Peter S. Beagle on The Last Unicorn Art of Rebekah Naomi Cox



Peter S. Beagle discovered Rebekah Naomi Cox and her art entirely by accident, thanks to a chance encounter with one of her older brothers at a 2005 Tolkien gathering in Pasadena, California. That lucky stroke eventually led to a number of amazing things, not least of which is that two of Rebekah's images (done when she was still only 17!) are now the trade paperback covers for the Italian and American editions of The Last Unicorn.

This is terribly appropriate, because it was The Last Unicorn that made Rebekah want to be a visual artist in the first place. When she was 13 she read the book, loved it, and wanted to make the pictures she was seeing in her head. Rebekah had never drawn and never painted, but there was this cheap paint utility program bundled in with his family's home PC, so she started to experiment...and over the next four years, creating exclusively with a mouse and that same cheap paint program, she learned to make miracles. Now she is just turning 20, and at Peter's request has begun work on a new series of color pictures for a high-end, fully-illustrated edition of the book that so clearly binds both their imaginations.

All of the images below are available as prints (in several formats and sizes) and computer wallpapers from Conlan Press.

Peter's Thoughts on Rebekah

The only reason I can possibly assign to Rebekah Naomi Cox's truly scary ability to reach into my head for the images that haunted me when I was writing The Last Unicorn — considering that she wasn't born at the time, and wouldn't be for more than 20 years — is that we were both meant for delivery to a different planet than this one. Growing up, I never subscribed to the common children's fantasy that my real royal mother and father were out somewhere searching for me, and would one day find me. Nope, I always knew I had the best possible parents for the weird kid I was. The planet was another matter. Where the planet was concerned I was some kind of alien. I didn't belong here, and never would, and was just going to have to fake it the best way I could, stealing a side-glance now and then, to see if I was doing things like real people.

I think it must have been much the same way for the tiny, elfin, otherworldly Rebekah: how else can I begin to explain the astonishing exactness with which she has rendered the Unicorn's world as I imagined it, from the Unicorn herself — magically beautiful, yet just a little funny-looking, as I described her — to the timeless lilac wood; the magnificently pitiless rage of the captive Harpy; the incarnate terror, barely contained in an earthly shape, that is the Red Bull; the earnest innocence of Prince Lir scribbling his love poems. I didn't give her a great deal to work with: how did she capture the new joy of the blooming Molly Grue, bathing her feet in a stream? That scene's not in the book, nor the movie, no more than the loneliness of the Lady Amalthea as she reaches toward the unicorns in the clouds; where did that shy little kid find them, if not in herself? And, somehow, in me?

Readers have asked me often over forty years whether I actually believe in unicorns. I can't say I do; and yet I know that there must be unicorns on the planet that Rebekah Naomi Cox and I both come from. Why else would I have been so fascinated with them since my earliest childhood? Why else do I always find myself returning to Rebekah's stunningly lovely vision of the Unicorn in moonlight?


Peter's Thoughts on the Individual Pictures


The Unicorn Lived in a Lilac Wood

The Unicorn Lived in a Lilac Wood, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005 (minor revision 2007) — now the
wraparound cover for the new 40th Anniversary Edition of The Last Unicorn (Roc)

Out of the hundreds of drawings and sketches of the Unicorn that I've been sent or given in the last 40 years, almost none have ever indicated the timeless forest in which she dwells — and certainly none with the sure grace with which Rebekah Naomi Cox approaches it here. I've always imagined this scene as the edge of the Unicorn's realm, from which I'm sure she must have contemplated the world beyond from time to time, without once imagining that someday she would be compelled to enter that world and leave her timeless tranquility behind.


The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

I stress in the very earliest paragraphs of the novel — and in the follow-up story, 'Two Hearts' — that unicorns look nothing at all like horned horses; and, further, that while magically beautiful, they are also, from certain angles and under certain circumstances, just a little funny-looking. Rebekah is the only artist who has ever captured this.


