Authors are warned not to expect literary fiction to succeed commercially. Yet one of the most popular fantasies ever is a beautiful example of literary fantasy. I read The Last Unicorn recently for the first time.
No story is the same for every reader. We shape our own version with our widely varied personal memories and perspective. This is especially true with literary fiction, which relies on the audience's interest in such things as allusions and undercurrents of meaning.
If one approaches The Last Unicorn with expectations of a cheesy 1960s romance in the back of their mind, there is a danger that this is what they will experience. As the story points out, when people come across a unicorn they often can’t see what’s right there in front of them.
At some point in the book, though, the reader must make a choice. Is this story to be read with a modern and critical eye, peeved and scoffing over this and that? Or is it better to plunge into the magic, to enjoy every nuance and smell every flower of the language? There is much to experience in the warp and weft of Mr. Beagle’s writing, constantly reminding us that there is more to our world than we can see.
A butterfly speaks in a flittering gibberish of overheard songs and phrases. His life is only a blip in time. And yet he holds the truth. A wicked witch uses the public’s fears and gullibility against them for profit, only to be eaten by her own deepest forebodings. A wretched king lives in a prison of stale magic and his own dour imagination. Characters are the backbone of this book. The personalities are based on archetypes, and the heroes of the story blossom into a satisfying modernness.
Beagle’s lyrical flow-of-thought style of writing pulled me right into this fairy tale, despite my preconceived ideas and wariness. Before I read the story, I had been put off by the saccharine image of the unicorn which comes from the film. The creature with oversized human eyes has a head shape which disturbs and offends me and my idea of a unicorn. It’s a cultural thing, I realize.
Despite all this, I watched the film a few days ago. The animation has a simple but lovely artistry, and the unicorn moves enchantingly like a real horse. The beauty of the film opened my mind about anime-style unicorns. Although the screenplay was done by Mr. Beagle, the film is toned down and less thought-provoking than the book. For example, in the movie it is not implicit that the cause of the people’s sadness and pathetic blindness to the world is the fact that the unicorns have gone. I recommend the film, but read the book first!
For me, The Last Unicorn is a story about facing our humanity. It’s a reminder to live life with joy.
She was magical, beautiful beyond belief – and completely alone...
The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumors carries a message she could not ignore: 'Unicorns are gone from the world.'
Aided by a bumbling magician and an indominable spinster, she set out to learn ... (more)
Peter Soyer Beagle (born 1939) is an American fantasist and author of novels, nonfiction, and screenplays. He is also a talented guitarist and folk singer. He wrote his first novel, urban fantasy A Fine and Private Place (1960), when he was only 19 years old. Travel book I See By My Outfit (1965) is a nonfiction classic. Today he is best known as the author of The Last Unicorn (1968), a modern fantasy classic.
Beagle's work as a screenwriter interrupted his early career direction as a fiction author, but in the 1990s he returned to prose fiction. Beagle's own favourite is a literary fantasy novel The Innkeeper's Song (1993). Four years later Beagle returned to the land that was the novels setting for a collection of short ... (more)