'The Last Unicorn'

A frame from the film adaptation of "The Last Unicorn."

This piece will be the first in a series of reviews of science fiction and fantasy works, celebrating MLK Memorial Library's ongoing Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club.

The Last Unicorn
is a fantasy classic, published in 1968, but it’s surprisingly up-to-date today, stylistically more in step with writers like Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme and Brautigan (all publishing around the same time), than with the later massive excrescence of trilogies that would come to exert such an influence over the commercial presentation of the genre. That’s not to say that Beagle is an ironist: The Last Unicorn wears its heart on its title. It’s a book more fully suffused with loss than The Lord of the Rings, and where (for example) The Crying of Lot 69 deploys arch, brittle, bleak semi-humor in its criticism of the status quo, The Last Unicorn openly mourns.

There are jokes, particularly in the wandering middle portion of the book — an encounter with a would-be folk hero wallows in Carrollian self-awareness — but Beagle is too enchanted by his own facility with language, and by a genuine respect for the authority of legend, for his grasp of metafiction to be anything but a handmaiden to his efforts in service of his story. In what would become a tradition among pop postmodernists like Alan Moore, Beagle uses the tools of narrative estrangement to present his concerns directly to the reader. What The Last Unicorn does is to fracture a fairy tale not as parody, but to redeem the idiom.

And it is the fairy tale to which Beagle addresses himself; the book doesn’t waste much time on the symbolism of the unicorn in medieval romance. His unicorn is essentially pre-Christian. There is an impulse shared here with what Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber, but where Carter emphasizes the atavism of an oppressive present, its continuity with the barbarous past, Beagle focuses on the deracination created by modernity. In this, he follows Tolkien and William Morris, but with values more in common with a 2013 American reader than these.Cover of the first paperback edition of the novel.

Still, some will find the book preachy, or treacly, or wandering, or the prose purple. They won’t necessarily be wrong: Beagle has a weakness for aphorism. His characters declaim things like, “. . . I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old.” One can only assure the skeptic that, in context, the line is devastating. “The withered earth was brightening with a greenness as shy as smoke”: It’s fantasy prose, unquestionably, all faux-archaicism and the hope-of-spring, but it’s very good fantasy prose, some of the best.

Taken as a whole, the novel can be recognized as a success even to a reviewer with a heart in many ways as hardened as that of King Haggard, because so few absolutes comparisons can be made between The Last Unicorn and other works. George MacDonald wrote books something like this, and so did Lord Dunsany, but both can come across as dreary because they were so thoroughly of another era. Beagle, for all that his novel celebrates the past, and for all that it is 45 years old, is our contemporary.

Similarly, although the sardonic attitudes of James Branch Cabell creep into some chapters, cutting the saccharine pleasantly, there’s an unabashed concern with literary enchantment evident in the book. Sentiment and intelligence go uneasily together, but Beagle mostly manages it.

Although The Last Unicorn is allegedly “one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy,” it is difficult to think of writers who have even attempted (much less succeeded) at mimicking the effects achieved. Terry Bisson, in Talking Man, makes an approach, but the style and form are still unlike Beagle’s. Despite its Lisa Frank title, despite its preciousness, The Last Unicorn remains. Prophecies of obsolescence are usually safe, but one suspects that this first truly and confidently postmodern fantasy will sustain itself a while longer.