This is my favorite book, and every time I start to waver and think, ‘Well, I’ve read so many other goods things since then…’ I pick up the book and read the opening passage again:
“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.”
Usually, I cry at that point.
I was the weird horse-obsessed girl in school — and let’s be honest, I still am — but my first and truest love was unicorns. Before I could read on my own, I had checked out every book about unicorns in the library and poured over the illustrations. I had a much-loved audiobook of Bruce Coville’s wonderful middle grade novel, Into the Land of the Unicorns, on worn cassette tapes that I listened to over and over again when my family drove to New England in the summer. (The book is out of print, but you can find the full-cast recording on Audible here). With some coaxing, I also got into Mary Stanton’s Unicorns of Balinor series, which sparked my interest in real-world horses.
But, like many people, my biggest expose to unicorns was the 1982 animated film, The Last Unicorn. It remains one of my favorite movies even as I explored the larger world of fantasy film with cinematic epics like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In it, we follow the last unicorn in the world as she searches for the rest of her kind. There are carnivals, bandits, wizards, evil kings, monsters, and true love — in short, everything that makes a tale worth telling. My six-year-old mind exploded.
When I was about nine or ten, I devoured the novel the film had been based on. This is where the true magic of the story appeared. It was delightful and strange and ethereal in secret ways only a child could understand, and I loved it just as I had loved the others, but when I set it back on the shelf I did not return to it annually as I did with my other childhood favorites. There was something different about it, and I was different for having read it. It was a book you didn’t pick up lightly.
I did eventually return to it, though. I was a recent college graduate cleaning out my bookshelves as my life and my living space seemed to be falling apart around me. A long-term relationship had just ended, I was jobless, about to be homeless, and I desperately needed a respite.
The unicorn on the slightly bent old cover peered up at me from the packing box.
I walked back into the story as if it were a place I’d visited and didn’t quite remember how to navigate. The imagery was fresh and real in a way I’d forgotten, and for the first time, I realized how sophisticated Beagle’s prose was — that summer, I read up on him and found out he had been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford the tender age of 19. Pouring over the half-familiar story, I felt the same wonder and excitement I’d felt the first time I’d read it, but something had changed. The poignancy and wistfulness came out like the notes of ghostly wine our heroes conjure for a talking skull. I understood it in a new, frightening light.
It came together when Molly Grue, the sharp-tongued robber, enters the story and sees the unicorn for the first time:
“But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as if she were a strayed milk cow. ‘Where have you been?’ Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eye that looked down.
‘I am here now,’ she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. ‘And what good is it to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?'”
I sat down and started crying on my bed. Any dreamy child who reaches adulthood, with all its petty cruelties and injustices, would feel the same piercing heartache if a piece of childhood magic reached us now. Other authors have tried to capture that awful feeling of loss, but I think only Beagle has succeeded.
If you’ve never read the book, you should go ask for it at your local bookstore or library. (The film, which has a screenplay by Beagle, is currently on Netflix). And if you can, give the book to a child in your life: they only have one chance to experience the magic through young eyes.