Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Recently I met and interviewed the esteemed fantasy writer, Peter S. Beagle. The occasion was a screening in Lawrence, KS of the 1982 film adaptation of his classic 1968 novel, The Last Unicorn.

The novel’s opening words are iconic: “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.”

I had read the book many years ago and so am very familiar with its story of a young Magician, Schmendrick, and his friend, a Unicorn, who go on a quest to the Castle of King Haggard to find the truth of Magic and Mortality. While Magic and Mortality would seem to be mutually exclusive, as traditional fantasy has it, Beagle turns them on their heads, as it were. Here is a fairytale that ultimately celebrates the human state. The Unicorn, who is immortal, falls in love with a young knight and subsequently yearns for mortality. The apprentice Magician, like the Unicorn, is immortal, but gaining the secret of the Ultimate Magic renders him mortal: “Whatever can die is beautiful—more beautiful than a unicorn... “And what are their fates? To her regret, the Unicorn regains her immortality and spends eternity lamenting her lost love. The Magician attains his true Magic, but now finds growing old a bittersweet victory.

“We are in a fairy tale,” says Schmendrick, “and must go where it goes.”

Beagle’s lyric and singing prose limns the action with a magic spell of its own. For example, the very subject of Magic, and whence come its roots and meaning, is a very tricky thing to pull off—witness Ursula Le Guin’s triumph in her wonderful Earthsea series, where Magic derives its power from the Naming of Names. The lamentable Harry Potter books, on the other hand, skirt the sources of Magic entirely. It just is, and for the most part merely the agency of parlor tricks, with an assortment of clunky wands and flying brooms.

But savor Beagle’s comments on how Magicians work: “For only to a magician is the world forever fluid, infinitely mutable and eternally new. Only he knows the secret of change, only he knows truly that all things are crouched in eagerness to becomes something else, and it is from this universal tension that he draws his power.”

There’s frequently a raffish humor spicing the words. Consider Prince Lir, who falls hopelessly in love with the Unicorn’s human form. “As a hero,” drily observes the narrator, “he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying—generally you killed something!“ And I love the comic threat of this wicked Magician’s incantation: “I’ll turn you into a bad poet with dreams.”

Meeting Mr. Beagle proved to be nothing short of inspiring. He wears his erudition, wit, and charm very lightly, tucked under his own Magician’s cloak, as it were.

I suppose writers like him, who spin out their fairytale worlds, even though fraught with the brimstone of gentle satire, must be always consigned to that dreaded category, “Young Adult.” And all the patronizing attitude that goes with it. If that deflects readers from investigating this book, as well as so many other tales that have followed, such as Unicorn’s sequel, The Two Hearts, and Tamsin, Folk of the Air, and A Fine and Private Place, that is regrettable. For everywhere in his work reside truths of the heart, however mixed and ambivalent they may be. “The sight of her makes me want to do battle with all evil and ugliness,” says the lovestruck swain, Prince Lir, “but it also makes me want to sit still and be unhappy.”

In the final analysis, The Last Unicorn, stands above its own story and bravely places its heroes and villains, its castles and dungeons, its Magic and its Mortality, in the context of a child’s toybox—the Magic Cabinet of our youth:
“She looked down on a pale paring of land where a toy man and woman stared with their knitted eyes at a clay bull and a tiny ivory unicorn. Abandoned playthings—there was another doll, too, half-buried; and a sandcastle with a stick king propped up in one tilted turret. The tide would take it all in a moment, and nothing would be left but the flaccid birds of the beach, hopping in circles.”

Note: My thanks to Travis Ashmore of the Last Unicorn Tour and, from the KU Center for the Study of Science Fiction, James Gunn, Kij Johnson, and Chris McKitterick for facilitating my interview with Peter S. Beagle.

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