Sunday, June 23, 2024

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn


Opening Passage:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, although she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. (p. 1)

Summary: A unicorn living alone in a wood overhears a conversation by hunters, who mention that she is the last of the unicorns. So she heads out to find out if it is true, and what has happened to the others. On her journey she discovers that men and women can usually no longer see her as a unicorn, and flippant, frivolous butterfly happens to mention a rumor that the unicorns were all hunted down by the Red Bull of King Haggard.

While sleeping, she is captured by an old witch, Mommy Fortuna, who runs a carnival show purporting to display magical beasts. Most of the beasts are in fact ordinary, just enchanted to look like mythical creatures; but even the two magical beasts who are real, the unicorn and the deadly harpy Celaeno have to be presented under an illusion so that people can see what they really are. With the help of a young-looking and bumbling magician named Schmendrick, the unicorn escapes her cage and sets all of the animals free -- including her immortal enemy the harpy, who tries to kill her but finds a target to whom she gives a higher priority: Mommy Fortuna herself, the witch who had by luck and magic imprisoned her. 

Schmendrick and the unicorn through several adventures happen to fall in with a gang of bandits under Captain Cully, one of whom is a woman named Molly Grue. When Schmendrick happens to do real magic that summons up the spirits of Robin Hood and his merry men, Cully's gang falls into chaos, as even these bandits have their ideals and dreams and have been thinking of themselves as the real counterparts of the legendary Robin Hood. But Molly Grue, who can see the unicorn, joins the unicorn and Schmendrick on the journey to the land of King Haggard, which is a desolate land except for the town of Hagsgate, a town cursed with superabundant prosperity in the middle of an ever more barren wasteland, and King Haggard's castle, made by a witch.  The Red Bull hunts the unicorn, and to save her Schmendrick does real magic that turns her into a human maiden, which fools the Red Bull, and so they come to King Haggard's castle, where Haggard lives with his adopted son, Prince Lír. But time is running out; turning an immortal creature like a unicorn into something human and mortal is a terrible thing, and the longer the unicorn stays human, the more likely it becomes that the world will never know a unicorn again.

In this reading of the book, I was struck by how much the magic of the book functions like art, and the magicians like artists, and I don't think that this is a coincidence. Many artists are like Mommy Fortuna, conjuring up illusions of sublime and eternal things for the masses who can no longer see things as they are. Their greatest achievements are when they stumble by luck on things that are genuinely sublime and eternal; but even then, they must put an illusory horn on the real unicorn, put up a spectacle suggestive of the sublime and eternal, or most people will see nothing out of the ordinary. And Mommy Fortuna's willingness even to die if only to be remembered forever as having once captured and held something immortal, is not far from the artistic pursuit of longlasting fame. Likewise, Schmendrick's experience of mostly doing cheap tricks and minor illusions but sometimes being almost taken over by real magic, full of wonder and love and sorrow almost bigger than a human heart can hold, is not uncommon experience of artists, either.

I also re-watched the Rankin & Bass animated film, from 1982, which is an extremely faithful adaptation. It simplifies a few things, but works hard to keep the essential elements, including the melancholy of the tale. It is obvious that in many ways it was a labor of love. There is an entire animated sequence and song based on The Unicorn Tapestries. Jeff Bridges, who voiced  Prince Lír, actually offered to do the role for free. Christopher Lee, who voiced Haggard (in what is perhaps the second best peformance after Angela Lansbury's Mommy Fortuna), was a fan of the story, and showed up on the first day with a book falling apart from having been read so much, having marked all the passages with Haggard that he insisted the scriptwriters not change at all, willing to walk away if they did. (He later did something similar with another of his favorite books, The Lord of the Rings.) Peter Beagle happened to visit the studio when Lee was recording one of Haggard's main speeches, and Lee offered to re-do it as many times as was needed until it was exactly how Beagle wanted it. The passion that went into it is what makes it rise above its early eighties animation and voice acting style: more than most animated adaptations, more than most adaptations in fact, it captures the story with all of its sad beauty.

The story itself, in fact, is an illusory horn on a real unicorn -- a mix of deliberate buffoonery and lovely razzle-dazzle that packages something much deeper that men and women have difficulty seeing and yet feel must be out there somewhere. Our loves go their humdrum ways, and everything about us is always dying, but sometimes in the things we experience we seem to catch a glimpse, a hint, a suggestion, of something truly splendid and undying and ideal, more beautiful than anything else. For most of us most of the time, we are no different than those who see the unicorn and mistake her for a mare -- but find their dreams haunted by that mare for the rest of their lives. At other times, we see what we take to be a unicorn, and are not wholly wrong; but we are only able to see it because some author has dressed up this story-less thing in a story and thus put an illusory horn upon its head. And at other times, like Mommy Fortuna or King Haggard in their different ways, we seek to possess them, whether for glory or for joy. We ache for the ideal and eternal things. Heroes love them and die for them. But the true, the good, the beautiful: these things give vividness to our lives, and we desire them more than we even know, but these are immortal things, and can never ultimately be possessed by those who are mortal enough to desire them. And if we try, they eventually just run through our fingers like moonlight, for they are the real things, and we are just stories that begin and end around them.

Favorite Passage:

"My lady," he said, "I am a hero. It is a trade, no more, like weaving or brewing, and like them it has its own tricks and knacks and small arts. There are ways of perceiving witches, and of knowing poison streams; there are certain weak points that all dragons have, and certain riddles that hooded strangers tend to set you. 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 at 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." (p. 212)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn, Ballantine (New York: 1968).