Week 19–The Last Unicorn

Peter S. Beagle’s classic fantasy novel The Last Unicorn is as unique a book as I’ve ever read.  One might assume that it is nothing special, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a classic.  Also, I was a little embarrassed to be reading a book about a unicorn, because I felt like a third-grader, but was struck by how adult this novel was.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0451450523&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrKnown only as “the unicorn,” the protagonist one day hears a rumor in her forest that there are no more unicorns left in all the world, and she sets out to find even one of her brethren. Along the way she encounters multiple dangers, including a witch who makes magical creatures her prisoners in circus wagons, a king who would imprison her, and the Red Bull, who does the king’s bidding.  She also makes friends, whom she takes with her and who end up aiding her when she must make her last stand.

The entire time I was reading it, I was reminded of The Labyrinth. Ironically enough, this novel was also a movie, made in the 80’s.  There are elements of high fantasy and mythology–for instance, the unicorn aids a harpy to escape the witch.  An air of mystery pervades the entire story, allowing the reader no real hint of what’s to come.  The setting for the final few chapters, where the unicorn must face her greatest fear if she is to save her people from a tragic imprisonment, is a dank castle with towers that don’t stand up straight and a curse upon every brick.  The king in this place, King Haggard, refuses to allow the lighting of lamps, or the singing of songs, the eating of good food, or the hiring of more than four men-at-arms.  The castle, therefore, is a dark, barren, and lonely place, haunted by shadows and dominated always by the ominous rumblings of the Red Bull who sleeps below its foundations. 

At times the narrative is difficult to follow.  There is a good deal of rambling narrative and dialog, but the characters have a dry and sometimes biting wit that is a relief in the midst of a novel that seems to shroud the reader’s brain in a mist of distorted imagery.  Schmendrick the magician and Molly Grue, the friends the unicorn makes on her journey, both have their back-stories which are revealed as the novel progresses, and they develop a great deal from characters with little substance to characters with much.  Schmendrick especially becomes quite an admirable character at the end, though one doesn’t quite know how to feel about him for much of the novel, as his loyalties seem quite divided between the irresistibly beautiful unicorn and his own self-interest.  

Beagle has accomplished something quite interesting in the novel, and it is this point, I believe, which put The Labyrinth in my head to begin with.  He has somehow managed to convey an “aloneness” experienced by all the characters, despite how many others there may be around them.  The unicorn, Schmendrick, and Molly all seem to be isolated from each other by their own life experiences and circumstances.  The tiny village of Hagsgate at the base of King Haggard’s castle has an especially lonely feel to it.  When the trio of protagonists enter its boundaries, it seems almost as if Hagsgate and the castle are the only inhabited places left in the world.  There is never any mention of a large city, only small villages and isolated groups of traveling people: a gang of bandits, a wagon train menagerie, and the village people they meet.  It gave me rather the same feeling I had when I watched Sarah attempt to navigate the Goblin King’s Labyrinth alone, having small favors granted along the way by strangers, but ultimately having to navigate the maze on her own.

There is a lot more that I could write about the novel. I really enjoyed it a good deal.  The humor especially, which was very dark, was appealing, as were the symbolism and imagery, magic and mystery infused into every line of text.  A small novel that’s surprisingly thick with meaning, I’d recommend it to anyone with an adventurous spirit.

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