The Last Unicorn
First edition dust jacket (Viking, 1968)
|Author||Peter S. Beagle|
|Cover artist||Unknown (depicted); Gervasio Gallardo (first paperback)|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Pages||218 pp (first)
248 pp (first paper)
288 pp (Deluxe Ed.)
|ISBN||0-345-02892-9  978-0-7607-8374-0|
|LC Class||PZ4.B3657 Las PS3552.E13|
|Followed by||"Two Hearts"|
The Last Unicorn is a fantasy novel written by Peter S. Beagle and published in 1968, by Viking Press in the U.S. and The Bodley Head in the U.K. It follows the tale of a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind in the world and undertakes a quest to discover what has happened to the others. It has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, and has been translated into at least twenty languages (prior to the 2007 edition). In 1987, Locus ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the 33 "All-Time Best Fantasy Novels", based on a poll of subscribers. The 1998 rendition of the poll considered many book series as single entries and thus ranked The Last Unicorn number 18.
The story begins with a group of human hunters passing through a forest in search of game. After days of coming up empty-handed, they begin to believe they are passing through a Unicorn's forest, where animals are kept safe by a magical aura. They resign themselves to hunting somewhere else; but, before they leave, one of the hunters calls out a warning to the Unicorn that she may be the last of her kind. This revelation disturbs the Unicorn, and though she initially dismisses it, eventually doubt and worry drive her to leave her forest. She travels through the land and discovers that humans no longer even recognize her; instead they see a pretty white mare. She encounters a talking butterfly who speaks in riddles and songs and initially dodges her questions about the other unicorns. Eventually, the butterfly issues a warning that her kind have been herded to a far away land by a creature known as the Red Bull. She continues to search for other unicorns. During her journey, she is taken captive by a traveling carnival led by witch Mommy Fortuna, who uses magical spells to create the illusion that regular animals are in fact creatures of myth and legend. The Unicorn finds herself the only true legendary creature among the group, save for the harpy, Celaeno. Schmendrick, a magician traveling with the carnival, sees the Unicorn for what she is, and he frees her in the middle of the night. The Unicorn frees the other creatures including Celaeno, who kills Mommy Fortuna and Rukh, her hunchbacked assistant.
The Unicorn and Schmendrick continue traveling in an attempt to reach the castle of King Haggard, where the Red Bull resides. When Schmendrick is captured by bandits, the Unicorn comes to his rescue and attracts the attention of Molly Grue, the bandit leader's wife. Together, the three continue their journey and arrive at Hagsgate, a town under Haggard's rule and the first one he had conquered when he claimed his kingdom. A resident of Hagsgate named Drinn informs them of a curse that stated that their town would continue to share in Haggard's fortune until such a time that someone from Hagsgate would bring Haggard's castle down. Drinn goes on to claim that he discovered a baby boy in the town's marketplace one night in winter. He knew that the child was the one the prophecy spoke of, but he left the baby where he found it, not wanting the prophecy to come true. King Haggard found the baby later that evening and adopted it.
Molly, Schmendrick and the Unicorn leave Hagsgate and continue toward Haggard's castle, but on their way they are attacked by the Red Bull. The Unicorn runs, but is unable to escape the bull. In an effort to aid her, Schmendrick unwittingly turns the Unicorn into a human woman. Confused by the change, the Red Bull gives up the pursuit and disappears. The change has disastrous consequences on the Unicorn, who suffers tremendous shock at the sudden feeling of mortality in her human body. Schmendrick tells the unicorn that he is immortal and that he cannot make real magic unless he is mortal, and encourages her to continue her quest. The three continue to Haggard's castle, where Schmendrick introduces the Unicorn as "Lady Amalthea" to throw off Haggard's suspicions. They manage to convince Haggard to allow them to serve him in his court, with the hopes of gathering clues as to the location of the other unicorns. During their stay, Amalthea is romanced by Haggard's adopted son, Prince Lír. Haggard eventually reveals to Amalthea that the unicorns are trapped in the sea for his own benefit, because the unicorns are the only things that make him happy. He then openly accuses Amalthea of coming to his kingdom to save the unicorns and says that he knows who she really is, but Amalthea has seemingly forgotten about her true nature and her desire to save the other unicorns.
