Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968 novel -- not movie)


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
I'm rereading The Last Unicorn -- my last reading was in March 1975 -- and, when I checked here, it looked like there hasn't been a discussion thread here on the book.

Your thoughts? Has anyone read it or reread it lately? I'll bet there are many of us who have read it, but lately?

I'm finding that it takes a certain amount of effort to stick with it (I do have a couple of extraneous purposes for doing so). The use of deliberate anachronisms (e.g. the sentinels whose shoddy armor includes bottlecaps) isn't striking me as really funny, for example. I keep feeling more conscious of the author as making this all up than I usually am in reading fiction, and that seems a dated kind of cleverness. Is this an early example of postmodernism? That wouldn't actually recommend it to me, if it were, but I think Beagle's probably too humane for that -- ?
I can't say I've read this lately, but I'll add whatever comments I can.

It does indeed seem to start off as postmodernism, or at least as a self-aware parody of fantasy fiction. I mean, it's hard to take seriously a novel with a character named Schmendrick. (As far as the anachronisms go, should we consider those in T. H. White's The Once and Future King as an influence?)

And yet the book grows more serious as it goes on. Whether this is deliberate or not is an interesting question.
I've read this several times, though probably not in the last ten years or so. I must admit that most of the humor did not strike me as particularly funny, but the parts that were meant to inspire other emotions—wonder, terror, sorrow, etc.—moved me greatly. And some of the descriptions are splendid.
Forty-five years ago, the New York Times Book Review advertised this new release (issue of 21 April 1968). Incidentally the first-page review was of Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of T. H. White, author of The Once and Future King.
Beagle Last Unicorn NYTBR 21 April 1968.jpeg
I read it when it first came out and was blown away. I seldom revisit fiction books that I really liked -- afraid to lose the magic.
I just received the two volumes of The Essential Peter Beagle, so it may be awhile before I revisit The Last Unicorn. From what I remember, it mixes a bit of Borsht Belt humor with an increasingly focused examination of fairy tales. I read James Thurber's The 13 Clocks some years after The Last Unicorn, and thought there was a similar vibe to it. Post-modern, maybe, given the time period in which it was written, but as you allude, deeply humane story-telling.
I read it last year and was very unimpressed.

The anachronisms weren't my cup of tea but that's not the main reason. The two biggest reasons are

1) I find most of the book short on foreshadowing. For much of the middle of the book there's no real sense of what's coming next, which saps my interest in turning the page.

2) Crucially, I don't like the characters. The Last Unicorn herself is very self-absorbed. Schmendrick's constant puffing up of his weak ego grows old quickly. A lot of the side characters are stock archetypes with a side of pettiness.

As for the ending

An ending in which the Prince gets an unhappy ending and Schmendrick and Molly Grue ride off into the sunset going "doesn't matter, we've got ours" leaves an unpleasant aftertaste for me. I think we're meant to read it as "oh he's unhappy now but he'll get over it and have a great life" but I find that unconvincing. He has a ton of unresolved trauma and sorrow and will be weighed down with burdens and regrets. He's the sacrifice the others make and they don't even have the grace to acknowledge it

Its got some lovely writing and ideas, but I really can't get on with it.
I read it when it first came out and was blown away. I seldom revisit fiction books that I really liked -- afraid to lose the magic.

A great book or story, always holds onto its magic no matter how many times it's reread .:)
I agree, Baylor, that to a certain extent, that is true. For me, a book can gain additional magic with subsequent readings, as I pick up on things I somehow missed before. On the other hand, I have burnt-out on books by rereading them too many times.

On yet another hand, I have found that leaving a book alone for a few decades can bring back the magic.

With The Last Unicorn, I realized I had read it too many times when I ceased to shed bitter tears reading the scene where Molly Grue first meets the unicorn. But maybe in a few more years I might find that scene even more poignant than I did initially.
I suppose that I have a tendency to "inhabit" a book's world, to write myself into the story in a way, thus re-reading a beloved book sometimes fails to sustain my version. Plus: so many books, so little time
On the other hand, re-reading fine literature, e.g. Dickens, often does yield added enjoyment through appreciation of the writing art.
Poetry, on the other hand, I revisit constantly.
It's always interesting to learn how folks appreciate books differently.

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