When Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn first debuted over 50 years ago in 1968, it emerged into a literary world that was primed for more fantasy fiction. Speculative fiction had always occupied a publishing niche, but J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had gained momentum since its initial appearance in the 1950s, helping create an American market for “secondary world” fantasy novels. Beagle himself was a natural fit for this market: his debut supernatural work A Fine and Private Place, had been released earlier in the decade, and he was an avid reader of Tolkien, eventually writing the screenplay to a Lord of the Rings adaptation.
Unlike many subsequent heroic fantasy texts, The Last Unicorn is no retread of Middle Earth. In penning his sophomore novel, Beagle was trying something very different. The Last Unicorn may lack the scope, complexity, or weighty Christian theology that form the substrata of Tolkien’s tales, but within its exquisite prose, it communicates valuable insights about how we might lead balanced lives in an imbalanced, disenchanted world.
Beagle establishes from the start that his unicorn is an immortal being. The story begins when she realizes there may be no more unicorns like her remaining in the world, leading her to walk the human road in search of others. Though the environment of The Last Unicorn is a broadly medieval-style fantasy realm, most of those who live in it are disenchanted, hardly ready to meet a live unicorn. In Beagle’s original version, the unicorn’s quest took place on a modern highway. Even though he settled on a more traditional fairy tale setting, he allows numerous anachronisms to creep in, reminding us that his original audience were jaded readers of the 1960s.
The book proceeds like a road trip novel, following the unicorn’s travels in the first half before shifting gears in the second half to tease out the implications of what she finds when she reaches her destination. Across these two sections, she meets a colorful cast of characters who tend to fall in one of two categories. The more sympathetic characters—the wizard Schmendrick, the bedraggled Molly Grue, the handsome Prince Lír—follow and care for the unicorn, aiding her in her quest. We see a different orientation in the most villainous figures, such as the obsessive Mommy Fortuna or the gaunt, austere King Haggard; they seek out immortal beings like the unicorn to possess and control.
Because the novel’s wickedest characters all take this grasping, acquisitive approach to immortality, some interpreters believe that Beagle is presenting immortality in a negative light. Even characters who play a more minor role, and never meet the unicorn, fail to enjoy temporal pleasures when they refuse to accept them as transitory. The book’s most unpleasant characters go wrong because they can’t take any delight in worldly things that fade away.
Foregoing the moment-by-moment goods of this life, in favor of some unrealized future or ideal, makes no sense in this world. It turns people into wasted, craven husks of humanity. Is it true that Beagle is completely hostile to the concept of immortality, however? I don’t think the book bears out such an interpretation.
To see Beagle as presenting a wholesale rejection of immortality, we would have to believe that the unicorn and her kindred are themselves part of the problem. This is clearly not the case. The unicorn must learn to treasure life with the same urgency as humans who die, but there is never any question about the worth of her immortal beauty. There are people who turn away from immortal idealism entirely in the novel—they just aren’t major characters because they’re not that interesting. From the man on the roadside who mistakes the unicorn for “an ayrab horse” to Mommy Fortuna’s assistant Rook, individuals lead bland, disenchanted lives if they cannot recognize the true myth when they see it. The narrative passes them by quickly.
Between Two Hazards
Beagle calls his readers to a path between two hazards. On the one side are precisely those disenchanted passersby who live with no eternal horizon toward which to strive. On the other are those who can see nothing but the horizon ahead and miss the road itself. Neither of this world nor truly living in it, they waste away and become miserly, almost welcoming death when it takes them. Schmendrick, on the other hand, knows the value of the unicorn, but also knows the value of letting her be free and lead the way. When he forgets this, Molly Grue reminds him. Prince Lír goes from being a materialistic sloth to becoming a hero, all for the sake of the unicorn, “to be whatever she has most need of.”
Beagle himself never defines what exactly the immortality of the unicorn is supposed to mean. Certainly it does not correspond fully to a robust theologically orthodox understanding. For the Christian reader like myself, however, The Last Unicorn remains relevant. It would be worth reading for the sheer shocking loveliness of its prose alone, though its message is still timely.
Our own world is, if anything, more disenchanted than either the novel’s setting or the 1960s era in which it was written, certainly warranting a call to recognize the enchantment that ever lurks beyond our immediate sight. It is a constant danger for the Christian reader to become the kind of otherworldly misanthrope that the novel’s villains embody, however. We may represent our faith poorly if we act as though this material world were all that exists, but we do no better if our eyes are so fixed on the transcendent that we cannot enjoy appropriately the goods of creation around us. Our call, like that of the book’s best people, is to chase the beauty of immortality, but always with our eyes open to the road we travel on the way.