Following clues given to them by a cat, Molly, Schmendrick, and Amalthea find the entrance to the Red Bull's lair. Haggard and his men-at-arms attempt to stop them, but they manage to enter the bull's lair and are joined by Lír. When the Red Bull attacks them, Schmendrick changes Amalthea back to her original form. At this moment, Schmendrick joyfully becomes mortal. In an effort to save the Unicorn, Lír jumps into the bull's path and is trampled. Fueled by anger and sorrow, the Unicorn drives the bull into the sea. The other unicorns are freed, and they run back to their homes, with Haggard's castle falling in their wake. As the castle falls, its wreckage dissolves into mist before it even hits the ground, and nothing remains to indicate that a castle had ever been there.
The Unicorn revives Lír with the healing touch of her horn. Now king after Haggard's death, he attempts to follow the Unicorn despite Schmendrick advising against it. As they pass through the now-ruined town of Hagsgate, they learn that Drinn is actually Lír's father, and that he had abandoned him in the marketplace on purpose to fulfill the prophecy. Realizing that he has new responsibilities as king after seeing the state of Hagsgate, Lír returns to rebuild it after accompanying Schmendrick and Molly to the outskirts of his kingdom. The Unicorn returns to her forest. She tells Schmendrick that she is different from all the other unicorns now, because she knows what it's like to feel love and regret. Schmendrick and Molly later come across a princess in trouble and he tells her to go to Lír because he is the hero to save her. Schmendrick and Molly leave this story into another as they sing a love song together.
- The Unicorn is the protagonist of the story. She leaves the safety of her forest upon learning that she is the last unicorn in the world, with information about the Red Bull as her only clue. When she first encounters the Red Bull, Schmendrick manages to inadvertently change the Unicorn into a human female to confuse the Red Bull and force its withdrawal. Schmendrick calls her "Lady Amalthea" so as not to arouse King Haggard's suspicions. Beagle notes that he took the name "Amalthea" from a Greek deity with the same name.
- The butterfly is an eccentric character who happens upon the Unicorn at the beginning of the story. While speaking in riddles and songs, he manages to give the Unicorn some vital information about the other unicorns' whereabouts. Beagle stated that the butterfly's dialogue is drawn from things that amused him and his childhood friend, Phil Sigunick, during a trip to Berkshire Hills where Beagle began writing the novel.
- Mommy Fortuna is a wicked old witch, who uses her dark magic to run a sideshow carnival for profit. The carnival features what appear to be mythical creatures, but are actually just normal animals that have been enchanted, with the exception of the harpy, Celaeno. According to Beagle, the name "Fortuna" was taken from the Roman goddess of fortune, and German mythical hero Fortunatus.
- Schmendrick is a bumbling magician who travels with Mommy Fortuna's traveling carnival out of pure necessity. Reduced to entertaining the sightseers who come to the carnival, Schmendrick wants nothing more than to become a true, powerful magician who does not rely on card tricks and cheap illusions. He sees Mommy Fortuna as an opportunity to gain experience, but when he sees the captured Unicorn for what she is, he decides to free her and join her on her quest. Schmendrick was a character Beagle had initially made up for his children's bedtime stories, and was called "the world's worst magician". The name "Schmendrick the Magician" is a parody of the character "Mandrake the Magician", and is also drawn from a Yiddish word that Beagle defines as "somebody out of his depth, the boy sent to do a man's job, someone who has expanded to the limits of his incapacity."
- Captain Cully is the leader of a second-rate band of outlaws in direct opposition to King Haggard. Although he attempts to be dashing and hospitable, Cully falls victim to his own jealousy of famous mythical outlaws such as Robin Hood, an illusion of whom Schmendrick inadvertently conjures. According to Beagle, Captain Cully's name is drawn from an old English slang word for "buddy".
- Molly Grue is Captain Cully's common-law wife. As a young woman she had eloped with him, naively attracted to the romance of loving a woodland fugitive and sharing his life. Unfortunately, this turned into years of serving Cully's ragged vagrants as their camp cook. She seeks a different reality from the one fate decided for her, and when she discovers Schmendrick leaving with the unicorn, she decides to follow them and do whatever she can to help the unicorn in her quest. Molly Grue's name is drawn from a French word meaning "crane". While never initially making the connection, Beagle notes that it is possible that the name was also inspired by Molly Epstein, his "favorite writing teacher in high school".
