Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lots of magic and a bit of cheese

As a child, did you, dear reader, believe in unicorns? I didn't. Just one look at this creature's horn was enough to tell me that the unicorn couldn't possibly exist. How can one animal, fantastic as it may be, go through its everyday tasks with that protrusion getting in the way. It can be a drag, no? But then I saw a narwhal, so that kinda screwed up my reason for unbelieving.

Fortunately, Peter S. Beagle's classic fantasy, The Last Unicorn, hopes to restore our belief in these magical creatures. It has been 40 years since this classic of fantasy was published, so I figured it's high time for me to read it, especially since I've been reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels lately.

I have mixed feelings about The Last Unicorn as a fantasy novel. I found that the magical elements can get too cheesy. (One can die of too much cheese, you know.) The unicorn is a thing of beauty, of gentleness, of magic, and the combination of these three can be cloying. It makes you want to watch Saw I to IV after reading.

The writing is another thing though, as Beagle's words have their own beautiful rhythm, a lyrical quality to it that's enviable. The sentences have a very buttery texture. The opening sentences alone can make you want to weep. (I also have mixed feelings about weeping.)
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. [page 1]
So the unicorn finds out that she's probably the last unicorn left on earth. She decides to leave the confines of her sunny-all-year forest and search for other of her own kind. Along the way, she meets a very underestimated magician called Schmendrick and a feisty woman named Molly Grue. Their adventures would take them toward King Haggard's castle. Haggard's domain is also home of the Red Bull, which has been known to capture unicorns and bring them to an undiscovered place. How this motley assortment of characters defeat the Red Bull form the climax of The Last Unicorn.

I believe that the novel's strong suits are its fable-like mood and its humor. Yes, The Last Unicorn can ultimately be likened to a fairy tale, complete with stories of princes and princesses, Robin Hood and his merry gang, traveling circuses, and other mythological creatures. The part when the unicorn was captured by the circus and she was kept together with other beasts of fantasy was very captivating. Beagle's gift for description of things magical is very much evident here.

And one simply cannot ignore the humor that pervades throughout the book. Sadly, this wonderful aspect is more often evident in the dialogue than in the scenes of the novel. Nevertheless, the witty exchange of the characters are a gas. Sometimes, the dialogues border on the bubblegum, but I don't mind that at all.
Prince Lír said hoarsely, "I must go. There is an ogre of some sort devouring village maidens two days' ride from here. It is said that he can be slain only by one who wields the Great Axe of Duke Alban. Unfortunately, Duke Alban himself was one of the first consumed -- he was dressed as a village maiden at the time. . . [page 183]
One can see why The Last Unicorn has often been cited by contemporary fantasy novelists as their influence (e.g., Patrick Rothfuss). It still has the power to create awe in its readers. With Beagle's lyrical prose and uninhibited imagination, The Last Unicorn inspires us to make our own magical words.

Read this book if:
  1. You love classic fantasy novels.
  2. You've always believed that unicorns once existed (or still exist).
  3. Patrick Rothfuss is your idol.


C.B. James said...

I still re-read this one ever 10 or 15 years. I think you're largely right about its strengths and weaknesses. You really have to be willing to give yourself over to Mr. Beagle's prose or you'll suffer from the cheese. I think the experience is worth it.

Have you read Ariel? I know you're not a unicorn fan, the the unicorn in Ariel is the polar opposite of The Last Unicorn. It's quite fun in it's way. There is cheese, but not as much.

I think both books are products of their time. They have something to offer today's readers, too.

Peter S. said...

Hi, C.B. James! Thanks for your recommendation about Ariel. I will surely check that out.

Suko said...

Peter, it has been too long since my last visit! You are writing as well as ever, if not even better.

Terrific review! I was never terribly interested in unicorns, beyond their beauty as mythical creatures. But it does sound like a beautiful book.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Suko! I have mixed feelings about this book. I hope you like it more than I did.

Jeane said...

one of my favorite books. i dont mind the cheese, love the prose

Peter S. said...

Hi, Jeane! Yes, the prose is very beautiful. Beagle is a very deft writer.