I can’t believe I only read this book recently: I probably should have found it and loved it long ago. In any case, Peter Beagle’s fantasy classic The Last Unicorn is a wonderful story about a unicorn in search for her missing people and two humans who accompany her on her journey. The first part of the story focuses on the unicorn’s point of view, which is important to help us understand at least a glimmer of how the unicorn thinks and understands the world, but the majority of the story follows the magician Schmendrick and the woman Molly. The story was written beautifully, and many of the descriptions held me in awe, making me read them again and again. It’s not a predictable story either, although it has the feel of a heroic adventure story, Prince Lir being the hero, though he comes into the story quite late and in many ways is not a typical hero. I’m not going to summarize the book, but I’ll point out some of my favourite parts and some interesting themes the story evokes.

First off is the magic within the story. Besides magical creatures such as the unicorn, magic is possessed only by magicians who study it or who have a particular gift for connecting to its powers. The unicorn is the embodiment of pure magic and eternity, not aging and not affected by the turmoil in the world around her (for the most part). Her magic is more subtle than that of humans, who have to study it rather than having it outflow from them naturally. However, it is also possible for humans to have a direct connection to magic in vision-like bouts of power. Schmendrick is usually unable to perform real magic (he performs tricks and illusions mostly), yet there a true power comes through him at times, and instead of letting him direct the magic himself, uses him as a vehicle. The magic works through him rather than being directed by him. This is interesting because it shows that the most powerful magic lies in magical beings who use it naturally as well as a higher power that can work magic through others as is deemed fit. Yet as to the identity of this power, we can only speculate.

A further consideration of magic lies in the manipulation of time. The talking skull in King Haggard’s castle speaks about this when he says:
 “When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said 'one o'clock' as though I could see it, and 'Monday' as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year's Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.”

This is what the greatest magicians can accomplish, to be able to sidestep time itself. As Schmendrick says, the essence of being a wizard is “seeing and listening,” and so it is necessary to see and listen to the world in order to go beyond the bounds of time. Normally everyone, no matter how great their powers are, is bound by the forward motion of time. It is a train we are all confined to, taking us from the past to the future. Yet what if we could step off the train and go backward to another time along the tracks? Or forward? This is not the natural spontaneous magic of the unicorn, but another dimension of magic. Though with the unicorn’s healing powers, it may very well be that she is also tapping into this magic of time: restoring someone’s body to a time before they were injured. She is not entering a different time herself, but the person she is healing might be imperceptibly travelling back in time. Likewise, her agelessness could also tie in to this power of time, for although her memories accumulate from the past to the present, her body exists in some eternal state unbounded by the moving train of time. She “walks through the walls” and is not bound by this “house bricked up with seconds and minutes,” for she can enter and exit it at will.

Yet despite the unicorn’s powers, King Haggard’s Red Bull still proves to be a formidable enemy that has trapped many of her kin. We never find out what the Red Bull really is, though I take it to be a manifestation of fear and hate in contrast to the unicorn’s pure magic. It’s not that she has the magic of love and the Red Bull that of hate, because, as we see in the story, apart from the time that the unicorn becomes human, she is not a force of love, but is beyond human emotions and concerns. This is expressed clearly when she says, “How can I be cruel? That is for mortals…so is kindness.” This might seem callous from a human’s point of view, but for an eternal being, it is inevitable that they see things from a more remote viewpoint since they are essentially outside of the endless cycles of life and death. This is a very different take on unicorns than we normally see in fiction: it isn’t until the unicorn becomes (part) human that these sorts of sentiments arise in her, and this seems more realistic.

But back to the Red Bull: since the unicorn is not omnipotent, he still has an effect on her by evoking a deep fear in her, forcing her under his sway, as he did with the other unicorns before her. It is a more primal force on par with the unicorn’s own powers, not the “parlour trick” magic of humans such as Schmendrick, but the manifestation of a deep power, the only kind that can threaten a unicorn. We also see this with the harpy, which is another ancient creature with great powers that the unicorn fears. It is fear that these evil creatures evoke in the unicorn, yet when she can overcome this fear, she is able to realize that she is more powerful than they are. And this, surprisingly, was only possible after she had turned into a human: even after returning to unicorn form, she retains some human aspects, one of which is the love for someone else and a passion to pursue her mission to save her kin. This allows her to overcome her fear, something she was unable to do while in a purely “unicorn frame of mind.”

And lastly, to give you a sense of the amazing descriptions in the story, some of the particularly good ones are:

“The sky was low and almost black, save for one spot of yellowing silver where the moon paced behind thick clouds.”

“The thin night wind lifted and spilled her mane, and the moon shone on the snowflake crafting of her small head.”

“the murderous smell of it seemed to turn her bones to sand and her blood to rain.”

“Fear came back to her eyes like a great stone falling into a pool: all was clouded and swirling, and quick shadows were rushing everywhere.”

“The horns, the seashell shining of the horns! The horns came riding in like the rainbow masts of silver ships.”

And one of the many humorous quotes:

“Prince Lir bowed to her; a quick, crooked bow, as though someone had hit him in the stomach.”

There are lots of others, but you’ll have to read the book to see!

Although I’ve only touched on a few themes, the book is much richer than this and I’d highly suggest reading it.


I had never heard of this book! Thank you for this fantastic review...now I'd love to read the book!

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"A Soul Wanderer never knows. He wanders; he makes his own path through the
heights of the universe."

-Sio Larwick

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Mary-Jean's books

The Printer's Devil
The Crystal Cave
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Lost Prince
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Hobbit
Rise of the Darklings
The Fire King
Clockwork Angel
Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
The Lost World
Around the World in Eighty Days
The Sum of All Men
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Lair of Bones
Sons of the Oak
The Wyrmling Horde

Mary-Jean Harris's favorite books »
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