I first stumbled onto it in 1977 when I was an undergraduate and bought a used paperback copy of the novel because I liked the cover art. I quickly realized that this fantasy was unlike any other I had ever read. It was slightly self-mocking and very light in both its tone and content (compared to Lord of Rings, the ultimate ponderous fantasy tale that all my friends were enthralled with), but yet, as the book itself said, "there was real magic there. "While I found the wanderings of Frodo and his comrades interesting and otherworldly, there was no attraction, no magic in it. I could put down the book, never thinking about their story until I picked it up again. Yet with The Last Unicorn I felt as if I had been allowed a peek into another world that was somehow more real than my own. Scenes from the story kept popping up randomly in my mind for months afterwards and I would find myself going back, again and again, to read random sections from the book. There was a strange, untouchable beauty coming from the story; a beauty that seemed to hover just out of reach and could never be seen except from out of the corner of the eye. To this day I can still not pin down exactly a scene or a line or an image and say "There, there it is." It is just everywhere, and I feel, like Edna St. Vincent Milay when reading true poetry, that my head has come off of my body and floated away.
The story follows the Unicorn (she is never given a proper name) who leaves her enchanted forest where she has lived forever, only to find there are no other unicorns left in the world. She goes on a quest to find what has happened to them and is joined by an incompetent wizard, Schmendrick the magician, and a middle-aged scullery maid, Molly Grue. Together they travel to the castle of King Haggard having heard that he and his magical creature, the Red Bull, have imprisoned all the other unicorns. Before they arrive, the Red Bull appears and begins to chase the Unicorn. Schmendrick saves her by turning her into a human woman, thwarting the Bull which can only see unicorns. The Unicorn is revolted at having been transformed into a mortal shape, but Schmendrick explains it is the only way they can gain entrance to the castle. He gives her the name Lady Amalthea and the three of them reach the castle. King Haggard recognizes her for what she truly is, but allows them to stay as his new "playthings". The king's adopted son, Prince Lir, falls in love with Amalthea and devotes himself entirely to trying towin her love. The rest of the novel follows Schmendrick and Molly's effort to find the lost unicorns before Amalthea loses her memory of being a unicorn and becomes completely a mortal human being.
Because it is about a unicorn and a quest for magic, most people mistakenly dismiss it as nothing but a children's story (it's amazing how much of the best and deepest of the world's literature gets classified as children's stories, folk tales, and myths so they can be safely ignored).In reality it is a story that can be read on many levels, simply as an adventure story or more deeply as a fantastic exploration of the nature of truth, beauty, reality, immortality, and the purpose of life. Peter S. Beagle himself has written that the book is sort of "a personal I Ching, which gives me no advice, no handy warnings, but slowly tells me things I had forgotten, or hidden from myself."
In the fall of 1982 an animated version of The Last Unicorn was released in the US. (There had been several attempts made before this to transform it into a movie, including one live action version. None got past the planning stage.) My wife and I along with some friends who had been long-time fans of the novel went to see the movie when it was first released. We went with a mixture of excitement (that it was finally on the screen) and fear (of what the movie people had done to it), but when the credit "Screenplay by Peter S. Beagle" flashed on the screen we broke into applause. The rest of the theater thought we were crazies. They were probably right.
The decision of the producers to let Beagle write the screenplay (and more importantly, sticking to his screenplay) saved the movie from being just another Hollywood hack job. The real magic of the novel survived the transition to the screen.
The other two factors which saved it from being another hack job were the voice actors and the animation itself. Someone wisely realized that (as Disney learned long ago) you need quality voice talent to make the story believable, and they got some of the best. Alan Arkin played Schnemndrick, Mia Farrow played the Unicorn / Amalthea, Tammy Grimes played Molly Grue, Angela Lansbury played Mommy Fortuna, Christopher Lee was the perfect King Haggard, and Jeff Bridges played Prince Lir. Even the smaller roles were played by such veteran character actors as Rene Auberjonois, Paul Frees, Keenan Wynn, Robert Klein, and Brother Theodore.
As for the animation, it was a joint US-Japanese production with Rankin-Bass handling the US side (story, music, dialog) and the Japanese group handling the animation. The anime style of characters and animation is so strong in this movie that many people (myself included)classify it as an anime movie even though it was primarily a US production .At the time I first saw it, I recognized the Japanese style, but didn't pursue it until much later. In 1993 when I first watched Nausicaa I suddenly sat upright with a sense of deja vu. I realized these must be the same animators. Not just that they were both done by Japanese animators, it was much closer than that. Particularly during the scenes in the Valley of Wind the backgrounds, the choice in color palettes, the motions were just too close to be accidental. Also, both movies open with images of tapastries. Nausicaa opens with a imaginary future tapestry which tells the tale of the destruction of the world in the "Seven Days of Fire" (and borrows stylistically from the famous Bayeaux Tapestry which tells the history of the Norman Conquest and some from the Mayan Codex), while The Last Unicorn opens with an animated tapestry based on the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I posed a question about this (twice) to rec.arts.anime and rec.arts.animation but got no definite answers. Then in summer 1994 I purchased the Roman Album for Nausicaa and while turning through the text portion, suddenly found myself staring at small black and white stills from The Last Unicorn. The only English on the two pages was the headline "Topcraft". There were also stills from The Hobbit and The Return of the King, two other Rankin - Bass animated features.
