“The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go un-rescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”
I had heard about this classic Peter S. Beagle story (in reference to both the original novel and the Rankin/Bass animated film adaptation) in fantasy circles for years but have only just now finally gotten around to reading it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! The story follows its’ titular unnamed unicorn, an immortal magical creature of immeasurable beauty, who lives in total isolation until she happens upon two hunters who inform her that she is possibly the last of her kind. Unable to believe this, she sets out on a quest to find out what has become of her fellow unicorns and along to way is joined by a remarkably untalented wizard named Shmendrick and a woman named Molly Grue who seeks to escape the unsatisfying life that fate has supposedly handed her. Together they experience a grand adventure filled with dazzling magic, terrifying beasts and refreshingly unique lore in a decidedly traditional fantasy setting, and it was a delight to read.
The overall tone of Beagle’s writing felt very reminiscent of J.R.R.Tolkien in how it somehow managed to balance epic poetic descriptions with more comparatively simple and easily digestible dialogue (especially from its’ human characters), and I found this to be one of the novel’s greatest strengths. If anything, I thought it did an excellent job at elevating this book’s generally smaller story to something more grand, where-as in Tolkien’s more expansive works this occasionally makes his writing feel massive to the point that it is almost isolating to the more casual reader. Given that this book is only about 250 pages, I thought that Beagle did an excellent job at keeping the quest moving at a decent pace without rushing anything, and even the occasional events that felt like they halted the main action often served the clear purpose of introducing key characters or concepts. One thing that occasionally confused me though while reading this novel was where exactly it took place, as while it generally seemed to be your typical medieval Europe-esque analog… every so often it would make clear reference to things very much from our world like England and the story of Robin Hood. Obviously this didn’t bear any huge significance on my reading experience or enjoyment of the story, but I still thought it was worth mentioning!
The unicorn, who later in the story is referred to as “Amalthea”, was also a fascinating non-traditional protagonist… mostly because of Beagle’s unique interpretation of unicorns as a race of magical creatures. She was very much aware of her ethereal perfection and immortality and as such her personality had a degree of understood-superiority to those around her, but never to a condescending extent. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize her as being especially heroic or relatable, but the manner in which she conducted herself and the reverence that those around her held towards her almost made her feel more like some kind of god. The nature of her existence made it difficult for her to understand the feelings and actions of the mortals around her, and vice-versa, and in my opinion it made her a very interesting protagonist to follow. Schmendrick was also pretty consistently enjoyable in his well-intentioned magical buffoonery, and Molly Grue in her somewhat rugged brand of kindness, devotion and loyalty to her equine companion, but despite this (similar to Amalthea) I felt that they were held back by not having especially strong personalities. I did, however, really enjoy the dual-antagonist role held by both King Haggard and the Red Bull… the former being a reclusive unstable old man desperate to find something in this world that can bring him happiness, and the latter being a genuinely menacing creature responsible for the initial disappearance of all the other unicorns. While to two clearly work together and it would be easy to assume that the bovine beast is the king’s pet, it is never exactly made clear who answers to whom in the pair as, much like the unicorns, the Red Bull almost feels like a godly force of nature. It was equal-parts intimidating and fascinating!
I can definitely see why this has achieved an ever-increasing status as an underrated classic in the fantasy genre! It portrayed several traditional elements of your standard fantasy quest in an enchanting, unique, whimsical and entertaining way and while I had some minor complaints about it’s pacing and characters, I am very happy to have finally read this novel. 4/5