Welcome into our first box: the beautiful and immortal The Last Unicorn, by the magnificent Peter S. Beagle. (Yes, I love this book). If you haven’t read this, may I strongly recommend it? It has gorgeous writing. It’s a classic of the genre. And hey, it’s one of Pat Rothfuss’s favorites.
Beware all ye who have not read this work, for it shall be discussed as though you have (i.e. spoiler alert!).
Okay, now that you have speed read The Last Unicorn (for the first or umpteenth time), let’s get into it, shall we?
The Last Unicorn is about the last unicorn in the world trying to find out why she is the only one left. She follows a long cold trail, picking up an incompetent magician and an angry middle aged woman on the way, and discovers that the Red Bull drove all the unicorns into the sea. In an effort to save the unicorn from the Red Bull, the magician changes her into a human. After several soaring commentaries on the nature of beauty, mortality, identity, fear, essence, and the unicorn falling in love, she is changed back into a unicorn, defeats the Red Bull, saves and abandons her true love, and releases the unicorns back into the world.
Now, all that, along with the title, can sound sort of corny. In fact, I always feel like I need to disclaim the title, because I can see the pink sparkles starting to glare in potential reader’s eyes. Now this is sort of silly, because the idea of the last unicorn is inherently tragic: there should never be a ‘last’ to an immortal race. Think about the Doctor.
Anyway. Part of what makes this story marvelous is the studied, melodious voice of the prose. Part of the reason Beagle pulls this fairy tale off is his language:
“If I danced with my feet / As I dance in my dreaming / As graceful and gleaming / As Death in disguise-”
“I would enter your sleep if I could, and guard you there, and slay the thing that hounds you, as I would had it the courage to face me in fair daylight. But I cannot come in unless you dream of me.”
“His scimitar smile laid its cold edge along their throats.”
“Wizards make no difference, so they say that nothing does, but heroes are meant to die for unicorns.”
The whole book is like that, and frankly taking it out of context does it severe disservice. So…
Lesson #1: The essential “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White has an excellent section discussing the mystery of why one word order can electrify and the same or similar words in a different arrangement lack punch. Beagle is a master of putting together words into beautiful sentences and the whole book is one great big example.
The last quote I pulled is about heroes and their purpose. This is Prince Lir’s line right before he lets the Red Bull trample him and he dies. Over the course of the story Lir goes from being a rumpled, pleasant, and mildly useless fellow to being a hero. He does it deliberately, decides to go try his hand at dragon slaying and village saving, etc… in an attempt to win the heart of the unicorn in her human form.
It’s an unusual “becoming a traditional hero” story.
Lesson #2: As with the proverbial cat, there is more than one way to make a hero. Awesome unwilling heroes abound, and are part of the Campbellian Monomyth, but in this case being a hero is a means to an end and Lir’s hero’s work is a footnote rather than a focus. It’s self-expression rather than forced by circumstance.
This book’s villains also have strange motivations. The overarching antagonist is King Haggard, and his truly villainous trait is apathy. He loves nothing. A child, a castle, miracles, courtiers, and fools cannot hold his attention for long. Haggard does not care enough to be afraid of anything, which makes him dangerous and frightening. The only thing that it pleases him to possess are unicorns.
No world domination for this villain; he isn’t interested enough to be a sociopath, he doesn’t over react or over compensate. He is greedy in exactly one respect and he can get angry, but usually he does not bother. Looked at objectively, the only great evil he is guilty of is entrapping the unicorns.
And when he falls, as he must, he laughs, “as though he knew it would happen all along.”
Lesson #3: Haggard is an alternative villain. No revenge, no pure evil, no power hunger, no twisted by society. World-weariness makes him a villain. Not your typical motivation, but in this case it works very well.
And finally, Beagle does something unusual with references. Although the world of The Last Unicorn is fantastical, it references the real world.
Early in the story the unicorn encounters a butterfly, who is full of snatches of Shakespeare, Whitman and others. Only slightly further along, is a pseudo folk hero obsessed by the idea that his stories should be “collected” by someone like Mr. Childe (notable for collecting Robin Hood ballads, among other things. Robin Hood and his Merry Men also receive a cameo). Our world does have a large impact on the world of the Last Unicorn, but it does live as a shadow in the imagination of its characters.
Lesson #4: Fantasy blurs a lot of lines. It is built to break a sort of fourth wall composed of our understanding of the world. This particular reality-bend works well in a folktale setting, almost as though your grandmother were inserting anachronistic details off the top of her head. Actually, the other notable book that employs this is the narrator of The Hobbit.
I could keep going on about this book for quite awhile, and this might be one that gets reopened at some point. Thanks all, for sticking with me, and I leave you with this:
Bonus Lesson: The award for the strangest media connection goes to comparing Time Lords and Unicorns. I think there is a compelling essay there. And the lesson is that good stories overlap in odd ways.