The Last Unicorn
by Peter S. Beagle
A Magical Tale with Magical Ties
The first and only person I ever fell in love with is a witch who put a spell on me.
Sixteen years later, the spell she wove is still at work on me. Magic broke my heart, and magic I know will also mend it; my recent reading of The Last Unicorn is clearly part of the process.
I have already written enough poetry about her so I will not describe her; but I will say that she was wild and she was beautiful. One evening as we lay together we watched the animated movie entitled The Last Unicorn. She told me she liked the talking cat the most.
I didn't know that the story was originally a book; I didn't know a lot of things back then. My ignorance lasted until just a few weeks ago when I was laying on the carpeted floor of my sister's study, getting lumbar relief from being hunched over a keyboard late into the night, and saw that among the many books on the shelves sat one whose appearance intrigued me: it was a hardcover with no jacket, and its spine was so rubbed as to be nearly illegible.
It belongs not to my sister, but her husband – an avid reader whose collection of literature dwarfs my own my no small measure. I plucked the worn book from the shelf, delighted with the discovery. I took it to bed with me and read the first chapter as my eyes cranked towards sleep and my mind was riding the line between dream and delirium. I got as far as page 11 before I read a single sentence describing a blundering butterfly and I knew that I was hooked:
He glimmered like a scrap of owl-light on her horn.
She being, of course, the unicorn.
I know that blessings come to us, seemingly serendipitous, at exactly the right time that we need them in our lives, if we are open to them. I've had books on my own shelves for years that I haven't yet read; and when I do get around to them, it will be at the exact right time, and when I am precisely at the right stage so that they can get around to me.
We live within a story; most people don't realize this; and magic does exist, but presents itself to those that believe in it. The Last Unicorn, like other artful creations that came before, is a book that is changing me: I am transmuting into what I am meant to be.
That is perhaps the highest praise I can give it.
First and foremost, The Last Unicorn is a fairy tale, and an entirely successful one in that it functions both as literary entertainment, and as a catalytic fable. This is a great book for young adults and children, but its depth and mystique appeals also to mature readers; like the unicorn itself, it has a sparkle that draws the eye, but a spark of immortal truth that only the truest heart can approach.
Simply, the tale recounts the journey taken by a unicorn who learns she is the last of her kind; her blissful ignorance is shattered and she leaves her enchanted forest to search for her kin. It is a simple adventure on the surface, but it plumbs great depths that are murky and complex. It is extremely well-crafted, with just the right hints dropped at the beginning to give the unicorn her impetus, and the reader their interest.
Right Ons & Write Offs
The story has few faults and much worth. Its tone is playful yet its language is serene. Early on, it is obvious Peter S. Beagle is a master wordsmith, and I really get excited when I encounter text that is succinct and rich. Here are two exemplary passages describing King Haggard's land as well as the effect the unicorn has on those who travel with her – something that is summed up by the third passage, a quote from Prince Lir who wishes to win her heart once she has transformed into her human form.
1. The land had grown leaner day by day as they traveled on, and the faces of the folk they met had grown bitter with the brown grass; but to the unicorn's eyes Molly was becoming a softer country, full of pools and caves, where old flowers came burning out of the ground.
2. Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling, “Helpme, helpme, helpme!” and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard's castle. A wet, slow smell found the Unicorn. “Where is the Bull?” she asked.
3. “But what's left on earth that I haven't tried?” Prince Lir demanded. “I have swum four rivers, each in full flood and none less than a mile wide. I have climbed seven mountains never before climbed, slept three nights in the Marsh of the Hanged Men, and walked alive out of that forest where the flowers burn the eyes and the nightingales sing poison. I have ended my betrothal to the princess I had agreed to marry – and if you don't think that was a heroic deed, you don't know her mother...”
The only criticisms I have for The Last Unicorn is that I did not always care for the modern references (judo is mentioned, for example, as well as the A train – inventions that struck me as out of place) and the lifted lines from Shakespeare and Carroll (a butterfly quotes King Lear saying “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!”) which is forgivable once you learn that the butterfly repeats only scraps of songs and poetry that it picks up in its wandering; but it still snagged me out of the story for a moment. Some readers would probably like this sort of thing, though – but I believe that unless it's clear they are quoting the work of another, a writer should omit such things.
