This March marks the 54th anniversary of the publication of one of the best fantasy novels of all time: Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. While many late Gen-Xers and elder millennials may be familiar with the (incredible) 1980s animated film, far fewer are have likely read the book upon the movie is based on, which is a bit darker a whole lot weirder.
Like most of Beagle’s fantasy works, which range from meditations on death (A Fine and Private Place) to ghost stories (Tamsin) and a contemporary retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone (Summerlong), The Last Unicorn is full of striking imagery and complex thematic contradictions that reflect the often difficult truths of real life.
Hopeful, bittersweet, sad, romantic, beautiful, and bleak by turns, it is a fairytale that doesn’t believe in happy endings or easily digestible platitudes and is set in a world where magic is real but humans have lost the ability to see or believe in it. This is a book that is strange and jagged and oftentimes uncomfortable, but that is perfect precisely because of all the ways it isn’t what you expect.
Here are a few of the best quotes from Beagle’s classic novel.
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
From our first glimpse of the story’s titular unicorn, Beagle’s work is constantly casting her as beautiful but uncomfortably alien. Immortal and removed, she has little understanding of things like death or even the concept of time passing. She feels much more alien and unknowable than perhaps we, as readers, might expect from a fantasy creature that feels so familiar to us.
She’s a difficult heroine to like, not just because her experience of the world is so different from our own, but because she so also holds herself so apart from it.
Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own and not expect to get it back.
Though The Last Unicorn is a fantasy story with plenty of fairytale-like elements, Beagle’s writing is shot through with an adult understanding of what things like magic mean. In his world, magic is not a panacea, nor is it even a universal good. Instead, it comes with a price, and that price, even for the most well-meaning of magicians is often great personal sacrifice. (In the book, for example, it is clear that Schmendrick has been made immortal until he can master the art of magic, and it is something that seems to cause him as much despair as it does joy.)
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 unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
The film version of The Last Unicorn truncates this line somewhat, but the sentiment is even more powerful in Beagle’s novel.
One of the best things about this story is the way Beagle refuses to let his fairytale be simple. Instead, it is a story that reflects the difficult and often uncomfortable truths of real life.
I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful—more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world.
Much of The Last Unicorn deals with the idea of immortality, and the way that the existence of death is what gives meaning and beauty to life. The unicorn, although beautiful, cannot die or decay, her time is limitless and her choices therefore infinite. Mortal creatures, with their finite lifespans, do not get this same luxury—but that is also what makes their lives burn so bright.
Don’t look back. And don’t run. You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.
To be fair, this is simply solid life advice.
Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.
One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read about the concept of fairytale, legend, and myth—-implying that the truth is often both smaller and more complicated than the stories we must make around it, because we need them to fulfill a certain function in our own hearts.
She is here, they are all here, and whether they mean my doom or not, I will look at them for a while. A pleasant air of disaster attends them. Perhaps that is what I want.
Though King Haggard is ostensibly the villain of The Last Unicorn, he is more complex than he appears at first glance. Yes, he is the master of the monstrous Red Bull and responsible for driving all the unicorns of the world into the sea. But it is not because he wishes to harm them—Haggard chases down the unicorns because he is a sad and lonely man who is deeply unhappy, and who is never quite able to fill the void inside himself.
I am what I am. I would tell you what you want to know if I could, for you have been kind to me. But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.
The cat that lives in Haggard’s castle knows what’s up.
As for you and your heart and the things you said and didn’t say, she will remember them all when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits.
This is truly one of the most romantic ideas in all of literature, fight me. Bittersweet and beautiful.
I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.
In the climax of Beagle’s story, Amalthea is returned to her unicorn form and, subsequently, her immortality. But part of the bittersweet nature of this ending is that she now understands what it is to be human in a way that no other member of her kind can.
She has felt what it is to be afraid, to be hungry, to face death as the real possibility of an ending and not an abstract concept that affects other creatures. She has rescued her sisters, but in doing so has set herself apart from them forever.
It cannot be an ill fortune to have loved a unicorn.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.