The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey: The road not taken

 

The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. BeagleThe Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. BeagleMarking 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.

Published in November 2018. Special Commemorative Edition celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Last Unicorn. Peter S. Beagle first imagined his beloved heroine when he was twenty-three, half a decade before she sprang into the world. Now the Last Unicorn’s fantastical origins are recaptured in this lovely commemorative hardcover. Here you will discover the eighty-five page genesis of Beagle’s masterpiece, his own wry musings upon his early career, charming original illustrations, and tributes from modern fantasy legends Patrick Rothfuss and Carrie Vaughn. In this wonderfully strange adventure, a brave unicorn leaves her solitary life behind, determined to discover if she is the last of her kind. She is forewarned by a forlorn dragon and befuddled by a chatty butterfly; her unfamiliar traveling companion will be an exiled demon with a split personality and a penchant for philosophy. Somewhere between mythology, modernity, and magic, the Last Unicorn has found herself on the road less traveled by . . . until now.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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3 comments

  1. This seems very similar to a Subterranean Press novella published back in 2007 called “The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version,” making me wonder what differentiates the two editions other than a slight tweaking of the title.

    • From the descriptions it sounds like the same text, just spiffed up with illustrations and, I assume, a different afterword by Beagle. Which are great, as I mention in my review. According to Wikipedia, “The Lost Version” was also just a 1,000-copy limited edition hardcover, so this Tachyon reprint should be more accessible. That’s interesting, though; I didn’t realize this was the same text until I went digging in response to your comment!

      ETA: Actually, Amazon is also showing a couple of paperback editions of “The Lost Version,” so there are other affordable options!

  2. For many of us it’s interesting to see the genesis of a writer’s idea and compare it to a later version (or finished product). Thanks for this review, Tadiana!

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