Prince Lir's Poetry

Prince Lir's Poetry, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

This is the only image in which Rebekah has utilized an element that is not of her own making: in this case, the celebrated Unicorn Tapestries from the Cloisters Museum in New York (which I always insisted on being taken to see when I was small). It's a bit hard to conceive of a room this elegant anywhere in King Haggard's tacky castle, but I love Lir's totally-involved earnestness as he scribbles. Look closely from the other side, and I'll bet you could see his tongue unconsciously stuck in the corner of his mouth.


The Harpy Celaeno

The Harpy Celaeno, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

This is exactly the way I imagined my story's harpy, while typing in the back bedroom of my writing shack in the Santa Cruz hills. Exactly. She terrified me while I was writing her, and she terrifies me still today, looking at this picture. That Rebekah can make images this fierce as this while also being able to capture the grace and calm of the unicorn simply amazes me. I once kidded her about it: someday, I pointed out, she would be at a convention signing prints of her artwork, and there would be two long lines of people at the table — one of every-day fans gushing over the beauty of her work, and another made up entirely of ex-cons, Hell's Angels, and kneebreakers, each one and swooning something like 'I love your harpy, man' as he finally made it to the front of the line and got a chance to show her some monster tattoo taken straight from her art..


Molly Grue

Molly Grue, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

This image touches me deeply, precisely because there's no comparable scene in the book or the movie. What Rebekah has done is to capture something I implied but never illustrated: Molly Grue's new, and totally unaccustomed, joy as she follows the Unicorn deeper and deeper into a land where the only thing blooming is Molly herself. Again I wonder — how'd the kid know?


TheLady Amalthea

The Lady Amalthea, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

This is a scene that exists neither in book nor film (though we do see some clouds briefly form a unicorn in the movie). I never imagined the Lady Amalthea — more and more human, more and more distraught and lonely, constantly plagued by terrible dreams out of another life — yearning toward visions of unicorns lost in the clouds. I never conceived of this...but I should have. I also love the ambiguity of the picture's apparent angle. At first glance she is obviously looking at the sky. But it is all too easy to imagine that no, here on Haggard's warped and twisted battlement we're actually looking over and down, and all that distant white is actually the writhing of captured unicorns in a mist-shrouded sea...


The Red Bull

The Red Bull, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005

What impresses me most about this image of incarnate rage and nightmare terror is that it is barely contained within an earthly shape: the viewer has the sense that it is about to burst free of form, like a forest fire overleaping pitiful human attempts to control it. It isn't a Bull; it never was. Rebekah understands this all the way down.


Moon Unicorn

Moon Unicorn, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2005 — now
the cover of the Italian trade paperback of The Last Unicorn

This is, for me, the most stunningly lovely vision in Rebekah's portfolio. It is at once the picture I always held to, laboring endlessly over the book; and yet it is something more, as well — something that I don't think I could have articulated in words then, and never may. All I know to say now is, yes, that's what I had in mind, yes, though I never expected I would ever see it outside the boundaries of my own imagination.

Schmendrick & Molly

Schmendrick and Molly, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2007

These are sketches, but deeply alive all the same. Molly hasn't yet arrived at the soul and character she will have, bathing her feet in the stream...but Schmendrick already has the unmistakable expression that speaks of a very long lifetime of failures, disasters and repeatedly dashed hopes. If there were a road sign for 'Doom Just Ahead,' that face would be it.


Molly Grue and the Unicorn

Molly Grue and the Unicorn, by Rebekah Naomi Cox, 2007

This is, perhaps, my favorite of all these images. It isn't the Molly Grue of the book, of course: it's a very young Molly, an alternate-universe Molly: one who will never have to cry out in the bitter anguish of a woman worn weary by a life as an outlaw, 'How dare you — how dare you come to me now, when I am this?' It also happens to be a self-portrait of Ms. Rebekah Naomi Cox. At any age, in any age, unicorns will always come to put their heads in her lap.


[Peter S. Beagle]