The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

ashleighdearest's review

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*Originally posted on *

I should probably preface this review with a personal confession: I’ve got a thing for unicorns.

Don’t believe me? Well, maybe you should talk to my unicorn pillow pet, Stella. Or to my (growing) collection of unicorn figures prancing along my desk. Or to the dozens of unicorn-related letters my mother has sent me while I have been, yes, in college.

Needless to say, The Last Unicorn has been on my radar for quite some time as something I, as a unicorn aficionado, should probably pick up. Not only that, but it’s a fantasy classic, and is still talked about nearly 50 years after it was first published.

The story opens on the unicorn, who is content in her forest filled with lilacs as she goes about her immortal, solitary existence. However, when she overhears a pair of hunters talking about unicorns in the forest, she begins to believe that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets out on a quest to see what has happened to the rest of her kind.

Along the way she meets Schmendrick the Magician, a wizard who can barely turn butter into cream, and Molly Grue, the stubborn wife of a bandit. The trio seek out King Haggard, who controls the Red Bull, a giant beast used to conquer the other unicorns. The unicorn faces a series of trials along her way: from being caged in a magical circus, to squaring off with the Red Bull himself.

This book reads like a fairytale from beginning to end. And, much like the fairytales I used to read before bed as a child, the story would…put me to sleep, occasionally. The most interesting part of the story started about halfway through the novel, when the unicorn is transformed into a human woman (Lady Amalthea), which saves her from the Red Bull but puts her in danger of forgetting her life as a unicorn. Disguised as a human, a young prince falls in love with her, and that storyline is much more intriguing than the bumbling endeavors of Schmendrick and Molly.

Overall, I liked this book okay. Maybe because I was so excited about reading about a unicorn that I got my hopes up a little too high: I was setting myself up for disappointment. My biggest issue was the tone, as it felt like the author couldn’t decide if he wanted to write beautifully or with humor (and this was a case where, no, you can’t have both). The story itself jumped along in a lot of different directions, and each section didn’t flow as gracefully into the next as it could have.

I’m still glad to have read it, as it did offer a few enchanting moments. And my thirst for the magic of unicorns has definitely been quenched…for now.

This book was a part of the A to Z Book Club.

ashleyvs's review

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As a child I was obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales. I was also completely horse-mad, as only little girl growing up in farm country can be. The 1982 film adaptation of this book was one of my favorite movies back in the glory days of VHS. So how I managed to go thirty years without picking up a copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a complete mystery to me. But I’m so very glad I finally did.

The Last Unicorn is the purest form of fairy tale. Between its slim pages contain a marvelous world of decrepit old witches, terrifying monsters, heroic princes, and miserly kings. Coexisting with all these fantastical creatures are a wonderfully diverse cast of ordinary folk.

It is also a classical fairy tale in that it is was not written as a children’s story. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, The Last Unicorn is like a rosebush, lovely on the outside but beware the thorns. The descriptions of the harpy and the Red Bull are sure to frighten small children. There is a sadness and a weight underlying Beagle’s narrative, and a happily ever after is no guarantee. I do think this would be the perfect book for parents to read to children who are old enough to handle more mature themes. The overall plot is simple enough to understand and they will delight in the vivid descriptions of the unicorn and her companions.

I criticized an earlier fantasy novel on this blog for its use of overly flowered, obnoxious metaphors. That author should take a page from Beagle’s book, for every single sentence in this story flows naturally and fluidly into the other. Take, for example:

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

That’s the opening paragraph from the novel. With these few short sentences, Beagle draws his reader in and paints in their minds the portrait of a lone unicorn in a magical forest. The rest of the story continues in a similar fashion, leading the reader on a delightful journey that ends too soon.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, fairy tales, or just a really beautifully written story.

My rating: 4.5/5

jacquelinej's review

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Just as good the second time around. “How is anything that is going to die be real?”

susanbevans's review

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The Last Unicorn is one of my all-time favorite childhood movies, but I didn't know until recently that it was based on a wonderful book by Peter S. Beagle. Full of mythical creatures and magicians, The Last Unicorn is a complex and enchanting fantasy story that wraps the reader up in it's timeless magic.

The novel begins in the lilac wood of the unicorn, as she listens in to two hunters arguing over the existence of unicorns in the world. After realizing that she had not seen another unicorn in some time, she begins to wonder if she may in fact be the last of her kind. Thus begins her epic quest in search of other unicorns.

During her journey she meets an entertaining cast of characters: Mommy Fortuna, owner of the Midnight Carnival; the harpy Celaeno, a great bronze bird with the face of a hag and deadly, rending talons; Schmendrick, a fairly inept magician; Molly Grue, a woman-of-the-woods, living with a band of outlaws; and of course King Haggard and his Red Bull, the captors of all of the unicorns in the world.

The unicorn's quest is as much a voyage of self-discovery as it is a journey to find her people. She must face the truth about herself and her world - whether she wants to or not - and complete her pilgrimage to save the other unicorns. The story of The Last Unicorn is a beautiful tale of love and hope, what makes a hero a hero, and the accomplishment of a "happily ever after."

Peter S. Beagle's writing is brimming with dazzlingly descriptive language, prose and wit. His characters are extremely well-written, adding to the beauty and grace of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book - first sentence to last - I didn't want the adventure to end. Enchanting - captivating - intriguing - nothing goes quite far enough to describe this enduring fairy-tale. Whether you're a fan of classic fantasy, or you just need a bit of magic in your life, you should pick up Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. You have my personal guarantee - you won't be disappointed.

sisimbra's review

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adventurous mysterious sad medium-paced


marshal_ray's review

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adventurous emotional funny hopeful lighthearted mysterious reflective sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


jhb393's review

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adventurous fast-paced
  • Loveable characters? Yes


connorallen27's review

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adventurous emotional funny hopeful reflective fast-paced


bemaline's review

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I didn't start loving this book until about half way through, but in the end I was entranced.

meg_wadlington's review

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Ok, everyone knows I love unicorns. So, a good review isn't that big of a surprise. It was so much more than that. This book slowly draws you in with its lovely descriptions and motley cast of characters.