This year the folks at World Fantasy awarded Peter S. Beagle a Lifetime Achievement Award, and I can hardly applaud their choice enough. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is one of the only books I can consistently say is in my all-time top five favorite books (my opinions toward other books fluctuate so often that I can hardly pin them down with mere numbers).
Like many in my age range, my first introduction to The Last Unicorn was through the 1982 film (I can’t tell you how many times I coerced my mother into renting it from Blockbuster, and she bought the DVD for me a couple years ago for old time’s sake). I adored it when I was younger. Looking back on it now, after having read the book, I’m amazed at how true Beagle kept the screenplay to the book’s storyline while targeting a different audience and using a different tone than he does in the novel. It’s almost the exact same story (with a few cuts here and there for time, of course), but it had a very different effect on me than the novel.
I first read the book in junior high, and I’ve read it almost every year since. Beagle’s prose is masterful (reading the one-line descriptions in his prose is, for me, like finding rubies along the cobblestone path of the narrative). The feeling I get when I read the book, especially toward the end, is the same feeling I get when I look into a star-dusted sky in the wilderness or gaze over the waves rushing toward the rock-ridden coast of Cornwall or Oregon. It’s a beautiful, belittling, empowering feeling I’ve never been able to fully describe. It’s like keenly feeling that you’re just a thread, but also seeing your connection to an entire tapestry. When reading gives me that feeling, I can never forget the book, even if I “outgrow” the age group it’s written for (I read The Dark Is Rising every year too).
The Last Unicorn was the only novel on my AP English teacher’s approved reading list that wasn’t a canonized classic. That teacher, the fabulous Mr. Downs, required “explication” projects twice a term, and the shortest mine ever ran was 12 pages single spaced. They were big projects, and doing them on big books was much harder, so I was able to convince dozens of my classmates to read the 212-page The Last Unicorn. I never received poor reviews back from my referrals.
Since reading The Last Unicorn, I’ve also read A Fine and Private Place, which is a very different type of book but still very eloquent and enjoyable. Beagle was probably the first author who was able to make what could be considered sad or bittersweet endings beautifully satisfying for me. (Other things, mostly short stories, showed me the power of unhappy endings—can anyone say “The Lottery”?—but Beagle made me love them.)
When I started pursuing my English degree, I used The Last Unicorn for as many papers as I could get away with. Not that I ever used the same paper twice, but I just couldn’t help coming back to it with new eyes and new angles. I projected a new film adaptation, analyzed the onomastics, broke apart some characterizations, got giddy when I recognized another of the butterfly’s allusions, read it as a Christian allegory, and considered the correlation between the Red Bull and fear. I still haven’t run out of things to think about that book; I don’t believe I ever will. Beagle created a book that functions like the magical forest in Grimm fairy tales: you’re always going into the same forest—Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Cap, etc. all go into the same German forest—but the experience is never exactly the same.
In short, there is a lifetime in that one book, in The Last Unicorn alone. Beagle’s other books are fabulous as well, but if only for The Last Unicorn and the lifetime of reading it will give me, I believe him to be fully deserving of the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.