It’s a beautiful, lyrical fantasy story about a mythical beast who embarks on a quest in a world that no longer believes in her to find out if she really is the last of her kind.
Published in 1968, The last unicorn by Peter S Beagle spawned an animated film 40 years ago and is a cherished novel that appeals to children and adults alike. But it’s no surprise if you haven’t heard of it. It has not been published in the UK for half a century.
This week it’s finally re-released, the latest in a series of classic fantasy novels to find new audiences thanks to the genre’s prevalence on television and the big screen.
With the game of thrones prequel Dragon House on Sky Atlantic on Monday, Netflix offering a bonus episode of its conquer the world series The sand manand the Lord of the Rings precursor power rings streaming on Amazon Prime Video from September 2, fantasy fans have never been better.
The renewed interest predictably boosted sales of the source material – the DC comics written by Neil Gaiman from which The sand man was adapted topped Amazon’s graphic novel charts, and fantasy novels by Tolkien and George RR Martin topped the fantasy charts again. But increased public appetite is also helping to reissue some lost classics.
In addition to Beagle’s novel, the work of other writers is reprinted, including novels by John M Ford The Waiting Dragon and Grow in weightlessnessThe fairy fantasy of Hope Mirrlees in 1926 Lud-in-the-mistand Antonia Barber The ghostswhile books like Arab Fantasy The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Womanand delightfully bizarre Japanese author Yukio Mishima Beautiful star recently had their first publications in English.
Beagle, 83, fought a six-year battle to recover the rights to his works in an elder financial abuse case that was resolved last year. Now, it seems, is the perfect time to settle that 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 United States, this book is standard fantasy, much like Narnia is to us, but the issues around rights, especially who controlled them, were very complex. We all had to wait while legal discussions continued.
He said interest in the book lately has been helped by BookTok, a corner of TikTok devoted to reading. “The fact that generations of primarily American authors have drawn inspiration from Peter’s work means there are champions on social media to help 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 told the Observer that Beagle had had a direct influence on his own work, particularly The sand man.
He said: “The first book by Peter that I read was the magical fantasy of the afterlife, A refined and private place. I fell in love with it, and years later I blatantly stole the idea of a talking crow and put it in Sand seller.
“I really liked The last unicorn. I love that Beagle has reclaimed its IP and is here to reach a whole new audience.
Last Christmas, when Mark Gatiss wrote and produced a new version of the 1972 fantasy film The Incredible Mr Blunden for Sky, this led to the first reissue 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 had been unable to justify republishing it until the announcement of the telefilm arouses interest.
Gollancz has more lost fantasy classics on his schedule, including Ford’s work.
“Genre representation is brilliant right now,” Gipps said of television’s appetite for fantasy. “We all grow up in fantasy, from [Enid Blyton’s] The distant tree from Narnia to Middle-earth, but previous generations have largely, with many exceptions, moved away from it as they grow. It’s always been a popular but niche genre of publishing, hugely loved by those who love it, but often doesn’t reach the wider market. There’s no doubt that fantasy has outperformed in other mediums, never more than it does today, and I’m sure that had an impact.
Claire Ormsby-Potter is editorial assistant to Gipps at Gollancz, and one of those for whom the reissue of The last unicorn was kind of a personal mission.
She thinks the massive production values of the current crop of fantasy streaming shows have helped encourage viewers to seek out novels in the genre that may have been abandoned 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 the Lord of the Rings were so huge in scope and delivery that people could imagine the epic live-action fantasy as something tangible.
“These huge, global franchises have had such a massive impact that they’ve really opened the door for people to give fantasy fiction a chance when they might have given it up before.”