One of the Best Fantasy Novels Ever Is Nothing Like The Lord of the Rings
In The Last Unicorn, there are no maps, invented languages, or epic battles. But the 1968 tale has a timely message about the importance of reality over magic.
I encountered the cover of Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel The Last Unicorn years before I read the book. On the front of the Ballantine paperback edition that once sat on my parents’ shelf, there’s a white unicorn running in a forest as a small red sun sets behind the mountains. Where was this majestic creature going? I wondered.
It’s now been 50 years since the novel’s publication, and the unicorn’s journey still captures the minds and hearts of readers. This week marks the release of The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey, a commemorative edition of Beagle’s first draft of the novel. The book’s early popularity was no doubt fueled by the Tolkien boom; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings found legions of fans in the United States after it appeared in a paperback edition in 1965. But The Last Unicorn has since come into its own. In 1982, the novel was made into an animated film, which has become something of a cult classic. A novelette sequel that Beagle published in 2005 won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards—the fantasy genre’s two highest honors. After all these years, The Last Unicorn still feels relevant. It’s not an epic fantasy, but a softer tale at the boundaries of magic and reality, that place where one grapples with what it means to be human.
To read Tolkien’s works, to watch Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of them, or to become hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, is to be transported to another world. These fantasies take place in what Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” calls “a Secondary World … commanding Secondary Belief.” According to Tolkien, fantasies ought to be set in a compelling alternate reality.
The internal consistency of the imagined fantasy world—or in Tolkien’s language, the world’s “sub-creation”—is vitally important. Indeed, one can track the path of the Fellowship of the Ring day by day as they journey toward Mordor across a land so gloriously detailed that it seems real. Although Middle Earth is an invented place, its history now spans more than 12 volumes and, until this year, was still being written. The grittiness and verisimilitude of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, with its politics, intrigue, and gruesome deaths, is all-consuming. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are works of escapism, doors through which one can enter the perilous realm and not emerge for days.
In The Last Unicorn, there are no maps, invented languages, genealogies, or epic battles. Instead, there is just the nameless unicorn in her “lilac wood,” where “she had no idea of months and years and centuries.” There she would no doubt have stayed forever, if not for the stray remark of passing travelers who speculate that there are no more unicorns left in the world. So the unicorn sets out to find others of her kind, who she soon learns are being held captive by the miserly King Haggard and the mysterious Red Bull. Along the way, she acquires traveling companions: the hapless magician Schmendrick and the bitter Molly Grue. Together, and with the unicorn in disguise (I’ll leave this point vague to avoid spoiling the story), the trio faces the Bull and the intrigues of Haggard’s court, which for the unicorn include the unwanted affections of the king’s adopted son, Prince Lir.
So far, the novel might sound like many fantasies, and in a certain sense it is. There’s not only a unicorn, but also ogres, dragons, and a harpy. But there’s little consistency as to which fantasy elements fit within the rules of the universe and which don’t. The novel’s world is a hodgepodge of magical creatures and moments without much backstory. The land’s geography is incomplete. Readers know about the existence of the unicorn’s forest, Haggard’s castle, and a few places between those two locations, but not much else. There’s magic, to be sure, but even the wizard Schmendrick has no idea how it works and can’t control it. This is unlike popular recent fantasies that showcase complex magical systems that work according to specific rules; Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series come to mind. (Rothfuss, by the way, calls The Last Unicorn “the best book I have ever read.”) By modern standards at least, Beagle’s story is missing some essential world-building.
The Last Unicorn is also littered with anachronisms. It’s chock-full of modern-day references and colloquialisms that pull the reader right out of the invented world—a bricolage that would shock the consummate sub-creator Tolkien. Only 10 pages in, a butterfly talks about taking the A train and quotes the Bible. Molly Grue is part of a band of merry-folk living in a greenwood who know the legend of Robin Hood and speak about Francis Child, a 19th-century collector of English ballads. Schmendrick—whose name more or less means “foolish” in Yiddish—is “the last of the red-hot swamis,” which is a term for Hindu monastics. T. H. White’s 1958 retelling of Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, also contains frequent anachronisms, but in that story Merlyn is living his life backwards through time. The Last Unicorn offers no explanation for its forays into modernity.
These anachronisms blur the boundary between Beagle’s invented fantasy world and the readers’ real one. But the tension between magic and reality goes deeper still. In the story, the unicorn is real, but few can recognize her for what she is. In the towns she passes, people take her instead for a white mare. When the witch Mommy Fortuna captures and displays the unicorn in her Midnight Carnival toward the beginning of the story, she needs to put a spell on her captive so that people will be able to see a unicorn and not a horse. A fantasyland whose denizens require illusion to see the magic in front of them is one where magic is largely forgotten.
The novel’s prose also reflects a certain uneasy liminality where nothing is quite as it seems and there are no hard-and-fast rules. Schmendrick, describing the Red Bull, says:
I know less than I have heard, for I have heard too many tales and each argues with another. The Bull is real, the Bull is a ghost, the Bull is Haggard himself when the sun goes down. The Bull was in the land before Haggard, or it came with him, or it came to him … The Bull belongs to Haggard. Haggard belongs to the Bull.
This lush, lyrical, and dreamy stream-of-consciousness writing works a magic of its own.
Among the characters, there are no archetypes, no absolutes. Haggard is no Sauron—he commands no armies; he wears chain mail made of bottle caps. There is something melancholy and tragic about Haggard’s quest to hold the immortal unicorns. Even in his success, he is unhappy. The novel’s contest between good and evil is layered in hues of gray. Sparks of humanity remain in everyone.
Beagle frequently subverts fantasy tropes. Prince Lir tries to win the unicorn’s heart by deeds of derring-do, but she is unimpressed. In fact, Lir does not end up with the unicorn. And in the novel, mortality is preferable to immortality; Haggard, who quests after immortality, is defeated. Schmendrick’s greatest wish is to end the curse of immortality placed on him by his mentor. The unicorn, in a brief brush with mortality, gains the ability to regret, and she is better off for it. In The Last Unicorn, it’s the earthly things, the things that make one human, that are the things worth having.
Remarkably, the book shifts away from the unicorn as it progresses. In the beginning there’s nothing but her, but by the end, readers no longer hear her internal monologue. She has ceased being the protagonist; that role has been passed to her human companions. It’s as if Beagle is weaning his audience off unicorn magic, preparing them for reentry into the real world as the story concludes. Unless, of course, the unicorn’s world, with all its modern trappings, is the real one to begin with. In the end, the true nature of the world Beagle created is as indeterminate as that of the Red Bull itself.
And perhaps all of this is why The Last Unicorn is a fantasy for these times. The novel doesn’t take place in a believable alternate world with clear rules and boundaries, but in a messy one more akin to ours. It’s not epic fantasy, but applied fantasy—which is to say, readers aren’t supposed to get lost in its invented world. We are supposed to import its lessons to our own world. In this uncertain age, when truth and falsehood are just rapidly converging talking points on the same blurry continuum, and wishful thinking is hopelessly mixed up with reality, The Last Unicorn urges audiences to do the things that need doing anyway, muddling through as best we can.