• Krista Jain

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle


My copy of the book. The 40th anniversary edition comes with such gorgeous artwork!

This one has been one of my favorite stories ever since I was a kid. I wasn't unlike many other girls my age when it came to the love of unicorns. I originally pointed out the movie to my mother one day when we were out shopping, and have since watched it and later read the book so many times I recall it as a lovely literature piece. Yes, it's that great to me. I place it up with other beautiful classics like Treasure Island and Black Beauty.


For those who don't know, the author also did the screenplay of the movie, which means he was somewhat involved with it. I didn't read the book until many years after I watched the cartoon, but they're almost the exact same thing. Characters would repeat the same lines and the morals and locations are the same. There are a few things that were left out from the movie, and it was very interesting for me to read those parts after watching the movie so many times. Peter S. Beagle said the cartoon was a lot how he imagined the book with a few exceptions. One of them was the magician Schmendrick. He wasn't too pleased with the concept or acting of the character. I find this odd since he's easily my favorite.


The story is charming and the characters are lovable. The book is also a great addition to the movie as it shows extra scenes explaining the backstory to some of the characters. There's quite a bit on Schmendrick's character that wasn't shown in the cartoon, and some of it was rather important. I'm going to talk more about the differences between the movie and the book a bit more, so be wary of some spoilers, OK?


Before I get there, a brief summary of the movie. It starts with the crisis right up front. A unicorn living in her forest hears she's the last of her kind and sets out to discover where they all went. On her journey, she encounters Schmendrick and Molly, who follow along with her on her quest to go to Haggard's castle, where it is said the Red Bull drove the unicorns away.


After an encounter with the Red Bull, Schmendrick manages to turn the unicorn into a human woman so the Red Bull isn't interested in her and they can sneak in the castle without Haggard knowing of her true form. There, the unicorn learns what it's like to be a mortal woman who loves and regrets as they continue to search for the clues of her missing kin.



Schmendrick, even in the movie, would introduce himself as Schmendrick the magician and would often add that he's older than he looks. The cartoon doesn't mention more than this, but there's a reason he says this. There is this major sub-plot in the book that his mentor, who is never even mentioned in the cartoon, placed a spell of immortality on him. That is because Nikos saw great potential in the magician, even though Schmendrick hardly ever gets a spell right. Nikos gave him immortality until the day Schmendrick becomes a reliable wizard. So indeed, Schmendrick is way older than he looks as he has not physically aged since that day.


This sub-plot would have added more run-time to the cartoon, but I'm surprised they never mentioned this anywhere. This was also explained in the comic book as well. On a side note, I like the comic too. The art and story are well done, and it resembles more of the book than the cartoon, so that was a pleasant surprise.



a page from the comic version

Anyway, back to the book. There are many more important details where that came from! I was also amazed to learn there was a town at the base of Haggard's castle! This one's very important to the story too, which made me feel like I was missing out on something big all these years before I came across the book. Haggard wanted to build a castle tower, and a witch helped him build it, though he never paid her. Bad decision. If you ever decide to involve your affairs with a witch, make sure you stay on her good side!


Understandably, she was upset with him a set a curse on his lovely new tower. She said one day, Someone from the town, Hagsgate, would come and bring his tower crumbling down on his head. That someone was his own son, Prince Lir. Wow! that did happen in the cartoon! It certainly explains a lot more.


We get to meet Prince Lir's real father at the end too. We met him as soon as the heroes came to Hagsgate. Drinn said he knew Lir was the prophecy but left him in the streets as the curse also predicted the fall of Hagsgate.


At Haggard's fall, Lir became king and wanted to build Hagsgate right again.


The book was also a little odd in some places. This seems to be one of those fantasy settings where we see some modern characteristics. Like there's a scene where Prince Lir before we even reach the castle, where he's sitting with his fiance reading a newspaper. (He ends up dropping his fiance because of his love for the unicorn.) I don't know why, but modern aspects in fantasy have always been weird to me, and I sometimes wonder how far it'll go. Do you feel the same? I'm not saying it doesn't work, but it's just odd to me when I see it.


As for my final analysis, The Last Unicorn is a gorgeous piece among the greatest of literature. It's a cute fairytale suitable for young children but also adults who love classic tales. Some parts of the story is serious and sometimes dark, and the characters are lovable but also flawed with imperfections. For a light fantasy classic, it's both realistic and charming.


The cartoon hasn't really aged all too well though. The aesthetics are still pretty, but the quality is old. Beagle also did the screenplay for the Hobbit cartoon, and it's just like watching that. It can be kinda cringy in some places.


Also, the settings of the story can feel a little weak. Beside the unicorn's forest and the town of Hagsgate, the locations of the stories aren't too original or even named. I do remember Schmendrick and the unicorn pass by what was called Cat's Mountain early on in the story, but I do wish some of the settings were established a bit more than they are.


Still, I can't help but love the story and characters. The Last Unicorn is nostalgic to me, and the story plays in my head like I memorized every bit of it. I may be a bit biased! The book is overall better than the cartoon and explains the story with better history and details.



Also, a bit more recently, I read Beagle's short equal to the story, Two Hearts. You can find it and read it all the way through for free on his website at peterbeagle.com, but I must warn you; I cried like a baby at the end! It's in the perspective of a new character, but some familiar ones show up too. It takes place many, many years after this book, and Lir is an old man. Very sad... It's about a young girl who seeks the king's help because her village is being attacked by a griffin.


Do you love this story as much as I do? If you didn't grow up with it as I did, would you say it's as good as I said it was? I won't mark this one as underrated because while I absolutely love it, it gets plenty of love from the world. See? I may be biased, but not too much right?


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