Fifty years ago, Peter S. Beagle’s second novel, The Last Unicorn, was published, eight years after he won acclaim as the upstart 19-year-old debut author of A Fine and Private Place. Over the course of that near-decade, he did things like get a grownup job, get married, and have children. His debut was wistful and funny and an unbelievably accomplished work for a writer who’d yet to celebrate his 20th birthday, but those in-between years mattered. The Last Unicorn is not the work of a young writer (though Beagle was still damnably young when it was published). It, and the unicorn more generally, have become the defining feature of Beagle’s long and laudable career: adapted into film and a graphic novel, revisited in novellas and short stories, and translated into dozens of languages.
Before we all encountered the unicorn, Beagle met her in a lilac wood in the summer of 1962, during an artistic retreat to the Berkshires with his dear friend Phil. The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey is the first version of a great novel, a novella-length draft produced on that retreat. It is the introduction to the unnamed unicorn, and the place where he saw her first, on her journey out of the immortal wood to find out where all the other unicorns had gone, and if she was, indeed, the last. The opening lines of both works are the same:
“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 there, things grow subtly, and then wholly, different. We still meet the Butterfly, though while in both the novel and the film it is he who informs the unicorn of her singularity, that task is assigned to a weary, careworn dragon in The Lost Journey. The dragon has been harassed out of a modern city, ejected onto the black road that terminates in the unicorn’s wood. Unicorns and dragons are natural enemies, and the unicorn attempts to enact their historical enmity, but is stalled by the dragon’s weeping. He crawls off to cry about the state of the world, and the unicorn strikes out to find the other unicorns.
Much about the world this unicorn inhabits is fundamentally different from the one in The Last Unicorn. There are deliberate anachronisms in the novel, but it is unquestionably set in something like a familiar fantasy world, a fairy tale place that winks at modernity. The Lost Journey, by contrast, is set in then-contemporary ’60s America, but an America shot through a lens of the mythopoeic. The unicorn strikes out of the lilac wood, and into the present day, and her immortal observations lend a strangeness to a world we take for granted.
This becomes more pronounced when she meets a demon ejected from hell—or possibly demons; the beast has two heads—and she endures his (their?) bellyaching about the state of damnation these days as they walk along the black road. The demon is the unicorn’s most constant companion, a strange stand-in for Mommy Fortuna, and Schmendrick, and Molly Grue, and all of the other people who people The Last Unicorn. The demon(s) have the sense of an inside joke about them, a circumstance explained in an excellent afterword written by the author, in which he details the conditions under which he wrote the novella and the novel in turn. It’s a chatty, charming reflective piece, and completely worth the price of admission.
In her introduction to The Books of Earthsea, the posthumous collection of works pertaining to the fictional archipelago of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin makes a pertinent observation about the earliest stories she set on those storied islands. She calls the first short story of Earthsea, published four years before A Wizard of Earthsea, “more like a sailor’s chance sighting of a couple of islands than the discovery of a new world.” Much the same could be said of The Lost Journey (though possibly with fewer sailing metaphors, which is not to say the sea doesn’t factor into the life of the last unicorn). It is the first journey, the first introduction, the first chance meeting on the road, a melding of the immortal world of the unicorn and the brief world of us mortals, the first glimpse of the lilac wood. It is here we glimpse what will come to be, years before it came to pass.
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