Random Writing for May (early!): The Last Unicorn Presentation

Today Tomorrow is the last Friday of the month, which means it’s time to share a finished piece I created sometime in the past, that doesn’t necessarily have to involve dragons.  Since I’ve had quite a crazy week and the weekend is going to be even more so, today I’m sharing my presentation on an author and book that inspired me to become a writer:

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I own four copies of the book, plus the graphic novel, so it wasn’t hard to choose my topic.  I’ve always loved this project, although translating a PowerPoint presentation into a blog post was a bit of a trick.  Many of these slides were more dynamic than a static image can convey, but I think this turned out pretty well overall, even if I had to remake a few slides.

I know I still owe you a Neeka chapter for this week’s Discover Challenge, but since that’s still not finished yet, and this is, I’m switching my days around again.  (Time to update my posting schedule again, I think!)  It’s also going to be my birthday in a few days, so as a present to myself, I’m trying to get everything posted with the least amount of stress.  So now, please enjoy!

Slide1

You may be more familiar with the animated movie of The Last Unicorn, and I’ll admit that’s how I was first introduced to the story, but while the movie is amazing, as is usually the case, the book is better.

* * * * *

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Goodreads has this to say about the author, which I’ve also added to:

Peter S. Beagle was born in 1939.  He is an American fantasist and author of novels, short stories, poems, nonfiction, and screenplays. He is also a talented guitarist and folk singer.

He wrote his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, in 1960, when he was only 19 years old.

Today he is best known as the author of The Last Unicorn, in 1968,  which routinely polls as one of the top ten fantasy novels of all time.

At least two of his other books (A Fine and Private Place and his memoir I See By My Outfit) are also considered modern classics.

* * * * *

The animated version of The Last Unicorn came out in 1982.  Beagle wrote the screenplay, adapted from his novel, and it was produced by Rankin/Bass for ITC Entertainment.

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The movie was voiced by some pretty famous people, including Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Angela Landsbury as Mommy Fortuna, and Rene Auberjonois as the skeleton guard to the Red Bull’s lair.

This is a specially-designed poster for the re-release screening tour featuring Beagle himself, which started in Canada in April of 2014.  I was able to attend a Minneapolis screening and bought this limited edition poster for $35, and had it signed by the author, “To Jamie, From Peter S. Beagle.”  I plan to have it professionally framed, but it’s so huge, it’s quite pricey… I found the perfect frame, but it’s going to run me (with glass and everything) about $500.  It’s totally worth it though!

* * * * *

For those unfamiliar with the story of The Last Unicorn (or even for those who are), here is the original movie trailer.

When I found this on YouTube, I was pleasantly surprised that the producers didn’t spoil the main “surprise” of the movie, instead cleverly working around it.  But of course, to talk about the story, I have to spoil it now… sorry!

Slide4

You wouldn’t know it from that trailer, but most of the story of The Last Unicorn actually involves the Magician Schmendrick turning the Unicorn into a human woman, in order to save her from the Red Bull, as pictured here from the graphic novel (more on that in a moment).  The Unicorn, as the Lady Amalthea, then continues her quest to find the other unicorns at King Haggard’s castle

* * * * *

Now, for some more background on the book.

As I mentioned, Beagle first published The Last Unicorn in 1968 with Viking Press, and over the years there have been numerous republications with various covers.

The first edition didn’t even show a unicorn.

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Here are some of the other covers.

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The Last Unicorn has sold over five million copies worldwide, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. My favorite of the novel covers is the latest one from the beginning of my presentation.

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In 2010, it was also recreated by Beagle and Peter B. Gillis, with art by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon, as a six-issue comic, which was then brought together in a hardcover graphic novel.

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I’ve used images from the graphic novel as well as fan-art throughout this presentation.

* * * * *

Beagle’s work has been praised over the decades by many well known sci-fi and fantasy authors, as well as respected publications.  He’s been called one of the greatest American fantasy writers, and won the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011.

Slide6-2

Ursula K. Le Guin said “Peter S. Beagle illuminates with his own particular magic such commonplace matters as ghosts, unicorns, and werewolves.  For years a loving readership has consulted him as an expert on those heart’s reasons that reason does not know.”