Two years later (summer 1996) I can finally put the matter to rest.Thanks for Nobutoshi Ito and Aiko Shinkawa who helped with the original text from the Nausicaa Roman Album, and Ryo-san from the Miyazaki mailing list who helped by turning up an article on the history of Studio Ghibli. Topcraft did work on The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit, The Return of the King, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all of which were Rankin-Bass Productions. After that they were hired by Animage andHayao Miyazakito do Nausicaa. After Nausicaa was completed the core of Topcraft animators formed the new Studio Ghibli. (Exactly whether Topcraft went out of business and Studio Ghibli was a new company or whether they just reorganized the existing company and chose a new name isn't clear.) So although Miyazaki had nothing to do with The Last Unicorn, there is still a touch of Ghibli style in The Last Unicorn. Now if I can just find out exactly who did the opening animation to both The Last Unicorn and Nausicaa....
August 1998 With the help of a friend in Japan we have located a Japanese article from 1982 about Topcraft and The Last Unicorn. I now have thepictures and translation of it online.
If you've never heard of Studio Ghibli, don't worry, you will soon ifyou haven't already. In July 1996, the Disney Corporation bought the worldwide video distribution rights to all of Studio Ghibli's films, and they are now starting to appear in the US and Europe. Kiki's Delivery Service went on sale September 1998 on video in the US and in Spain in spring 1999. Princess Mononoke was released theatrically in the US on October 29, 1999 and is now available in videotape and DVD. And Castle in the Sky (Laputa) has been dubbed into English and will ultimately be released on home video in the US, but Disney hasn't decided exactly when yet (as of fall2001).
In the six and a half years (winter 1995 - summer 2001) this page has been up, it has generated more email than my anime and Nadia pages even though it gets only a fraction of the number of hits those pages get. I had never realized how many other Last Unicorn fans there were out there. Someday I may print up all these letters and send them to Peter Beagle. As a result of those letters and all the questions I've gotten, I've put together a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) list for The Last Unicorn. It includes such things as the cast list for the movie, what else has Beagle written, are the book and video still in print, where can I get cels from the movie, and the answer to the single most often asked question: "where can I get the soundtrack from the movie?" By the way, did you know that in the spring-summer of 1999, a cover version of the theme song of The Last Unicorn was on the top of the pop charts in Germany? Then check out the "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) list to find out how to get a copy of that. And if you have any information you think should be added to the list, please let me know.
There are some other Last Unicorn websites. First there is the page about it bythe Crimson Avenger. He has the lyrics to all the songs from the movie there. Then there is the Third Last Unicorn page put together by Matt Parowski. He has .wavfiles of some of the songs from the movie. Then there isthe sitedone by Ondrea Heather Delio which has some screen shots from the movie and quicktime files. And there is a new (summer 98) website by Christina with the most interesting interpretation of the story I've ever seen. And there is Paladin's Last Unicorn Page with information about where to buy the book, video, and CD along with info about Beagle's other books, lots ofstills from the movie and a link to an interview with Peter S. Beagle. And the "Unofficial Peter Beagle website" is now the "Official Peter Beagle website"and Kim Flournoy has done a wonderful job on it!
In the spring of 1997 I was contacted by Michael Bronec from the Czech Republic. He was in the process of doing a translation of the novel and asked if I would help him by explaining some of the English idioms and particularly what all the phrases from the Butterfly's speech meant. I was able to help him figure out about a third of them and suggested that he write to Beagle himself. He did and Beagle was kind enough to supply him with explanations for the rest of them. (Someday I'm going toput a website up with that information on it too.) Anyway, the book is now (December 1997) in print in Czech (ISBN 80-85979-15-2 if you're interested in buying it) and he and Jan Liska even have a websiteup about the book. Now if I could only read Czech.....
NEWS FALL 2001--A NEW LAST UNICORN FILM
I just found out that there is a new live action production ofThe Last Unicorn in the works! They have an official website up athttp:www.the-last-unicorn.net/index.htmand according to it, the film will be a live action movieusing a computer-generated unicorn. Peter S. Beagle has written the script (and it's on-line there) and they've signed Christopher Lee and Angela Lansbury to reprise their roles as King Haggard and Mommy Fortuna. Also Rene Auberjonois has been signed to reprise his role as the voice of the skeleton and will also play the role of Captain Cully. The rest of the cast has not been announced yet. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, this looks promising....
MORE NEWS FALL 2001--A DVD RELEASE IN GERMANY
The Last Unicorn has been released on DVD in Germany as of November. It has the German and English soundtracks and you can find all the information about it by going to www.amazon.de (the German Amazon.com), going to "DVD" and then doing a search on the title word "einhorn" (which is "unicorn" in German). Amazon is selling it for39.98 DM or 20.44 Euros. Warning to fans outside of Europe:Before you get excited and rush off ot buy this, the bad news is that this is a Region 2 DVD in PAL format. This means that it will NOT play on any US DVD players (which are region 1 coded).Even if you have a region-free player, since it's in PAL format(the European tv standard) it will not play properly on a US tv (which uses the NTSC format). You get a rolling, black and white picture if you try to play it. (For more information about DVD region codes and what tv formats are used in which countries, go check out the DVD Demystifiedwebsite, which is the most extensive and knowledgable information source on the subject.) At the present time there are no plans (that I'm aware of) of releasing The Last Unicorn on DVD in the US (region1, NTSC format), but I suspect it will happen eventually. I just don't know if "eventually" is "six months" or "five years". Thanks go to Claudius Mahnke for alerting me about this release.
Last, so far as I know, I am the only person who has ever succeeded in getting a quote from The Last Unicorn into a scientific Ph.D thesis. The acknowledgements in my thesis end with the following quote(actually, a hybrid of both the book and the movie dialog):
The Unicorn spoke quietly to him. "You are a true wizard now, as you always wished. Does it make you happy?"
"Well," said Schmendrick slowly, "Men don't always know when they're happy but, I...I think so."