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.