The Last Unicorn
by Peter S. Beagle
I’ve been a lifelong fantasy fan and English guy; yet I’ve never read The Last Unicorn. Clearly there is something missing, a gap in the castle keep built in my mind on a foundation of Tolkien and Piers Anthony and Dr.Seuss, with towers called Robert Jordan and Stephen King (That one’s a dark tower) and Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter. I assume it’s the gap where the Red Bull lives — and I wonder if the drink took its name from this book, and if so, why nobody’s creeped out by that.
So I read the book. I’ve owned this copy for years; I don’t even remember when or where I got it. I never felt strongly enough to get into it. Maybe because I don’t really care for unicorns: the idea of preternatural, untouchable beauty just kind of irks me; I much prefer the unicorn in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, who is captured by Oberon and who bears his many children; or the unicorn in Mary Brown’s excellent book The Unlikely Ones, who lost its horn to an evil witch. Beauty should be real, should be tangible, should be breakable: not because it should be broken, but because it should not be, and that should be a conscious, active choice. How do you love something you can’t protect, because it can’t be hurt?
I also never read it because I saw the movie, and it put some dark images into my psyche at a young age.
But hey: I like dark images. And Peter Beagle clearly feels the same way I do about unicorns, because the whole concept of this book is this question: should perfect immortal beauty exist? Is it better if it is in the world but unseeable, or is it better if you can point to it every day? Or is it better if the beauty is that of a woman who loves you, who you love; a woman you can marry, a woman you can kiss? The villain in the piece is a king who refuses to rule, and the monster is entirely intangible: the Red Bull sleeps and wakes, snorts, rumbles, charges, terrifies — but he quite literally touches nothing at all.
I have to say, now that I’m thinking about it more, I’m liking the thought of this book more than I did while I was reading it.
Okay, so let me say this: the writing is absolutely gorgeous. Lush and captivating without being overcomplicated, this is some of the best wordsmithing I’ve seen in a fantasy novel. I can understand how it managed to become a classic. And the ideas are rather unexpectedly intriguing, and probably bear more thought than I have given it.
But this book pissed me off. Because it’s post-modern. Because it breaks the fourth wall, because it questions its own meaning and message. Because the hero is named Schmendrick. Because the Robin Hood mock-up is waiting for the field researchers to come record his folk songs. Because it’s way too self-referential and smarmy. Maybe Beagle thought that was funny, and maybe he was trying to deconstruct the fantasy tropes — whatever. Fantasy is not for avant garde anti-establishment attacks by people who read too much Sartre. It’s for goddamn fantasy. If this book had none of the overly clever parts, I would think it was a beautiful piece of work. But as it is, I find it annoying.