The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle

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The Last Unicorn



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I read The Last Unicorn over thirty years ago, and I remain fond of the song “When I was a young man” (from chapter XI); the tune I use is “The Ash Grove.”

I have always remembered that I liked it, and have never been without a copy, but I allowed a long time to pass without re-reading it: at least since 1976, the year I became familiar with the Steeleye Span album All Around My Hat. Otherwise, I’d have noticed erenow that the Captain Cully ballad (a Robin Hood send-up—excerpt below) in Chapter V fits the tune of “Gamble Gold,” the real Robin Hood ballad on that album.

Having established that it had been far too long, I found the book all the better for a more mature reading. (You are free to wonder how I would know!)

The Last Unicorn

Copyright © 1968 by Peter S. Beagle

II “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”



III “But I asked him a riddle, and it always takes him all night to solve riddles. Next time, I’ll tell him a joke and keep him busy for a week.”
“There is much misjudgment in the world. Now I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so must I be if you see me so. The magic on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes.”



“Here is there, and high is low;

  All may be undone.

  What is true, no two men know—

  What is gone is gone.”


“Honey, I haven’t even seen her—” the blue jay began, and his wife knew that he hadn’t, and wouldn’t dare, but she batted him one anyway. She was one woman who knew what to do with a slight moral edge.


“ ‘If ye do rescue my lady fair,

   I will break your nose, ye silly auld gowk.

   But she wore an emerald at her throat,

   Which my three brothers also took.’ ”

“You wouldn’t be Mr. Child himself, now would you?” he demanded. “He often goes seeking ballads, so I’ve heard, disguised as a plain man—”

Schmendrick shook his head. “No, I’m very sorry, really.”

The captain sighed and released him. “It doesn’t matter,” he murmured. “One always hopes, of course, even now—to be collected, to be verified, annotated, to have variant versions, even to have one’s authenticity doubted . . . well, well, never mind. Sing the other songs, Willie lad. You’ll need the practice one day, when you’re field-recorded.”

VI His voice and eyes were as stern as he could make them, but he could feel his nose being bewildered. He had never been able to discipline his nose.



“Who has choices need not choose.

  We must, who have none.

  We can love but what we lose—

  What is gone is gone.”

They gave nothing away, and they knew that their enemies were those who did.

“How can we delight in our good fortune when we know that it must end, and that one of us will end it? Every day makes us richer, and brings us one day nearer to our doom. Magician, for fifty years we have lived leanly, avoided attachments, untied all habits, readying ourselves for the sea. We have taken not a moment’s joy in our wealth—or in anything else—for joy is just one more thing to lose. Pity Hagsgate, strangers, for in all the wretched world there can be no town more unhappy.”

“Lost, lost, lost,” the townsfolk whimpered. “Misery, misery we.” Molly Grue stared wordlessly at them, but Schmendrick said respectfully, “That’s a good curse, that’s a professional job. I always say, whatever you’re having done, go to an expert. It pays in the long run.”



“Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?” The magician’s voice was kind and drunken, and his eyes were as bright as his new money. “The hero has to make a prophecy come true, and the villain is the one who has to stop him—though in another kind of story, it’s more often the other way around. And a hero has to be in trouble from the moment of his birth, or he’s not a real hero.”
IX “I always say perseverance is nine-tenths of any art—not that it’s much help to be nine-tenths an artist, of course.”





“It certainly has a lot of feeling,” she said. “Can you really rhyme ‘bloomed’ and ‘ruined’?”

“It needs a bit of smoothing out,” Prince Lír admitted. “ ‘Miracle’ ’s the word I’m worried about.”

“I was wondering about ‘grackle’ myself.”


Bad poetry

“My dragons and my feats of arms weary you, but they are all I have to offer. I haven’t been a hero for very long, and before I was a hero I was nothing at all, nothing but my father’s dull, soft son. Perhaps I am only dull in a new way now, but I am here, and it is wrong of you to let me go to waste. I wish you wanted something of me. It wouldn’t have to be a valiant deed—just useful.”
XII [...] “Help ho, the king! Guards, to me! Here are burglars, bandits, mosstroopers, kidnapers, housebreakers, murderers, character assassins, plagiarists!”


Amusing one-liners


“My lady,” he said, “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 poison 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.”



text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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