Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn

17 Feb

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by American author Peter S. Beagle, which 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. The Last Unicorn is also an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can’t even see the magic and the beauty that’s there in the world around them if only they’d look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn’t become one of fantasy’s most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for fifty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humour. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool. A beloved classic, it has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, been translated into at least twenty languages, spawned sequels and spin-offs and been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times. Locus magazine once ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”, based on a poll of subscribers. In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn’t gone away, that it’s all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.

The unicorn is a legendary creature that has been described since antiquity as a beast with a single large, pointed, spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers, including Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian. The Bible also describes an animal, the re’em, which some versions translate as unicorn. In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat’s beard). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could be captured only by a virgin. In the encyclopaedias, its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the tusk of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn. Apart from in The Last Unicorn, these magical creatures have a long and proud legacy in fantasy media. The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis describes Jewel, a noble unicorn who is King Tirian’s best friend. Elidor by Alan Garner features a lost unicorn from another world. In the film Blade Runner: the director’s cut, the hero Rick Deckard has a dream of a unicorn, the meaning of which is central to his self-identity. The legendary 1980s cartoon series Dungeons & Dragons features a unicorn called Uni, best friend of Bobby, the barbarian character.

What is it that makes unicorns so iconic and central in fantasy media? Since the Renaissance, interpretations of the unicorn myth tend to focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, some writers translated this into an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the Virgin Mary. With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage. In heraldry the unicorn is best known as the symbol of Scotland. The unicorn was chosen because it was seen as a proud and haughty beast which would rather die than be captured, just as Scots would fight to remain sovereign and unconquered. This is why, since the 1707 union of England and Scotland, the royal arms of the United Kingdom have been supported by a unicorn along with an English lion. But perhaps the popularity of unicorns is due to more prosaic reasons: their beauty, their innocence and, above all, their enduring ability to inspire artists, authors and other creatives to paint, write and dream of a magic that somehow no longer feels so far removed while they are near.

2 Responses to “Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn”

  1. Quest Quilts February 17, 2019 at 12:47 pm #

    I met Peter Beagle at DragonCon years ago. He was one of the nicest and most sincere people I’ve ever met.
    Love the article, especially the bit about Scotland. Well done!

  2. Calmgrove February 17, 2019 at 1:31 pm #

    Excellent summary: I’ve heard of this title so often but have never got round to chasing it up.

    Mind you, it is entirely appropriate that my Gravatar image is of a unicorn in a road traffic warning triangle. ⚠

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