Peter S. Beagle,
The Last Unicorn
(Viking, 1968; Roc, 2011)

T.H. White,
The Once & Future King
(Collins, 1958; Ace, 2011)

Great news! The good people at Viking Press have released beautiful new editions of two of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn and T.H. White's The Once & Future King. If you have read these novels, you'll want to read them again, and if you haven't made their acquaintance, this is an opportunity you won't want to pass up.

The Last Unicorn has been sampled by a lot of people in a lot of different formats. First published in 1968, has sold more than 4 million copies and has been translated into more than 20 languages. In 1982, it was made into an animated movie and in 2010 it appeared in a series of comic books, which have recently been reissued in graphic novel form. It's a story that many people know and love, and now it is back in its original format.

The novel tells the story of a unicorn who, afraid she is the last of her kind, hears that the other unicorns have been rounded up in a distant land where they are guarded by the Red Bull. She sets out to discover if this story is true and, if it is, to free her fellow unicorns. The novel, then, is, like so many of the great fantasies, the story of a quest.

The unicorn, accompanied by a magician named Schmendrick and Molly Grue, journey to the kingdom of King Haggard, who is the master -- or the servant, it's a complicated relationship -- where she undergoes a series of incredible adventures that lead to her final encounter with the Red Bull.

If Beagle's plot doesn't transfix you, which it probably will, his supple and seemingly effortless prose, which is a beautiful and seamless blend of formal old-fashioned folktale language and contemporary English, will. The Last Unicorn was recognized as classic early on; this new edition simply reinforces that reputation.

The Once & Future King, which retells the legend of Arthur and the Round Table, is actually four novels in one. Part one, The Sword in the Stone, originally published in 1938, is the most familiar to many because of the Disney animated film. It tells the story of Arthur as a boy, dramatizing his raising by his foster father Sir Ector and his initial training by Merlin, who teaches him about life by turning him into different animals. Each of the transformations teaches Arthur a lesson that he will need to know in order to become a good king.

Part two, The Queen of Air & Darkness, introduces the villains of the story: the Orkney clan, led by Arthur's half-sister Morgause. The young king faces and beats down rebellions. Merlin, however, teaches him to build a framework for peace: the Round Table.

The third part, The Ill-Made Knight, temporarily leaves the story of Arthur to focus on Sir Lancelot and Queen Gueneve's affair. It dramatizes not just the love story between the two, but the effects their love have on the kingdom and how it drives a crack into the unity of Camelot.

And that leads to part four, The Candle in the Wind, which brings together all of the previous stories and describes the war between Arthur and his son, Mordred, which leads to the downfall of Camelot.

If your knowledge of the story comes from the Disney movie, you'll be amazed at how far that film deviates from its source material, both in story and tone. You'll also be amazed at how deep, profound and dark the entire story is. There is a steady movement from light to dark. It begins in a lighthearted, almost parodistic manner and gets progressively more complicated and dark as it goes on. It is, after all, the story of a lost paradise, one that is destroyed by the fact that everyone who inhabits it is human.

This is one great book, a true epic that should be read and re-read by everyone.

Both of these novels are books that belong in every library. It's wonderful to have them back in these attractive and well-edited volumes.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

11 August 2012

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