Unicorns are objectively one of the coolest mythological animals in (hypothetical) existence. There are a lot of bitter naysayers out there who disagree. In their callous hearts and myopic worldview, they hazard to toss out such misguided phrases as “It’s literally just a magical horse with a horn on its head”. To which I say, “You’re absolutely right, you curmudgeonly cum bucket!” I personally fail to see the insult in this assessment. Are you really trying to tell me that adding magic and horns to any living animal wouldn’t instantly make it more awesome? Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they can’t presently grant wishes or stab my enemies in their genitals. But a dog with a sprinkle of magic and a spear on its head sure can. I am personally fond of otters, but while they’re certainly cute and playful, they can’t take away the chronic bitterness that encrusts my heart, or…well…stab my enemies in their genitals. But an otter-corn is more than capable of both. And while many will point to the Unicorn as typically being associated with young girls between the ages of 3 and 10, I personally would ask such people to stop trying so desperately to make excuses for the abandonment of their own childhood dreams and aspirations, and their insecurity in their own masculinity.
All this is to say, that when I first heard of the book “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle, I felt an immediate compulsion to read it (*Warning, spoilers for a 50-year-old fantasy novel ahead*). If you are unfamiliar with the book (or the drug-induced animated trip-fest film that followed it), the Last Unicorn, quite literally, follows the journeys of a Unicorn who learns from a group of human men that she may be the last of her kind. Upon learning this disturbing rumor, she sets off into the world to discover the truth. She ultimately learns that all the other Unicorns have been captured in a far-off land by a creature known as the “Red Bull”, and with the assistance of a magician she met along the way (Schmendrick the Magician!) she travels to the Castle of King Haggard, where it is said the Red Bull resides. She has several adventures along the way, from killing a wandering fortune teller *who totally had it coming*, to fighting off a gang of dastardly bandits with the help of one Molly Grue, the wife of the bandit leader, who ultimately joins their humble party.
Together, the three of them are able to make it to King Haggard’s castle, where they are instantly attacked by the Red Bull. The Unicorn attempts to run but is unable to outpace the bull’s pursuit. In an attempt to help the Unicorn, Schmendrick inadvertently turns her into a human woman, who from then on goes by the name of the Lady Amalthea. This change confuses the bull, and in its consternation, calls off its own pursuit, and retreats to the sea. With this crisis temporarily avoided, the magician, the bandit’s wife, and the new Lady manage to convince King Haggard to let them serve in his court, as the newly transformed Unicorn struggles with her newfound mortality and attempts to continue her quest of finding the other Unicorns. While there, she is courted by King Haggard’s son, Price Lir. Overcome by Lady Amalthea’s beauty, he sets out to become the greatest hero in the land to impress her and make her want to reciprocate his love for her. He also reveals that King Haggard has trapped all the other Unicorns in the sea, and set the Red Bull to guarding them, because Unicorns are the only thing left in the world that gives him any happiness, and he wishes to keep them for his own benefit.
In the ultimate conclusion to the book, Molly, Schmendrick and Amalthea are able to find the secret entrance to the Red Bull’s lair, at which point they are once more attacked by the bull in a crimson rage. At this moment, Schmendrick is finally able to channel his magic to change Amalthea back into a Unicorn, and the bull again focuses its rage squarely on her. In the midst of the melee, Price Lir jumps in front of the Unicorn in an attempt to save her, and is trampled. In her anger and grief, the Unicorn is at last able to drive the Red Bull back to the sea, free the Unicorns back into the world, cause the castle of King Haggard to come crashing down on top of him, and revive the mortally wounded Prince Lir. In the aftermath, Lir still wishes to follow the Unicorn in her travels, but he must ultimately stay behind to see to his new duties as King. The Unicorn returns to her forest, forever changed by her time as a mortal, and Molly and Schmendrick set off on their next adventure.
Beautiful storytelling through and through.
Over the last view days, the mood struck me to start re-reading this book. And it’s stricken the same chord today as it has the many other times I’ve read it. And my love of Unicorns and magic notwithstanding, I think there are ultimately three things about this book that make me love it so much.
The first is that despite it being essentially a fairy tale, it is ruthlessly insistent that life is anything but. In your typical, lighthearted fairy tale romp, things are usually clean and young and pretty and fine. It captures and makes assurances around the hopefulness of youth, and usually makes good on its promise. When a Unicorn makes its appearance in a story, it is usually to a young girl about to face a life of hardship and woe, but for the magical intervention of the Unicorn! In contrast, the Last Unicorn introduces its Unicorn to Molly Grue. Molly isn’t a young girl about to face a life of toil and troubles. She’s a middle-aged woman who’s already faced it. In the book, when Molly first meets the Unicorn, she gets angry, and tearfully demands of the Unicorn, “Where have you been? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” When Schmendrick interjects that she is the last Unicorn, she follows up by saying, “It *would* be the last unicorn in the world to come to Molly Grue” after which she gently touches the Unicorn and says, “It’s alright. I forgive you“. Man, what a scene. To me, it manages to capture the true essence of why *good* fantasy literature is so compelling in the first place: It’s insistence that life is tragic, but never fully without hope. Molly’s never going to get her fully idyllic fairy tale story. That chance passed her by 20 years ago, and it’s never going to stop hurting. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not still some magic left to capture.
