Friday, August 24, 2007

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)

Nothing about my recent run of good fortune could have prepared me for the attending joy that followed my sighting of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Say what you will about heroic and traditional fantasy, but The Last Unicorn remains, for me, one of the must-read books of the genre.

Where one expects a happily-ever-after in a familiar medieval world, Mr. Beagle instead fashions a not-so-traditional tale. Schmendrick the magician frees the last unicorn from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival and the two set off to find what has happened to the other unicorns. Their search leads them to King Haggard, and to help the unicorn from sharing the same fate as the others of her kind, Schmendrick transforms her into a woman. It is as a woman that she discovers other magic that exists in the world--magic like love, and courage, and sacrifice.

Schmendrick's act eventually leads the unicorn, now known as the Lady Amalthea, to declare that 'I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do (p. 207).' But no one can claim that it was pure folly, for the change advents an inordinate amount of good as well. It is with this dynamic of regret and consequence that Mr. Beagle injects bittersweet realism into his fantasy, resulting in a tale over which young girls may swoon tragically and about which adults may nod sagely: "I've been there, I know that, I am no hero but I do." (Is realism always to be bittersweet? We have heroes and magicians and ex-unicorns who would probably attest to that.)

I grew up reciting lines from The Last Unicorn as my mantra. 'Take me with you,' Schmendrick implores the unicorn, 'for laughs, for luck, for the unknown (p. 44),' and she does. I came on that journey so many years ago, and as I close my new copy, I'm glad that I've never really left the path. Mr. Beagle's prose is as familiar as the dreams we inhabit, and never a stranger.


skinnyblackcladdink said...

have you read the 'sequel'? i've seen it around (in Beagle's latest collection, i think), but have always been reluctant to give it a go. i couldn't get into 'The Unicorn Sonata' either, which, while not a sequel, sort of suggested to me that there was no way Beagle could ever take me back.

this is probably one of only two or three books i've ever read through more than once.

i had to do a double-take on that 'heroic and traditional fantasy' comment, though. 'The Last Unicorn'? traditional?

well, ok: i'll give you heroic. but for entirely different reasons.

dementedchris said...

You misread my intent. 'Heroic and traditional fantasy' as a sub-genre: knights, swords, and mead on the supper table. Not as heroic as the prince-saves-the-day nor as traditional as happily-ever-after. And not quite as traditional as the universal laws that govern mythical thought.

dementedchris said...

And yup, I've read the sequel and understand the reluctance. I was reluctant for about five minutes, I think. Hehe.