The Saturday Review wrote, “Beagle … has been compared, not unreasonably, with Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien, but he stands squarely and triumphantly on his own feet… The book is rich, not only in comic bits but also in passages of uncommon beauty.  Beagle is a true magician with words, a master of prose and a deft practitioner in verse.”

The Green Man’s review reads, “The plot is a classic quest structure – an impossible goal, a motley company, heroes, villains, monsters, magic, desperate chances, bittersweet success.  … What makes The Last Unicorn unique is the way Mr. Beagle transcends the ordinary fantasy quest trope with his incomparable storytelling skill.  …  The story has an intimacy and immediacy that captivates the reader.  You don’t read this with the futile wish that such things would happen to you – you read it and believe, at once, that they could.”

* * * * *

This book has meant a lot to me over the years.  I’ve always loved the dedication page, reproduced in each successive volume.  Beagle writes,

Slide7

To the memory of Dr. Olfert Dapper,
who saw a wild unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673,
and for Robert Nathan, who has seen one or two in Los Angeles.

Beagle’s beautiful, lyrical prose has always inspired me.  His first lines are brilliant, and he goes on to describe the unicorn in the way I’ve considered canon ever since I read it.

An audiobook version of The Last Unicorn was released in 2010, read by Peter S. Beagle himself, and is available for purchase at Audible.com (or it can be free with a trial subscription).

* * * * *

Slide8

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.

She did not look anything like a horned horse,
as unicorns are often pictured,
being smaller and cloven-hoofed,
and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had,
that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation,
and goats in dancing mockery.

Her neck was long and slender,
making her head seem smaller than it was,
and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back
was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus.

She had pointed ears and thin legs,
with feathers of white hair at the ankles;
and the long horn above her eyes
shone and shivered with its own seashell light
even in the deepest midnight.

She had killed dragons with it,
and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close,
and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

~ Excerpt from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Chapter One

As you can see, you can easily break that entire first page of his novel as you would a poem, and the prose is all the more beautiful for it.

* * * * *

Slide8-2

One detail Beagle doesn’t mention in this opening about the Unicorn, but that I find extremely important, is the Unicorn’s tail.  As you can see, she doesn’t have a horse tail.  Rather, it’s long and thin, with a tuft on the end, like a lion’s.

I personally never consider any image of a unicorn “real” unless it has a lion’s tail, thanks to Peter S. Beagle.  When I see a “horned horse,” I roll my eyes.  (Perhaps that makes me a Unicorn snob, but I can’t help myself.)

On another note, I learned an interesting fact about unicorns in fiction at the Q&A I attended.

According to Beagle’s former business partner Connor Cochran, when Beagle wrote the first line of this story, he fundamentally changed the way unicorns were portrayed in fiction from that point forward.

Beagle wrote, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and SHE lived all alone.”

According to Cochran, up until that point, unicorns in fiction had always been portrayed as male figures.  Beagle’s novel changed the course of fantasy history.

* * * * *

There’s an entire section in the book that is cut out of the movie, when Schmendrick, Molly, and the Unicorn enter the town beneath Haggard’s castle, called Hagsgate.

Slide9

The folks of Hagsgate aren’t very friendly at first, as you can see.

But they eventually warm to the Magician, and tell him their tale of woe.  As it turns out, the town is cursed to be destroyed when Haggard’s castle falls into the sea.  They’ve also been warned, in true storybook fashion:

“Yet none but one of Hagsgate town, May bring the castle swirling down.”

In order to avoid the curse, the town has had no children.

Here Beagle writes one of my favorite passages in the book, as the town elder Drinn explains their problem.

“But I have not told you all the truth.  Twenty-one years ago, a child was born in Hagsgate.  Whose child it was, we never knew.  I found it myself, as I was crossing the marketplace one winter’s night.  It was lying on a butcher’s block, not crying, although there was snow, but warm and chuckling under a comforter of stray cats.  They were all purring together, and the sound was heavy with knowledge.  I stood by the strange cradle for a long time, pondering while the snow fell and the cats purred prophecy.”

