Peter S. Beagle (author and narrator), The Last Unicorn: Unabridged Audiobook Edition
(Conlan Press, 2005/6)
The Last Unicorn was first published in 1968. I don't know whether it became an instant classic or not, because I wasn't alive then, but it's certainly a classic now, and has been since at least the early 1980's, when the classic (there's that word again) animated film version was released. For that reason, I feel a little guilty that I've only gotten around to experiencing the book this past week. Better late than never, I suppose.
You're probably wondering what I thought of it. But let me talk about the recording first.
Peter S. Beagle reads the entire book. When I reviewed Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials in audiobook form a couple of years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with the ensemble voice acting, and even stated that, as a result of this first introduction to the series, I would never be able to read the text without hearing those wonderful voices in my head. I'm surprised and impressed that Beagle has done his own much-beloved novel similar justice without the aid of any additional voice talents. He narrates with clarity and precision, and he speaks dialogue with emotion and meaning. He does accents wonderfully, including Russian and Scottish.
A fellow named Jeff Slingluff wrote and performed some wonderful guitar-based instrumentals for the opening of each chapter. This music was written for and inspired by the text, and you can tell, as it captures the mood quite well, particularly during some of the earlier chapters about the dark carnival. There are limits to this method, of course. This isn't a full-on audio drama with music for each scene of emotional import. Chapters are typically half an hour long, so the question is, do you try to capture the emotional essence of the upcoming chapter, or the one just closed? Do you let the music act as a portent of things to come, considering the chapter as a whole, or just set the immediate mood? But his guitar work is wonderful in any case, and on the whole, it very much matches the overall feel of the novel.
What is the feel of the novel? The Last Unicorn follows this last, lonely creature as she seeks her missing people. Along the way she meets some human companions who, for the simple reason that she is the most wonderful and beautiful thing they have ever seen, join her on her quest, assisting where they can. The first of these is Schmendrick the Magician, a good-hearted but inept magic-user, whose spells often do more harm than good. The next is a woman whose cynical and caustic exterior hides a disappointed child, and who sees her lost innocence and forgotten dreams in the unicorn. Together, the three of them seek out legends and ghost stories in their investigation of the unicorns' fate.
Ultimately, each person in this novel is different at journey's end than they were before. Even the unicorn, who is immortal and unchanging, and not sure how to deal with the human concept of personal growth. I'm not sure what I take from this novel. The unicorn, to me, at least, is someone who can never return to where and who she was, and yet is afraid to continue down the path of the unknown. What does she represent? She might be the last vestiges of beauty in this world, that man consistently manages to destroy. But her experience amongst the humans, damaging as it is in its own way, is also something she thanks her companions for. All of it, even her sorrow. The principal question for each of these characters (and perhaps all who make such a journey) is one of identity, but sometimes this is something you must hold to tightly, lest it slip your grasp, and sometimes it is something you must actively seek out to discover for the first time. Some things change and some stay the same.
I don't want to spoil the details for those new to the story, and old fans will have their own interpretations and connections to the characters and world of this book. Suffice it to say, though this was my first encounter with Beagle's best-known work, it seemed to me to be the same wonderful, beautiful, tragic, and joyous tale I've always heard about. It has that feel of a new old friend which classics seem to have.
If you haven't read the book, you may wish, as I did, to discover for yourself what all the fuss was about. If you have, then you'll already know, at least as far as the story goes. With talk of a possible novel-length sequel in the works, and a novelette-length coda already having been published in the October, 2005 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, there's no better time to discover or revisit this story. As for the high quality of the audiobook itself, you needn't take my word for it. There are two free sample chapters downloadable at the Conlan Press Web Site.
After nearly 40 years in print, in various forms, it seems we still haven't seen the last of this unicorn.
illustration from section of Leo & Diane Dillon's cover art for the Conlan Press 2006 unabridged audiobook of The Last Unicorn
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: