The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. Beagle
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of Peter S. Beagle‘s gorgeous, iconic fantasy The Last Unicorn, he unearthed this long-buried first version of that novel, written one memorable summer in 1962 when twenty-three year old Beagle was renting a cabin in the Berkshires with an artistic friend, Phil, and working on his writing craft. The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey (2018) starts off nearly identical to the novel, painting a beloved character with these familiar words:
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. … [T]he 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.
But after the first couple of pages, The Lost Journey veers off from the path of the novel, heading down a road that is new and unfamiliar to both readers and the unicorn. It begins with the oily, sulphurous reek of a maudlin dragon, who informs the unicorn that all of the other unicorns have disappeared. So the unicorn sets off on a journey to try to find the others and (after a couple of additional familiar scenes from the later novel) comes across a two-headed demon, who accompanies her on her travels. The dizzily mad butterfly makes his appearance, but there’s no red bull (notwithstanding the cover image for this book), no wizard named Schmendrick, nor insightful woman named Molly Grue ― the “true heart of The Last Unicorn,” according to Beagle in his afterword.
The setting of The Lost Journey is modern times: the unicorn is mystified, and disturbed, by paved roads and cars and dirty cities. This different setting lends itself to some social commentary about the shortcomings of modern society.
Whatever it was that screamed in the city had broken its prison long before and invaded them all. It was their screaming now, their own crushing rhythm, and if it had suddenly stopped and they had stood still to hear themselves speaking, to understand what others were saying to them, they would have gone mad with fear instantly, instead of slowly.
The disturbing imagery of a great, dark city is reflected, in somewhat lighter fashion, in the ancient two-headed demon who keeps the unicorn company. One head, Azazel, is the more traditional demon, bound to the old ways they did things in Hell and disturbed by change; the other head, Webster, cheerfully thrives on anarchy (his destructive actions got them both exiled from Hell). Beagle comments in his afterword that their snarky interactions with each other reflect the way he and his friend Phil talked with each other (still do, in fact).
It’s interesting to see the seeds of the later novel in this shorter work. Personally, I think Beagle kept the best bits from The Lost Journey in the novel; you can see the reasons why he later abandoned the rest of its plot. Azazel and Webster are amusing, but not ones to engage my heartstrings, and the story overall is bleaker. Also, The Lost Journey really doesn’t have an ending, more or less stopping mid-stream. It reads exactly like what it is: an unfinished story. So set your expectations accordingly.
But the sense of whimsy is still here, though slightly darker and more muted, and Beagle’s writing is often entrancing. There are some gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations by Stephanie Law, and those, along with Beagle’s afterword reminiscing about the sixties and the process of writing of The Last Unicorn, are almost worth the price of admission by themselves.
And in the end, any chance to spend more time with the wonderful unicorn is time well spent.