It is one of the most frustrating mysteries of fantasy publishing that Peter S. Beagle’s work has always been critically well received and yet, commercially speaking, his audience seems to be largely confined to a relatively small niche. That’s a tremendous pity and a huge loss to the readers who haven’t yet been fortunate enough to discover him, because there is barely a single misstep in Beagle’s entire canon. His storytelling is pure artistry, and his prose is among the most delicate, magical writing you’ll probably ever read. His novels are like the casting of spells, and his second fantasy book - 1968’s The Last Unicorn - continues to weave the most powerful spell ever. That’s why, fifty years later, it remains his most successful and most beloved book, and was even adapted into a 1982 animation starring the voices of Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, and Angela Lansbury.
Now, to mark that half-century anniversary, Peter S. Beagle’s earliest abandoned attempt at bringing The Last Unicorn to life has been published by Tachyon with a revealing afterword by the author, an introduction and foreword by Carrie Vaughn and Patrick Rothfuss respectively, and some exquisite black-and-white illustrations by Stephanie Law. For fans of Beagle’s original book, this is a fascinating gift. Although both versions share the same overarching story of a unicorn who lives alone in a lilac wood and then ventures out from the safety of her enchanted forest in a quest to find others of her kind, the components of The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey are very different from the final novel and may take some getting used to for Last Unicorn aficionados. For example, the world the unicorn discovers in The Lost Journey is entirely different, as are the characters she meets along the way. Significantly, there is no Schmendrick the bumbling magician and no indomitable Molly Grue. Instead, the unicorn’s chief companion is a demon called Azazel who, thanks to his smart-mouthed second head (called Webster), suffers from more than a little bit of split personality. He/they are great characters, but it’s obvious why they weren’t enough to prevent Beagle from burying this draft in a drawer only to return to it (and considerably rework it) when Schmendrick and Molly arrived on the scene.
In his afterword, Beagle confesses that he wrote The Lost Journey in small increments and never really knew from day-to-day where it would go. That uncertainty doesn’t ever show in his writing, but it does make the story feel a little meandering at times. Having said that, it’s still a terrific little novella and a very welcome insight into Beagle’s earliest writing process and the evolution of a modern classic. If you’ve never read The Last Unicorn, read The Lost Journey as a first draft and then read The Last Unicorn and bask in the wonderfulness of what The Lost Journey turned into. We bet you’ll be glad you did.
THE LAST UNICORN: THE LOST JOURNEY / AUTHOR: PETER S. BEAGLE / PUBLISHER: TACHYON PUBLICATIONS / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 29TH