the reader up within the story through his exquisite use of not only imagery but through his descriptions of the way his characters think and feel, an aspect which in many books (especially of the fantasy and fable genre) seems to be done to accent the text rather than to imbue it with life and meaning.
The narrative of The Last Unicorn is itself a fun, powerful ride following the quest of the last unicorn and her companion(s). And while the story itself is marvelously told, truly enthralling the reader within the world Beagle has created, I’m even more drawn to the world itself. Beagle’s works are simply astounding endeavors in mythopoeia and subtle all the same. Beagle’s stories seem to live on the border between our world and fairyland, which in my opinion is the best place for a story to live. There is ever a question hanging in the air of just how much the world Beagle is writing in is our world, and how much of it is magical, which keeps the reader in suspense as to just what is possible in the world presented. Is magic real, and how real is the magic, and what is the nature of this magic – these are the questions that perpetually come up. One is never quite sure what to make of the world and there is always a veil of mystery lying behind the scenes, being lifted only enough to entice and drive the story forward.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Beagle’s writing, especially here, is his near meta treatment of myth, fairy tale, and heroes (much of which can be seen in the ‘Memorable Quotes’). Much like Samwise in The Lord of the Rings when he ponders what sort of story they might be in, the characters in The Last Unicorn are ever conscious of the fact that they fit within a mythic narrative, where a hero is a type of individual and things are meant to be done in a certain fashion. However, while the individuals explore the meaning and nature of fairy tales from within, this isn’t done in a fourth-wall-breaking manner (which I think would spoil the fun). Rather, it is a glimpse of a world where what we would call the mythic (a unicorn) is the real, and what we would call the real (ordinary people) are actually less real.
I highly recommend this book, an absolutely amazing trek into fairyland.
-“This is a strange sorcery,” she said softly. “There’s more meaning than magic to this.”
-“Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be a prince. Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?”
-“Your tale has no power over me. I am a unicorn. I am the last unicorn.”
-“…the true secret of 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 at the witch’s door when she is 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.”
-“He thought, or said, or sang, I did not know that I was so empty, to be so full.”