It was also somewhat unclear what drives the human characters – but this does not seem to detract much from the story. Schmendrick declares his usefulness when he implores the unicorn to let him tag along, but one never really understands why he feels compelled to do so. Molly, which they meet later, doesn't even ask to join their quest – she just hops on board.
Usually characters aren't believable if their actions happen without proper cause; but in The Last Unicorn, one can imagine that simple proximity to the unicorn could be motive enough. Indeed, creatures of all kinds are drawn to her.
Those that accompany the unicorn, Schmendrick the magician and Molly Grue, are the only two humans who can recognize her for what she is, and in so doing perhaps they acknowledge that they have reentered the stories of their own lives: both are members of disreputable bands before they meet the unicorn, making the best of their miserable lots. Schmendrick even professes to the unicorn that they are in a fairy tale:
“You're in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no. If you want to find your people, if you want to become a unicorn again, then you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard's castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you. The story cannot end without a princess.”
The theme appears to be transformation or, more accurately, growth. In Haggard's land nothing grows, and so nothing changes. He is the opposite force of the unicorn: she never changes but remains immortal so that everything about her might grow and flourish; Haggard seems ageless and endures while all under his dominion withers and wastes away.
Of course all stories need growth for their characters, and this is perhaps little fare for thematic enthusiasts. To elaborate then: this is not just a story consolidating the need for cultivation, it is a blueprint for growth. Haggard's lands are blighted because he doesn't care about anything; the unicorn cares for everything but has no compulsion to understand why. They both lack direction and vision; both of them stayed in their domains where neither grew, not until they were drawn together by the story to receive their reckoning.
What is the vision they lacked?
What else could it be but Love?
There are five principal characters in this story, or perhaps six, maybe as many as seven: it all depends on how you look at it:
1. The Last Unicorn/The Lady Amalthea
A rare and seldom-seen creature of infinite beauty, living in an undying forest, unaware that it is the last of its kind. In some ways it is very easy for you to relate to her: when she learns by chance that all other unicorns are gone from the world, she is compelled to leave her home and begin her search. In other ways, she is impossible to relate to, as an angel would be:
“The unicorn said nothing, and Schmendrick raised his head and stared at her in a strange way. A gray morning rain was beginning to fall, and she shone through it like a dolphin. “No,” she said, answering his eyes. “I can never regret.”
The author is quite crafty in how he gives the last unicorn her story's arc, and he even cleverly includes many hints about this in the text – for a unicorn cannot grow to love or regret as humans can. She is the impetus of the fairy tale, but not truly included in it until she is transformed into her human form: the Lady Amalthea (or, as I like to call her, the Lazy Amnesiac, for she nearly forgets everything about her former shape and present quest). This is the point where the story turns and begins to delve into real depths, for what better way to present existential dilemmas than by placing upon a unicorn the curse of becoming human?
2. Schmendrick the Magician
Although he does portray many heroic qualities, Schmendrick is not the hero of this story – and he knows it. He is closest to the Author's Voice than anything else, as if Beagle longed himself to be closer to the unicorn and so wrote himself into the tale in the guise of this bungling but vastly self-aware magician. It is Schmendrick who relays much information to both reader and unicorn in his way of holding forth easily all the pertinent details that need to be presented. Also, perhaps Schmendrick's endless struggle to find the magic in himself is reflective of the Author's driving need to escort the unicorn in his alter ego toward the end of her story – a struggle that many writers can relate to.
Schmendrick is kind and wise, but you're never sure if he is full of bullsh*t (unlike the Red Bull himself who seems to be full of nothing but piss and vinegar) or if he really knows his stuff. This plays out perfectly, once you learn his secret. There is much more to Schmendrick than meets the eye, as it should be with every magician. In fact, his first actions in the story are rather villainous, as he captures the unicorn in a cage for Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival; but he quickly redeems himself by setting her free again, although not without botching a number of spells in the attempt.
