Sep 19 2020

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The magic is still there, in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. More than half a century after its publication, it’s still lodged partly in a timeless yet post-WWII America and partly in places whose times and locations are much more suspect, nearly pure mythical settings of village and unhappy kingdom and enchanted castle, leavened by characters such as Schmendrick the Magician (could a wizard have a more deflating name?) and the equally grounded Molly. And I suppose magic, enchantment, is one of the things that the book is about, if it has to be about anything beyond its story.

The Last Unicorn

At the point in the tale where Beagle picks it up — pointedly not the beginning, because he tells readers on the second page that unicorns are immortal — she lives amidst enchantment, unselfconscious of her magic, and just as unaware that she is the last. “…[S]he had no idea of months and years and centuries, or even of seasons. It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the great beech trees, keeping watch over the animals that lived in the ground and under bushes, in nests and caves, earths and treetops. Generation after generation, wolves and rabbits alike, they hunted and loved and had children and died, and as the unicorn did none of these things, she never grew tired of watching them.” (p. 2)

One day, hunters enter her woods, looking for deer but talking of unicorns. One says they are long gone; the other says there is one left “good luck to the lonely old thing, I say.” (p. 3) The talk about what the books say about unicorns, about what their great-grandmothers said about having met one when they were very young. Then the hunters ride off, knowing they will bag no game in a unicorn’s wood. But their talk has disenchanted the unicorn:

“The unicorn stood at the edge of the forest and said aloud, ‘I am the only unicorn there is.’ They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.
“That can’t be, she thought, She had never minded being alone, never seeing another unicorn, because she had always known that there were others like her in the world, and a unicorn needs no more than that for company. ‘But I would know if all the others were gone. I’d be gone too. Nothing can happen to then that does not happen to me'” (p. 6)

The seed of doubt, planted, grows quickly. She wonders, she worries, she is under the spell of not knowing and finally decides to leave her woods, leave quickly without fully admitting it to herself, in the hope that she will soon return. When she emerges, she finds the world changed: paved roads, things the reader will recognize as automobiles. But those are not the worst differences for her.

“‘How can it be?’ she wondered. ‘I suppose I could understand it if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated all unicorns now and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else—what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?'” (p. 11)

Magic seems to have gone out of the world. She wanders until one day she meets an eccentric butterfly whose speech makes only a modicum of sense, but who imparts important knowledge: “You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints. Let nothing you dismay, but don’t be half-safe.” (p. 15)

And with that what she had felt is confirmed. Something has befallen the other unicorns, she is truly the last, but maybe she can change that. The rest of the book that is her story is about whether or not she can. But not all of the book is about her. There is also Schmendrick the Magician, who seems to have no ability at all, but actually has more than anyone else if he can only find a way to consciously access it. There is also Molly Grue, who has been a bandit’s wife and who knows the way to Haggard’s kingdom that neither wizard nor unicorn would have known.

They are all seeking, and they all face fear and failure when they get close to what they have sought. There’s more, very much more all in a register halfway between Lyonesse and Schenectady. The book has kept its magic for half a hundred years now, and likely will for many more.

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