The Last Unicorn is an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can't even see the magic and the beauty that's there in the world around them if only they'd look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn't become one of fantasy's most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for forty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humor. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool.
Our unicorn, who is never named, leaves her forest in search of others of her kind, after overhearing a couple of sorrowful hunters discussing how there are no unicorns — and thus no beauty or magic — left anywhere in the world at all. Ordinarily, Beagle tells us, unicorns are content to be solitary creatures. But there's a difference between choosing to be happily alone because you can always choose not to be, and being truly alone. On her quest, the unicorn is joined by Schmendrick — an untalented wizard who can barely muster the most mundane spells, and has been ekeing out a living with a traveling carnival — and Molly Grue, who has been traveling with a pitiful band of half-assed bandits whose leader, Captain Cully, pathetically clings to a desperate, self-made Robin Hood image his reputation hardly merits.
The unicorn and her companions are drawn to the decrepit castle of King Haggard, whose personality fits his name. He can barely maintain a retinue of a handful of aging men-at-arms. And yet the secret of what happened to all the other unicorns lies with him. But Haggard's castle is guarded by the fearsome Red Bull. In order to protect the unicorn from this beast, Schmendrick musters up the most magic he can and transforms her into a human woman, the radiant Lady Amalthea. But will this disguise help her wrest the secret of the unicorns' disappearance from the increasingly mad Haggard? Or will the unicorn lose touch with her own true nature the longer she is in human form? What will happen if Schmendrick can't change her back?
The Last Unicorn only needs the bare minimum of plot to sell its premise, and a bare minimum is all Beagle gives it. Beagle's strong suit has always been his gift for turning his characters into flesh-and-blood people — or unicorns — who leap off the page and into your heart, and The Last Unicorn plays to Beagle's strengths in exactly this way. The unicorn's search is nothing less than the longing we all have, at one time or another, for something precious we once cherished and have since irrevocably lost. Where so many of us go wrong is in seeking to compensate for lost things, as well as things we never really had to begin with and desire painfully for that very reason, in delusion and fantasy. Vide Captain Cully, who bores his own men with the heroic songs he insists must be sung about exploits he never had. When you prefer the unreal to taking charge of your reality and making something of what's actually in your life, you're just pitiful, risible, beneath contempt, let alone sympathy. Though that isn't to say people around you are any better, as Schmendrick proves when he conjures an illusion of the real Robin Hood, and all of Cully's men immediately desert him to run after it.
In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn't gone away, that it's all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.
Followed by the Hugo and Nebula winning novelette "Two Hearts" in 2005. Beagle is also planning a sequel novel.