Creativity seems to be on indefinite hiatus these days, and fantasy authors have taken to simply re-hashing old concepts and stories without even bothering to put their own unique spin on them. Fairy tales have suffered particularly at the hands of these hacks, getting constantly turned on their heads Shrek-style with ogres as good guys and girl dragons who fall in love.
In such a fetid atmosphere, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn is a breath of fresh fairy tale air. Beagle does his fair share of reinvention, but his novel never transgresses the traditional boundaries of the fairy tale, and he's clearly more interested in telling a good story than parading his cleverness.
Though his cleverness is in full view, too. First of all, his ability to come up with interesting character names ranks with the talents of Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse. The selfish and evil King Haggard; the kind-hearted bandit's wife, Molly Grue; the inept wizard Shmendrick; and (what is certainly one of the best names ever devised) the nasty witch Mommy Fortuna—only a genius could name his characters so perfectly.
Second, Beagle doesn't just give us the facts, he writes. His analogies are particularly beautiful, as in this description of the rousing of the dangerous Red Bull: "Without warning, the whole castle sang like a plucked string as the beast asleep at its root shifted his dire weight." Or this description of the trickster butterfly's singing: "His voice tinkled in the unicorn's head like silver money falling."
The Last Unicorn follows the adventures of a beautiful unicorn, apparently the last of her kind, on her way to confront the wicked King Haggard who has imprisoned all the other unicorns in his castle overlooking Hagsgate. She's always escaping and getting captured again due to her own naivete and both the goodness and wickedness of humans.
Schmendrick frees her from the traveling freak show run by Mommy Fortuna and becomes the unicorn's constant companion. He means well, but sometimes his assistance causes more problems than it solves, as when he accidentally transforms the unicorn into a human to rescue her from the rampaging Red Bull. However, it's this very mistake that eventually leads the unicorn to understand the mystery of love.
This reversal of fortune is a major theme in the novel, keeping us reading and reminding us at every turn that this is a real fairy tale, not some revisionist postmodern reworking of the genre. Great for reading aloud and suited to adult and children readers alike, The Last Unicorn is a modern classic of whimsy, adventure and beauty.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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