- King Haggard is a miserable and cruel King who cares for no one, not even his adopted son Prince Lír. His loneliness and misery is only alleviated by the sight of unicorns, and this drove him to capture all of them for his own pleasure. He commands the powerful Red Bull, who has driven all the unicorns into the sea underneath of his castle by his own decree. The name "Haggard" is based on the actual word. Beagle stated that "on the one hand, it is a particular look, but on the other it's also a falconer's term. It's what you call an undomesticated hawk, a bird that knows the rudiments but is not reliable. If you fly a haggard, you might never see it again, it might go back to the wild." He also went on to say that he has "never really been able to see [Haggard] as a villain", explaining that he saw much of his own character in Haggard to the point that he "felt sorry for him".
- Prince Lír is a skilled hero who was adopted by King Haggard, who found him in the town of Hagsgate. Despite living with Haggard, Prince Lír is the opposite of his adopted father, living his life with valor, honor, and compassion for others. He falls in love with Lady Amalthea, not realizing what she is until the very end. For all of her arrogance towards humankind, the Unicorn falls in love with Lír. Beagle stated that he "knew that the prince's name had to be one syllable", and that he made a long list of one-syllable names to choose from. He chose "Lír" because he liked the sound of it, but later on noted that he had borrowed the name of a Celtic sea god, Llyr, and that the fact that Lír became "King Lír" after succeeding his adoptive father "echoed Shakespeare".
Conception and creation
It took Beagle "close to two years" to write The Last Unicorn, and he states that "it was hard every step of the way". Beagle came up with the idea for the novel in 1962 while on an "artistic retreat" in Berkshire Hills after Viking Press rejected his novel, The Mirror Kingdom. He stated that though the idea for the novel was "just suddenly there", he also said that he had "read tons of fantasy and mythology" from childhood, and that his mother told him that he had shared a story about unicorns during a visit to one of the elementary school classes she taught. He also mentioned that he loved the book The Colt from Moon Mountain by Dorothy Lathrop (a story about a unicorn in Kansas) as a child, and that Spanish artist Marcial Rodriguez had given him a painting of unicorns fighting bulls when he was seventeen. Once he had the idea, he did research on unicorns at the Pittsfield Library.
The 85-page manuscript that Beagle first wrote differs greatly from the current version of the book. Though the unicorn "is much the same", the story is set in modern times, and the unicorn is accompanied by a two-headed demon named Webster and Azazel. This original version was published as a limited edition hardcover by Subterranean Press titled The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version in 2006. Beagle stopped working on this initial manuscript in 1963, stating that "[i]t was a dead end", but picked the project up again in 1965.
Beagle dedicated the novel to Olfert Dapper, whose work Beagle came across during his research, as well as Robert Nathan, whose novel One More Spring influenced Beagle's A Fine and Private Place. In 2012, Beagle published a novelet, Olfert Dappper's Day, the fictional tale of Dapper's travels.
There have been many print editions of The Last Unicorn.
A corrected, definitive English-language text was prepared for the 2007 Deluxe Edition and used also in the trade paperback 40th Anniversary Edition (Roc Books, 2008). The Deluxe Edition was available for purchase only from Barnes & Noble, with co-publishers Roc imprint and Barnes & Noble (OCLC 243775547). Beside the corrected text of the novel it included an edition of the sequel and new material including cover illustration by the prominent fantasy and children's book illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon.
In 2005, Beagle recorded an unabridged audiobook of his novel for Conlan Press. The audiobook is sold in three formats with varying prices. It can be purchased as downloadable MP3 files, an MP3 CD, and as an eight-CD collector's set containing the audiobook on seven audio CDs and an exclusive interview with Beagle on the eighth.
|This article needs to be updated. (April 2012)|
Purchasers of this edition were to be sent a free autographed 3,000-copy limited hardcover edition of Two Hearts. Preorders began in late 2004; as of August 2009, the book and CDs were finished but not yet manufactured. It is slated to ship after Conlan Press can get enough "private funds" to manufacture them.