3. Molly Grue
Imagine a virginal maiden who never got to see a unicorn until it was too late.
Molly's back story, and her purpose in this story, are the most unclear of anyone's. All we know about her is that she has become joyless and jaded by a hard life full of bitter disappointments. She is the result of King Haggard's ruin, for she has been deprived of her right. We pity Molly most of all, with her blistered feet and raggedy hair, and we are led to love her as she softens in the presence of the unicorn. The most important detail about her is that she is the only one the unicorn permits to touch her.
At first, I believed that she was created mainly as a foil for Schmendrick; but now I think she is also the Voice of the Reader, screaming to Schmendrick (the Author) when the unicorn is in danger: “Do something! Save her!” In this, she is always true, because she never loses sight of what is righteous in their quest – unlike Schmendrick, who is often muddled in his thinking and full of doubts as he tries to figure out how exactly they are meant to execute the fulfillment of the quest.
4. Prince Lir
Prince Lir is the Fool you see on the Tarot Card at the lip of the precipice, about to go over the edge of the cliff, with the little dog yapping at his heels. Like Schmendrick and Molly, you are not sure what to make of Prince Lir at first; but he, like the others, makes the choice to change, going from slob to soldier, from heralded hero to heartbroken hopeful. The catalyst for this is of course the unicorn:
He had made up his mind, as he explained to Molly Grue in the scullery that evening, nevermore to trouble the Lady Amalthea with his attentions, but to live quietly in the thought of her, serving her ardently until his lonely death, but seeking neither her company, her admiration, nor her love.
In Prince Lir we see the point driven home: that all who encounter the unicorn, epitome of beauty, are inspired to become the best and most beautiful of themselves. All but the last:
5. King Haggard & the Red Bull
It is clear that these two creatures are thematically one and the same – but what are they?
It is never said that King Haggard is a wizard. In fact, until he replaces him with Schmendrick, Haggard employs his own magician. He also hired (but never paid) a witch to create his accursed castle on the cliff by the sullen sea.
Yet Haggard is powerful. He lords over fallow lands, and he commands the Red Bull. He appears at times nearly omniscient, and with the Red Bull acting as his nebulous but surely malicious will, he sometimes also appears omnipotent.
Haggard is like a god, a greedy god that can never be satisfied. He is one who made the Wrong Choice, as all villains essentially are. He chose not to love the unicorns but to try to possess them. He reached out for what he lusted after, and because of it he choked out his own life, and the life of the lands under his dominion.
The enigmatic aura of both the raging Red Bull and the haggard King Haggard suit them well, and make them scary as hell.
This is a magical book – a rare sort of story in which anything can and does happen. Nearly everything is able to speak, not just the unicorn: there is a talking cat, and a bumbling butterfly, and a speaking skull. The refreshing thing about the way these characters are written is that they are not overly anthropomorphized, and it is clear the author was careful about this. The cat says:
“Of course I know. Of course it would be simpler for me to show you. But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.”
It is successful in its tone and style, which is simple and direct, as any good fairy tale should be, but it is also poetic and this allows it to perform its primary function: to convey wisdom to both young readers, who already know the truth but lack the words to express it, and to older readers who have found the words but have perhaps forgotten the truth.
It gets from me the highest possible rating I can give it. I would like to keep this copy if I can, and here is the reason: as I read it, I spotted halfway through a librarian's stamp.
Even though I presently live in Montreal and I borrowed the book from my sister's husband in Ottawa, the library from which this edition had been withdrawn is my hometown which lies about four hundred miles to the west. This is no coincidence. Just as it is no coincidence that the other book I was reading at the same time (which also came just when I needed it) declared at its conclusion that there are two modalities for conscious living, which was summed up in words that I have used myself:
Live in fear, or live in love.
Is it possible that the one I love held this decommissioned library book once in her hands? The Last Unicorn is a gift that I have received well, for I can tell you this:
Love too is a gift; and whenever we embrace it, magic happens.