The Last Unicorn: Book Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson introduces readers to the plot and characters in Peter S. Beagle's modern fairy tale ''The Last Unicorn.'' We will get to know the unicorn's friends and helpers, as well as the antagonists that stand in their way.

In a Lilac Forest there Lives a Unicorn

The Last Unicorn (1968), by Peter S. Beagle, begins like a fairy tale. But it's more complicated than that. The Last Unicorn became a cult classic as both a novel and an animated film because it plays with conventions of fantasy and fairy tales. Beagle's wicked sense of humor, whimsy, imagination, and intellect make The Last Unicorn an entertaining and compelling read.

Once upon a time a unicorn lived in a lilac forest. Unicorns are immortal, yet gifted with eternal youth. This particular unicorn is the picture of elegance and grace: 'She moved like a shadow on the sea.' The unicorn has already had her fill of adventures. She could have told immeasurable stories about dragons, knights, kings, and assassins. She is content as can be until she overhears the conversation of two hunters. One of the hunters remarks that the forest feels like it's enchanted. The other responds by telling some folklore about the unicorns who used to enchant these lands. But they're all gone now, so the forest couldn't be enchanted.

The unicorn is struck with sadness. Is this what loneliness feels like? She decides to leave the enchanted lilac forest in search of her kin.

The Last Unicorn

The Midnight Circus

Her first encounter with humans is terrifying. She is caught by a circus and caged like an animal. All her captors see is a white mare (a female horse). Out in the world, mortal men cannot see her magical nature. The other features in Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Circus include a manticore, a dragon, a satyr, Cereberus the three-headed dog, and a harpy. From the unicorn's point of view, only she and the harpy, named Celaeno, are truly magical creatures. The rest have been enchanted to appear horrifying and dangerous. The manticore is actually a lion. The dragon is a crocodile. The satyr is actually an ape. Cereberus is just a normal dog.

Schemdrick, the magician, is also among the showmen. He's a young sorcerer still struggling to find his way in the world. He hasn't yet come into his own as a magician, but he is able to cast basic spells. With his help, the unicorn is able to escape her prison. Schmendrick joins the unicorn on her journey.

The Wanna-be Bandits

Upon escaping from the circus, the unicorn and Schmendrick encounter a band of roving outlaws and are again taken hostage. Captain Cully has made a legend out of himself, fashioned in the image of Robin Hood. At his side, to complete the picture, is Molly Grue, as his Maid Marian. Together, they represent quintessential medieval English attitudes toward chivalry and honor. Molly has become disgruntled, however. She decides to free the unicorn and Schmendrick as an excuse to leave the bandits. Molly was once Cully's strong-willed body guard. Now she's Schmendrick's.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian
Robin Hood

Hagsgate and Haggard's Castle

The unicorn learns of the terrible Red Bull (not the energy drink, a terrible, blind and ignorant beast who lives in the dungeons of the castle). This beast with red skin and flaming eyes is the one who herded up all the unicorns and is keeping them captive in the castle of King Haggard, at Hagsgate. The castle stands on the high point on the other side of the valley, with the village of Hagsgate in between. Based on his name, you might expect King Haggard to be old and tired. You'd be right, and on top of that he's also greedy and territorial. The witch who built the castle cursed it when Haggard refused to pay her for her work.

The unicorn, Schmendrick, and Molly Grue travel to Hagsgate. The townspeople tell the travelers a legend about a child from Hagsgate destined to banish Haggard from the castle. They suspect that this child is Prince Lir. Haggard says Lir is his adopted nephew, but the townspeople don't believe him.

Before they know it, the travelers come face to face with the Red Bull. The Bull chases the unicorn down. Up close, the Bull is even more gigantic. Schmendrick and Molly watch in terror as the Bull herds the unicorn. Molly pleads with Schmendrick; there's got to be something he can do!

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