God I love this book. To this day it remains one of the most unique books I’ve read and was the source of my discovery that prose could be poetry. Peter S. Beagle is not just telling a beautiful and unique story, the way he tells it is, in and of itself, a special kind of magic. Beagle’s story has a transcendent, heartbreaking romanticism while not being afraid to contrast that with descending to the strangely pathetic and the sublimely ridiculous.
This book encapsulates the range of human existence. Raw, ugly failure and brilliant success. Frightened loneliness, selfish greed, desperate desire, bewildered incompetence, intense obsession, inspired growth, helpless love.
At its core, though, The Last Unicorn seems to be about what it is to want and the pain wanting brings us. Every major character in the Last Unicorn wants something, often to the point of intense craving.
The Unicorn wants to find her missing kin so that she knows she’s not alone. Mommy Fortuna wants prestige and power. Shmendrick the Magician wants to master his magic. Molly Grue wants the magical life she’s too old and worn to live now. Drinn wants to maintain the prosperity of Hagsgate. King Haggard wants to possess the unicorns because of the way their beauty makes him feel. Prince Lir wants to win the love of the Lady Althea. Lady Althea wants to be allowed to remain the Lady Althea and simply love Prince Lir. The skull wants a drink.
The Red Bull does not want – it is, itself, the avatar of want.
We all know what it is to want something. We all know the pain of pursuing something that is wanted but out of reach. Beagle does not give us a tidy end to our pursuit, he does not lie to us and tell us that what we want is always obtainable in the end.
Beagle tells us that sometimes our want makes someone else suffer that shouldn’t suffer. He tells us that sometimes achieving what we want only comes with giving up something else that was also wanted. He tells us that sometimes we achieve what we want and realize it is not what we thought it would be. He tells us that sometimes we can’t obtain what we wanted, but we can obtain something else that satisfies us more than our previous dreams. He tells us that sometimes we’ll go on wanting, and aching with that want.
It’s not just the realization that prose can be poetry that I took from The Last Unicorn. I also learned that while I have a personal preference for happy, sometimes a bittersweet ending is the best ending, because it’s the only ending that suits and completes the story. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that better brings to life the notion that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.
I also learned that a work of speculative fiction can be a true story as long as you tell the truth.