by Peter S. Beagle
“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone” (Beagle, 1).
word of warning: Spoilers are contained below, so if you’ve never read The Last Unicorn I would recommend not reading below the cut
What can I say about The Last Unicorn? From the moment I read the first sentence of the Amazon preview I was hooked. There’s an immediacy to it that snares me. It may be the rhythm of the words or visual and aromal sensations called up by lilacs. Or maybe a bit of both. But I think most of all, it’s the daintiness (evoked by the short sentence and “lilacs”) interposed on the fact she is alone. Why is she alone? And that question, coupled with the prettiness, pulls me in every time.
Additionally, there’s just something so poetical and lyrical about the writing. I’m normally not one to notice such style, though I have been known to adore pretty writing – i.e. writing that evokes a pretty or vivid visual in my head. That’s here too, but I was struck how the words themselves seemed to have flow to them. I think it helped lure me into the story.
On a personal level, there’s so many subjects addressed in The Last Unicorn that mean the world to me. Before I get into those, I want to mention that in my re-read, I noticed other themes: death, immortality, illusions, true self, and possession vs inspiration. Someday I may write more about them and how they manifest in the story. Until then, here’s some of the subjects that mean the world to me.
First, unicorns. Compared to other mythical creatures, they do fascinate them more than most. I think it has something to do with their range: they can be dainty and vain or deadly and ferocious or kind and ethereal. They can purify polluted water or demand impossible standards of goodness.
In the context of The Last Unicorn specifically, I’ve always been moved by how purity is exemplified in it. It’s not necessary a matter of being strictly nice or good or young or a virgin. I’m not sure I have the words to explain it, except that if the unicorn does come to anyone it’s because of more than her virginal purity or youth. This is best exemplified when Molly meets the unicorn:
“The unicorn made no reply, and Schmendrick said, “She is the last. She is the last unicorn in the world.”
“She would be.” Molly sniffed. “It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue.” She reached up then to lay her hand on the unicorn’s cheek; both of them flinched a little, and the touch came to rest on the swift, shivering place under the jaw. Molly said, “It’s all right. I forgive you.”
“Unicorns are not to be forgiven.” The magician felt himself growing giddy with jealousy, not only of the touch but something like a secret that was moving between Molly and the unicorn. “Unicorns are for beginnings,” he said, “for innocence and purity, for newness. Unicorns are for young girls.”
Molly was stroking the unicorn’s throat as timidly as though she were blind. She dried her grimy tears on the white mane. “You don’t know much about unicorns,” she said” (70).
Whatever it is that allows Molly to make a connection to the unicorn is not due to her youth (as the unicorn will ignore a princess who calls to her later) nor is it due to sexual purity (as I assume is implied by Cully). Yet there it is; there’s something. And I feel like whatever that’s the kind of purity, for lack of a better word, that would attract a unicorn.
Second, heroes. Once the unicorn reaches Haggard’s castle and is transformed, the idea of heroes becomes much more prominent. What a hero represents. Why a hero does what they do. In The Last Unicorn this manifests through romance and inspiration. Lir is inspired by Amalthea. She instills in him a desire to do good, to be brave, to be someone. I suppose I don’t have much to say about this either except that the link between being a hero and wanting to bring goodness into the world resonates with me. This is best summed up by Lir near the end of the book:
“Heroes know about order, about happy endings–heroes know that some things are better than others. Carpenters knows grains and shingles, and straight lines.” He put his hands out to the Lady Amalthea, and took one step toward her. She did not draw back from him, nor turn her face; indeed, she lifted her head higher, and it was the prince who looked away.
“You were the one who taught me,” he said. “I never looked at you without seeing the sweetness of the way the world goes together, or without sorrow for its spoiling. I became a hero to serve you, and all that is like you. Also to find some way of starting a conversation”” (180).
This idea that heroism is linked to inspiration by goodness probably resonates closes to what my best idea of a hero would be. Additionally, the concept that hero, or rather being a hero, is itself a type of profession, with its own skill sets and knowledge, is seriously one of my favorite things.
Third, stories. The book contains a meta analysis of how they go and how they should function. Underlining a lot of the action is the sense that is what happens in stories; there are certain actions that expected to happen. What’s fascinating about it to me is how it’s a story about how stories should work.
In particular, at the end Amalthea no longer feels like she is a unicorn. She wishes to forget the Red Bull and her quest to rescue the other unicorns in favor of marrying Lir. But Lir says no and specifically:
“But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story” (180).
What strikes me is the emphasis on order: there is a way events should happen. And even more so, I’m struck by the emphasis on patterns and that those patterns or order matter. That there is a right kind of way to live life. You cannot achieve the end until you’ve gone through the middle.
It could seem that the story is saying life is a story, which from my experience can lead to disappointment if you don’t feel like you’re following the pattern the way you should. But the ending of The Last Unicorn implies that stories are always moving into new ones, the same way life is always moving into new possibilities.
Furthermore, thinking like a story doesn’t mean you expect life to be a story, it’s that if you have some kind of quest or goal or objective you have to move toward it. Will it follow story patterns? Likely not. Is part of the experience that act of learning, while you move toward your goal? Most likely. But the idea the there is some structure (by which you could take inspiration) and that you can’t stop in the middle, is comforting to me.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968. First Roc Printing, 1999.