The storyline of Prince Lir is another that truly drives this “ruthless fairy tale” concept home. In a typical fairy tale, the handsome Prince wins the maiden fair. He heroically slays the demons, rescues the Lady from the ills that have befallen her, and is ultimately rewarded with a Princess and a happily-ever-after. The Last Unicorn…kind of goes down this standard archetype. Lir, upon being smitten with the newly transformed Lady Amalthea, sets out into the world to slay the land’s monsters, vanquish his enemies, and win the undying love of the fairest maiden in the land. Only, he doesn’t get the maiden. He gets a dead father, a Kingship he was never super excited about, and the love of his life *literally transforming into a Unicorn and disappearing into the woods*. Hell, he even dies in the process, before ultimately being revived by the Unicorn. Nature and circumstance would simply never have permitted the “happy ending” he was after. As he himself states:
“The true secret in 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 already 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 un-rescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”
Namely, stories go on long after the final page reads “And they lived happily ever after”. Or stated more directly, there can’t be a *happy ending* in the middle of an otherwise unfinished life. In this case, Lir did literally everything he could have done to win the Lady Amalthea. But things have to happen in their own order and in their own time, and those don’t always line up exactly the way we’d like them to. In this instance, the nature of the Unicorn and the unbalanced timing of their lives (and to be fair, generally accepted tenets around the immorality of bestiality) just wouldn’t allow it. As a hero, he understands this, albeit grudgingly. And his insistence on continuing his story *despite this* is a powerful reinforcement of what it means to be human.
And on the topic of morally repugnant fetishes, the second thing that I love so much about this book is in how it approaches the topic of morality. When the book begins, Schmendrick is a fairly powerless and incompetent magician. When he was younger, his former master put a spell on him, rendering him immortal, until he could fully unlock the breadth of his powers. Or as the book more artfully puts it, travel the world, never aging, eternally inefficient “until at last you come to yourself and know what you are”. Namely, he’s a walking magical basket case until he can figure his shit out. And by the end of the book, he does. With the Red Bull bearing down upon the group, he is finally able to unlock his power and transform Amalthea back into a Unicorn, so that she may drive the Red Bull back into the sea. There is then a very compelling conversation between the Unicorn and Schmendrick towards the end of the novel, where the Unicorn asks Schmendrick whether he is happy, now that he has come into his power. Schmendrick replies that he is, but that:
“There are wizards and wizards; there is black magic and white magic, and the infinite shades of gray between – and I see now that it is all the same. Whether I decide to be what men would call a wise and good magician – aiding heroes, thwarting witches, wicked lords, and unreasonable parents; making rain, curing woolsorter’s disease and the mad staggers, getting cats down from trees – or whether I choose the retorts full of elixirs and essences, the powders and herbs and banes, the padlocked books of gramarye bound in skins better left unnamed, the muddy mist darkening in the chamber and the sweet voice lisping therein – why, life is short, and how many can I help or harm? I have my power at last, but the world is still too heavy for me to move.”
Namely, life is short, and in the end nothing most of us do or say, regardless of how good or evil, can really have a lasting impact on the world. *However* when the Unicorn then asks which he will choose, kind magic or evil magic, Schmendrick still says he will choose the kind magic. To me, this has always been particularly noteworthy, especially as someone prone to brooding existentialism and hopelessness. It essentially accepts as given that regardless of how you choose to live your life, the impact you’re going to make is pretty minimal. *But then it still says to do the right thing anyway*. Not because it will bring about the most joy and positivity in the world, but simply because it is *intrinsically right* and doesn’t need a reason greater than that. This is perhaps a simplistic view of morality, but it tends to give me far more motivation to lead a decent life than any pearly white afterlife ever could.
The final thing that’s always stuck out to me about this book is its profound understanding and testament to how absurd it is to be mortal. The Unicorn is not left unchanged from her experience as the Lady Amalthea. Having experienced what it was like to be mortal and being subject to all the pain and loss that comes along with it, she cannot be as carefree or everlasting as she could have been otherwise. She asks Schmendrick whether he will be a good or evil magician, where 250 pages ago she would not have known to even have the thought. What would it matter to her which route he chose? He is a mortal, and no mortal ever did anything of everlasting note or meaning. When he was 5000 years in the ground, the merits of his deeds would have stopped having an impact on the world some 4950 years ago. Things that are eternal need not bother themselves with the ephemeral. Yet now the Unicorn finds herself unable to think past the consequences of a mortal life. She is forced to experience the pain of loss that being mortal necessitates, as well as the joys of life and love that only the short-span of a mortal life can propagate. Is this for the best? I’ve found that answer to be left relatively unclear within the novel itself. I think each of us likely have a very different answer to that question, and need to experience it in our own way.
If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. Fairy tales are powerful tools to give people hope and wonder in a world that sometimes seems to lack both. Most, however, fall short in transcending their meaning beyond a childhood fancy into something that can still provide powerful meaning and insights well into adulthood. Life is hard, and being human is as horrible as it absurd as it is amazing. And to date, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that captures this concept as beautifully as the Last Unicorn.