Monday, September 3, 2012

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

First published in 1968

The Last Unicorn is one of my absolutely favourite books. I think Peter S. Beagle is one of the finest writers around – an absolute master of beautiful language, unique characters, imagination, warmth, humour and magical storytelling. He is one of those writers who can sum up grand emotion in a succinct, unique line. If you love fantasy and children’s books, then Beagle is an author who must be read. He has many fine stories – but my favourite is the very gorgeous The Last Unicorn.

I have a journal where I keep passages or lines from books that I think are particularly fine or moving – those lines that give you shivers – and The Last Unicorn features prominently in it. What he does best is write lines that illustrate loneliness and confusion; that really reach down into those emotions we keep embedded and tease them out of us. But these lines are never sappy or trying to be quote-worthy – they are often whimsical and silly and simple, but the resonance sweeps through all the pages. Beagle understands mortality, and people’s fears, and the many different guises with which they hide them. I love how he shows us the cracks in all his characters – he does it with such profound beauty and understanding.

The Last Unicorn may read like a fairytale – it has a princess and a prince; it has a quest and adventures through all the hidden parts of the world; it has a baddie and a beast, and it has secrets and a wicked adversary who is as evil as they come. Even just as this, it is a great story. But it is also very clever, and Beagle uses a tone that makes fun of it all but never snarkily, always with affection. There is a great sensitivity woven through all the pages and a sense of fun that subverts the genre even as it faithfully follows all the tropes.

One of the greatest things which keep The Last Unicorn rollicking along is that it is genuinely funny. The characters; the situations they find themselves in; the double-crosses; the human folly; the fabulous one-liners that flow so effortlessly. The pure, dazzling silliness of it all. My particular favourites are the talking skull and the magician Schmendrick when he is called upon to get himself out of a sticky situation or is making fun of everyone around him. His wit is legendary.

Which leads us to the characters in The Last Unicorn. They are all fabulous; nuanced; believable; entertaining; empathetic. I love the Unicorn and her motley crew – the lonely, sarcastic, jealous magician Schmendrick who cares too much; the bitter, no-nonsense Molly Grue with a heart of gold, and later, Prince Lir who believably and heart-breakingly emerges from a soft fool into a noble, hardened prince. The Unicorn herself, who is so brave and beautiful – but, for all her power, as full of doubts and weaknesses as her human companions.

But it doesn’t stop there. The baddies – most notably King Haggard and Mommy Fortuna – are glorious, complex characters who spit bitterness and hate but who, through a simple line from Beagle, reveal the fears and the insecurities that drive them to be so. And then all the other characters who float in and out of the pages – the talking cat, Captain Cully and Jack Jingly, the royal magician Mabruk, to name a few – are colourful, humorous creations, written with real warmth and imagination.

Imagination is where The Last Unicorn really wins for me. It is a wonderful concept in itself – being the last of your kind. The loneliness, the responsibility, the sadness in such an idea – I find this fascinating (which also tells me probably why I like Doctor Who so much – oh the adventures he has, but always and only ever, by himself). Everything that Beagle fills the pages with after this particular idea is just a bonus. The whole book just feels so graceful and enchanting – the kind of magic that you can’t shake off.

And really, it comes down to Beagle – his writing, his style. Read one of the first scenes between the Unicorn and a stray butterfly and you will understand something of his power. In this scene he uses words and ideas and emotions and weaves them together all so seamlessly, so powerfully, in the form of an erratic, dying butterfly. Brilliant. His writing is beautiful and effortless, and this, above all, is what makes The Last Unicorn such a triumphant children’s classic.

Previous entries, my fav Children's Books:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Number 15: The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

Number 14: Watership Down by Richard Adams

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