The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle (book review).

There are some books that defy categorisation or which instantly become classics. ‘The Last Unicorn’ was originally published in 1968 and, more than fifty years later, it has not lost its charm. It is a timeless fable.

The unicorn has been content in her forest where it is always spring. It has been unchanging for centuries and would have stayed that way but for a conversation she overheard between two hunters who not only don’t think that they exist but doubt that they ever did. As a result, the unicorn decides to go and look for herself. She wants to know what happened to the other unicorns.

To begin with, the unicorn wanders at random, then she encounters a butterfly. This creature has a mind that flits from idea to topic as if visiting flowers but within the rambling, the unicorn gathers a sense that the Red Bull has something to do with the disappearance of the other unicorns. While she now has a purpose, her way is hazardous.

Most people see her just as a white mare but Mommy Fortuna sees her for what she is and traps her for her carnival. Most of the exhibits appear to be mythological creatures because of small spells. Fortunately for the unicorn, Schmendrick the Magician helps her escape and together they set out to find King Haggard and the Red Bull. Along the way they pick up another companion, Molly Grue.

What adds to the charm of this story are the elements familiar from the fairy tales most of us were exposed to in childhood. The magical setting is where ‘The Last Unicorn’ begins: her summer forest. The unicorn itself is a talking animal, as is the butterfly. She has a quest and companions. At their destination is a gothic-style castle under a curse. The only inhabitants are King Haggard, his adopted son Prince Lír and in a cavern beneath the castle, the Red Bull.

It is a miserable place and cursed to stand until the sea overwhelms it, an unlikely prospect as it is perched on the top of a cliff. The town of Hagsgate is also cursed but in the opposite way. Everything grows well, there is plenty of food but the town’s people know that their prosperity will last only as long as the castle does. No-one leaves as there is a prophesy: that a man from the village will cause the downfall of King Haggard and plunge Hagsgate into misery.

Tales such as this require a hero. That is Prince Lír. To protect the unicorn from the Red Bull, Schmendrick turns her into a damsel addressing her as Lady Amalthea. To try to win her affection, Lír spends his time doing the things heroes are expected to, such as slaying dragons and ogres.

Beagle has a light touch, weaving the elements together into a delightful story guaranteed to enchant readers of all ages. If you are unfamiliar with this book, put it near the top of your reading list.

Pauline Morgan

January 2023

(pub: Gollancz, 2022. 292 page hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-399-60696-7)

check out website: www.gollancz.co.uk

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