I’m exceptionally late coming to Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. What struck me most about the book was the tone created by the odd collapsing of referents belonging to myths and fairy tales (Robin Hood stories and knights, for example) and the modern world (poems by Yeats and the magazine Lir is reading the first time we see him). The novel never tries to explain these juxtapositions, similarly, it provides us very little in the way of an explanation of the background or history of the unicorn’s world. We learn the story of the curse of Hagsgate and King Haggard, as well as a bit about Schmendrick and his magical education, but not many details beyond these. The novel simply invites us into its world, and we are left to accept and experience it on its own terms. Indeed, the reader’s main access into the story seems to be through the belief (or the desire to believe) that unicorns exist, and exist as timeless and magical creatures. At the same time the story is laden with a kind of melancholy: most people don’t believe in unicorns, and it’s the lack of belief that chases them away. As a reader I felt positioned between these two poles: not believing in these mythical creatures, Beagle’s unicorn — who seems to represent all unicorns who ever appeared in a well-loved fairy story — makes me rather wish that I did.
Beagle, Peter. The Last Unicorn. New York: Ballantyne Books, 1968.