Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version (Subterranean Press, 2006)


Peter S. Beagle actually began the first draft of his classic The Last Unicorn in a holiday cabin in Maine, in 1962, so long ago, it might as well have been another world. He and his best friend Phil Sigunick were vacationing and creating, or at least they intended to. Phil was inspired to paint, but the literary muse evaded Peter. He began a story about a unicorn, partly to demonstrate that he was working too, damn it! But the story stalled and the unicorn did not set out to find her people for several more years.

It may have been because Beagle wasn't sure if he courting Melpomene, the patroness of tragedy, or Thalia, whose specialty is comedy. Personally, I think it was because he was actually hunting Euterpe, the muse of lyric song, and did not yet know it. Luckily for the world, he ultimately started the tale over in a new voice, producing a much more successful story.

The original treatment is intriguing, but not as compelling as the final version. It's well-written — I don't think Beagle knows how to write badly, even when he is uncertain of his plot. The voice of the story is tellingly different, though, colder and less focused than the final version. Some passages were preserved almost completely unchanged, especially the opening descriptions of the Unicorn's wood and the wonderful monologue of the mad butterfly. Those already have the wild singing beauty that would eventually charge the whole story with power.

However, as the fragment progresses, one can see Beagle wandering. The Unicorn herself fades more and more into the background, and a secondary plot concerning an exiled demon named Azazel and Webster (he/they has two heads) takes over the action. While Azazel and Webster are well-drawn, not to mention extremely funny, one has the feeling that Beagle lost the reins on them shortly after they appeared. They run wild, and by the time the fragment ends, the narrative has foundered on their bickering exchanges.

Beagle states that what he had in mind was a sort of picaresque take on the modern world versus the creatures of fantasy, and there is almost a black comedic tone to the narrative. The dialogue, especially that of Azazel and Webster, is more facile and less heartfelt than that of Schmendrick and Molly. It's not just a case of the final version being prettier and less comedic — it is neither one, since the first version has some strikingly lovely moments, and the second has its share of genuine hilarity. Maybe it's simply that Beagle had to find his way through some more living, cross more time, walk more roads himself before he could really imbue the Unicorn's story with the depth and richness he eventually gave it.

The Lost Version is not a heroic tale. The final version is. More, it turned out to be literally a hero's tale as well, since its publication nearly drove a stake through Beagle's reputation as a serious young writer. But he had a better story to tell by the time he wrote it, and with the determination of a true hero, he did what he had to do.

Subterranean Press has produced a handsome chapbook for the original, incomplete 80-page story. The fragment is framed with a Prologue and an Afterword by Beagle. They provide fascinating insights into both the deliberate processes of a writer's mind, and the subconscious demands of a human heart: without which no story can ever see the light of day.

[Kathleen Bartholomew]

illustration from Michael Wm. Kaluta's' cover art for the 2006 Subterranean Press hardcover of The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version

Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy ]: