Review: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn - Peter S. Beagle

This is a classic fantasy book originally published in the 1960’s. There is also an animated movie adaptation, and a more recently-published graphic novel, but I had never seen or read this story in any form so it was brand new to me. If you’re trying to get a hold of this book, and you aren’t interested in the graphic novel, pay careful attention to what you’re getting. On the U.S. Amazon site, the product page for the paperback (not the graphic novel) has a link for a "Kindle" version but that version is the graphic novel. I came very close to buying the wrong thing. In fact, it doesn’t seem like an e-book version of the novel is available to purchase anywhere, at least not in the U.S. I ended up borrowing the paperback from the library instead.

 

At the beginning of the book, a unicorn overhears two hunters in the woods talking about unicorns. They say there aren’t any more unicorns left in the world, and the unicorn is dismayed by this idea. Unicorns lead isolated lives in their own woods which means they rarely encounter each other. The unicorn decides she must know whether or not she’s really the last unicorn, so she sets off down the closest road in search of answers. The first thing she discovers is that people can’t even see her for what she is. They don’t see a unicorn because they don’t expect to see one. They just see a pretty white horse, which she finds quite insulting! Along the way, at different points and under different circumstances during the journey, she gathers a couple of humans who do recognize her for what she is and journey with her to help her.

 

I think this book was really written more for children, but I also thought there were several aspects of the book that would be better appreciated by an adult. In particular, I’m not sure a child would really grasp the complexities of some of the characters in the books. The basic story is a simple one that children could understand, and the book was written with a simple tone and relatively simple words, but the main human characters were all adults and the unicorn herself had lived for a very long time. The main characters’ motivations and reactions were therefore more complex and more adult than the characters that populate your typical children’s book. I don’t think the characters’ reactions were really explained at a level a child could understand. I’ll put an example of what I mean in spoiler tags for those who have read the book. Although, if you’ve read it, you may already know exactly what I mean anyway!

 

When Molly first encounters the unicorn, her very first reaction is to cry out, “Where have you been? Damn you, where have you been?” And then, a little later, “And what good is it to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” As an adult I understood this perfectly but would a child, who has yet to really understand the passage of time and the aging process, have any clue why this woman is randomly yelling at the beautiful unicorn?

(show spoiler)

 

I was actually bored with this book during the first half. The story was really straight-forward and I didn’t like the characters very much. The unicorn is aloof. Unicorns, at least as portrayed in this book, are not social creatures nor do they care much about the doings of mere mortals. She reacts to respect and admiration as if it’s her due and she shows no gratitude or affection for the people who are doing everything they can to help her. The humans who join her on her quest were more likeable, but I didn’t warm up to them right away either.

 

The story got significantly more interesting closer to the midpoint though, and I finally started to get more invested in the characters. I was also happy with how the book ended. It was a bittersweet ending, more so than I expected from a children’s book, but I thought it ended the only way it could realistically end.