Rabbit Reads: The Last Unicorn

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There are some stories we find when we’re kids that follow us well into adulthood. They’re comforting and familiar, but slowly reveal new beauties every time we encounter them. In this week’s edition of Rabbit Reads, I’d like to introduce you to one of mine: a 60s fantasy novel turned 80s cartoon turned one of my favorite books.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (Viking Press, 1968)
Fiction / Fantasy

Why We Love It: “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.”

It might be one of my favorite opening lines in fantasy writing. It’s wistful and lovely and sets the tone for a book I return to when I need a cozy, familiar tale. I first discovered The Last Unicorn in animated form when I was a little girl, but I didn’t know about sehnsucht then, that longing for another world. But the first time I read the original novel as a young adult, the story took on a whole new meaning.

It begins in an eternal spring wood where a unicorn wonders, “Could I really be the last?” and leaves home to find others like her. She’s alone in the world and caught off guard — even offended — by the humans who look right through her majesty and only see an old mare. The immortal unicorn finds herself in a new age, where creatures like her have faded into legend, forgotten in the noise of everyday life.

But not everyone is blind to the wonder. Along the way, she meets a bumbling magician, a peasant woman, and a lazy prince. She walks through the world as an eternal, ethereal presence, and nobody who encounters her leaves unchanged. Even the proud unicorn, still immortally herself, is altered by the kindness of her human companions in an ending that grows more bittersweet every time I read it.

I love Beagle’s writing. It feels like old-fashioned high fantasy, but can turn contemporary and anachronistic at the turn of a page, giving the fantasy footing in our own world. And in this place where magic is nearly forgotten, she is the rare, real, and true thing. It’s the unicorn’s story, but I’m more drawn to the human characters who ruminate, fight, love, and grow, swept up in her fairy tale and becoming braver and stronger in her presence.

So back to sehnsucht. Before I had a name for it, I felt it when Molly met the unicorn for the first time, greeting her with anger — “It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue!” After her outburst, the forgotten woman weeps, because in that moment, touching the unicorn’s mane, her little girl hopes become real and alive.

In that moment, she’s reminded there’s still a little magic in this old world yet. And so am I.

Jen was born and raised in central Florida, but now lives in the strange land of southern New England. Her words have appeared in TS Poetry’s Every Day Poems, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she recently released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms. Some of her favorite things include used bookstores, good coffee, messing about in the kitchen, and local adventures with her husband Chris.


11 Comments

  1. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Sometimes, I’m a little nervous to recommend this book because I’m afraid I love it with nostalgia glasses on and will find out it’s not as awesome as I remembered. But @pete likes it, so now I feel super validated. 😉

  2. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    ALSO! I accidentally discovered he released a new unicorn novel this year! I found In Calabria in a bookstore, and decided to give it a shot. Haven’t read it yet (nor have I read anything else by him), but I’m hoping it has a little bit of the same magic.

  3. R.J. Anderson

    @rjanderson

    I re-read The Last Unicorn a couple of weeks ago for the first time in twenty years, and nearly every line felt familiar enough that I could have quoted it — I read it that many times as a teen and young adult. And yet I found myself noticing things and characters in the story now that I’d never paid much attention before, and enjoying it all the more for that. It’s a lovely, unforgettable book and I adore the narrative voice, strange as its quirky anachronisms may seem to a new reader. But although I tried to read some of Beagle’s other books (like A Fine and Private Place and The Innkeeper’s Song) I never found anything like the same magic in them. Alas.

    (Meanwhile, the site won’t let me log in, but I’m registered, I promise!)

  4. R.J. Anderson

    @rjanderson

    I re-read The Last Unicorn a couple of weeks ago for the first time in twenty years, and nearly every line felt familiar enough that I could have quoted it — I read it that many times as a teen and young adult. And yet I found myself noticing things and characters in the story now that I’d never paid much attention before, and enjoying it all the more for that. It’s a lovely, unforgettable book and I adore the narrative voice, strange as its quirky anachronisms may seem to a new reader. But although I tried to read some of Beagle’s other books (like A Fine and Private Place and The Innkeeper’s Song) I never found anything like the same magic in them. Alas.

  5. Carolyn Leiloglou

    @storklove

    I just finished reading this book today, and it was so lovely. It made me understand the longing the movie version made me feel as a child. It was also funny how self-aware the book was with characters talking about how a fairy tale works. Definitely a book I’ll be pondering for a long while.

  6. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    @storklove YES! The movie stuck in my mind so much… my sister and I were obsessed. I’m a little scared to watch it now because I’m afraid it won’t be as good as I remember, but the book holds up incredibly well.

    @rjanderson Oh nooooo…. that’s what’s always kept me from reading another book by him. Haha. In Calabria had a nice little review/write-up on NPR (found it while working on this post), so I’m hopeful!

  7. Sheri Cornett

    A friend just recommended this book to me a few weeks ago and I read it.  It was lovely.

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