It’s a lyrical, beautiful fantasy tale about a mythical beast who embarks on a quest to discover if she really is the last of her kind in a world that no longer believes in her.
Released 1968, The last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle spawned an animated film 40 years ago and is an cherished novel that appeals to children and adults alike. But it’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of it. It has not been published in the UK for half a century.
Finally re-released this week, the latest in a series of classic fantasy novels that are finding new audiences thanks to the spread of the genre on television and the big screen.
With the game of Thrones precursor house of the dragon Netflix launches on Sky Atlantic on Monday, offering a bonus episode of its world-conquering series The Sandmanand Lord of the rings precursor The Rings of Power Streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting September 2nd, fantasy fans have never had it so good.
The surge in interest has predictably boosted sales of the source material – the DC Comics written by Neil Gaiman The Sandman was adapted, topping the Amazon graphic novel charts, and Tolkien and George RR Martin’s doorstep fantasy novels are back at the top of fantasy lists. But viewer audiences’ increased appetites are also helping to bring some lost classics back to print.
In addition to Beagle’s novel, the work of other authors will also be reprinted, including the novels of John M. Ford The Waiting Dragon and Grow up weightlessHope Mirrlees’ 1926 fairy fantasy Lud in the fogand Antonia Barbers The ghostswhile books like the Arabian Fantasy The story of Princess Fatima, warriorand Japanese author Yukio Mishima is delightfully offbeat Pretty star have recently released their first English language releases.
Beagle, 83, fought a six-year battle to regain the rights to his works in an elder financial abuse case that was resolved last year. Now, it seems, is the perfect time to clear that up and republish his book.
“It’s one of the quirks of publishing that a book can be an absolute classic on one side of the Atlantic and almost unknown here,” said Marcus Gipps, publishing director at Gollancz. “In the US, this book is a standard for fantasy, much like Narnia is for us, but the issues surrounding rights, particularly who controls them, were very complex. We all had to wait while the legal discussions went on.”
He said interest in the book has recently been boosted by BookTok, a corner of TikTok dedicated to reading. “The fact that generations of mostly American authors have been inspired by Peter’s work means there are pioneers on social media helping us spread the word, including Patrick Rothfuss and Neil Gaiman.”
Rothfuss, author of best-selling fantasy novels such as The name of the wind, wrote an introduction to the new edition. Gaiman said that observer that Beagle had a direct impact on his own work, particularly The Sandman.
He said: “The first book of Peter I read was The Magical Fantasy After Death, A beautiful and private place. I fell in love with her and years later stole the idea of a talking raven and put it in her sandman.
“I really want to The last Unicorn. I’m thrilled that Beagle has gotten its intellectual property back and that it’s out there to reach brand new audiences.”
Last Christmas when Mark Gatiss wrote and produced a new version of the 1972 fantasy film The amazing Mr. Blunden for Sky this led to the first re-edition in 30 years of the book on which both productions were based, The ghosts by Antonia Barber, first published in 1969. Donna Coonan, editor at Virago, had fallen in love with the book a decade earlier, but could not justify republishing it until the announcement of the TV movie sparked interest.
Gollancz has more lost fantasy classics on his schedule, including the work of Ford.
“The genre representation is brilliant at the moment,” Gipps said of television’s appetite for fantasy. “We all grow up with imagination, from [Enid Blyton’s] The distant tree to Narnia to Middle-earth, but previous generations, with many exceptions, have largely strayed from it as they grew. It has always been a popular but niche genre of publishing, deeply loved by those who love it but not often catching on in the wider market. There’s no doubt that fantasy has outperformed in other media, never more than today, and I’m sure that had an impact.”
Claire Ormsby-Potter is the editorial assistant of Gipps at Gollancz and one of those responsible for the re-publication of The last Unicorn was something of a personal mission.
She believes the tremendous production values of current fantasy streaming shows have helped encourage viewers to seek out novels in this genre that may have fallen by the wayside over the years.
She said: “I think the scope of what studios can do has really proven itself in modern live-action adaptations of fantasy novels. game of Thrones and Lord of the rings were so large in scale and execution that people could envision epic fantasy in live action as something tangible.
“These massive global franchises have had such a massive impact that it’s really opened the door for people to give fantasy novels a chance when they might have written them off before.”