He stopped, and Molly said eagerly, “You took the child home with you, of course, and raised it as your own.”

Drinn laid his hands palm up on the table.  “I chased the cats away,” he said, “and went home alone.”

Molly’s face turned the color of mist.

Drinn shrugged slightly.  “I know the birth of a hero when I see it,” he said.  “Omens and portents, snakes in the nursery.  Had it not been for the cats, I might have chanced the child, but they made it so obvious, so mythological.  What was I to do – knowingly harbor Hagsgate’s doom?”

~ Exceprt from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Chapter Seven

Drinn goes on to explain that the child disappeared anyway, and the next day, a herald announced that Haggard had adopted a son, Prince Lir.

Here Beagle demonstrates that the characters in his story inhabit a true fantasy world, but one they also understand.

* * * * *

Continuing in that thread, the third and final part of this book that I’ll subject you to comes at the end, before the Lady Amalthea has been changed back into a unicorn to face the Red Bull, when she tells Lir that she refuses to be changed back, because she loves him.

Slide10

Schmendrick doesn’t like it, but he says,

Let it end here then, let the quest end.
Is the world any the worse for losing the unicorns,
and would it be any better if they were running free again?
One good woman more in the world is worth every single unicorn gone.
Let it end.  Marry the prince and live happily ever after.

~ Schmendrick the Magician,
Excerpt from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Chapter Thirteen

Amalthea is happy to let the quest end, to live happily ever after with her love, but Lir is the one to object.  He says,

No.  My lady, I am a hero.

It is a trade, no more, like weaving or brewing, and like them it has its own tricks and knacks and small arts. There are ways of perceiving witches, and of knowing poisoned streams; there are certain weak spots that all dragons have, and certain riddles that hooded strangers tend to set you.

But the true secret of 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 at the witch’s door when she is 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 unrescued for a long time, but not forever.

The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

~ Prince Lir,
Excerpt from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Chapter Thirteen

I’ll leave the story there, but you really should pick up the book, or the graphic novel, or even just watch the movie, for the first time or the 100th.

* * * * *

In closing, I’ll share with you the advice I got when I met Peter Beagle at the movie screening at the Riverview Theater in 2014, where I bought that poster and I also bought this limited-edition art print, which wasn’t as big or expensive, and so is already framed on my wall.

 

Slide11

When I spoke to him as he signed my poster, I told him I was an “aspiring writer” and asked if he had any advice.  He told me that the best advice he could give was to drop the word “aspiring” from my description.

Since 2014, I’ve really taken that advice to heart, and this blog is just one example of that.

Thank you so much for reading!  Unfortunately, I may not have time to put all of my Image Credit links below like I usually do because I created this in 2014, but I’m sure I have my bibliography somewhere, and I will come back to update this as soon as I can.  Take care!


This post is copyright © Jamie Lyn Weigt.  All rights reserved.  Please do not share without credit and a direct link back to this post and my site, writingdragonsblog.com.

7 thoughts on “Random Writing for May (early!): The Last Unicorn Presentation

  1. Great write-up, Jamie. “The Last Unicorn” is an extremely important landmark on my journey to the writer I am today, and I love the story. I nod a few tributes to it in my recently completed novelette “The Unicorn Hunters”. My planned future novel “The Accidental Unicorns of Mystic, Maine” references it even more and I want to put a dedication to Peter S. Beagle in the front.

    Were you aware of Peter S. Beagle’s current troubles with his former promoter, Connor Cochran? It’s a very ugly and sad mess for Peter. Every time I learn more, Cochran just looks like a worse and worse monster in need of being faced down into the ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jason. I look forward to reading your works, as always. Sadly, I have heard about the Connor Cochran thing, but I haven’t been following it lately. I met him at the screening I mention, with Peter, and thought he was sincerely dedicated to promoting Peter’s work. And while I’ve heard of problems with orders, I always recieved what I ordered with no problems. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, I just found your blog while i was browsing through the internet. I think you did a great job with this article, and i have a question: As this blog is kinda related to dragon stuff, what do you think about the Dragon in “the last unicorn” and that prince Lir killed it?
    Keep up the good work! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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