Beagle published a coda story to The Last Unicorn titled "Two Hearts" in the October/November 2005 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Though beginning with a new narrator, four main characters from the original story appear again. The story is also included in the short story anthology, The Line Between, published in July 2006, as well the deluxe edition of The Last Unicorn that was published in 2007.
At the end of December 2008, Peter S. Beagle announced that he had written several new stories which were directly or indirectly linked to The Last Unicorn. These included three Schmendrick stories and three unicorn stories (about a Chinese ki-lin, a Persian karkadann, and the unicorn that Dr. Olfert Dapper met in the Maine woods).
In 1982 the novel was made into an animated film directed and produced by Rankin/Bass for ITC Entertainment, with a screenplay written by Beagle himself and animated by Topcraft (predecessor of Studio Ghibli). The music was composed and written by Jimmy Webb and performed by America. The voice actors include Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and Mia Farrow. The first DVD release of the film by Lionsgate was of poor quality, but a "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD with superior quality was released in February 2007.
In addition, a live-action adaptation of the original book has been announced as in development for several years, but it is not clear what progress (if any) has been made towards production. A minor controversy erupted in 2005 over the producers' plans to create their screen unicorn by filming trained horses and then using CGI to modify them. This runs directly counter to the physical description of the unicorn in the book, which explicitly states that the unicorn looks nothing at all like "a horned horse".
In February 2006, Continent Films unveiled a new official website for the project which made clear that the film was still in development. It was not yet funded, did not have a shooting script, and had not been cast. In the new website, all actor names but Christopher Lee's had been removed; and even Lee's involvement was revealed to be nothing more than a promise to appear in the film if he was available and if terms could be worked out with his agent.
In 1988 a stage adaptation of the novel was presented by the Intiman Playhouse in Seattle. Peter S. Beagle wrote the script, which was a musical presented in collaboration with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The production was directed by Elizabeth Huddle.
- The Last Unicorn title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2012-04-25. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
- First paperback edition, February 1969, Ballantine Adult Fantasy, catalogue #345-01503. According to ISFDB the earliest contemporary ISBN for this edition is ISBN 0-345-02892-9 for the 4th printing, October 1972.
- "Locus Poll Best All-time Novel Results: 1987, fantasy novels". Locus. Retrieved 2012-04-18. Originally published in the monthly Locus, August 1987.
• See also "1987 Locus Poll Award". ISFDB. Retrieved 2012-04-25.
- The Locus Online website links multiple pages providing the results of several polls and a little other information. "The Locus Index to SF Awards: 1998 Locus All-Time Poll". Locus Publications. Archived from the original on 2004-01-13. Retrieved 2012-04-25.
- Deluxe Edition, pp. 247–280.
- "Beagle, The Last Unicorn: the Lost Version: Subterranean Press". Subterranean Press. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
- Beagle, Peter S. (March 2012). "Olfert Dapper's Day". F&SF. Retrieved 2012-05-17.
- The Last Unicorn Deluxe Edition publication contents at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- "Two Hearts". www.conlanpress.com. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
- Conlan Press - Updates
- Deluxe Edition, pp. 201–246.
- "Peter S. Beagle". Locus Index to SF Awards: Index of Literary Nominees. Retrieved 2012-04-18.
- "Wondercon Special Guests" Comic-Con magazine; Winter 2010; Page 18.
- "Conlan Press — DVDs". www.conlanpress.com. Retrieved 2009-05-15.
- "Fans help world-famous author Peter S. Beagle when they get the new 25th Anniversary DVD Edition of The Last Unicorn through Conlan Press" (PDF) (Press release). Retrieved 2007-09-04.
- "The Last Unicorn — a magical movie adventure". Retrieved 2008-12-15.
- "The Last Unicorn Development — credits". www.the-last-unicorn.net. Retrieved 2008-12-15.
- "INTIMAN HISTORY". www.intiman.org. Retrieved 2008-12-15.
- "The Last Uniblog". www.lastuniblog.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2009-02-07.
- Trailer, The Last Unicorn, Promethean Theatre Ensemble
- Lin Carter. Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy NY: Ballantine, 1973, pp160–63.
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