(The Unicorn in Captivity, South Netherlands, 1495–1505, tapestry of wool, silk, silver, gilt; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; found here)
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though 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 till moved like a shadow on the sea.
Although this is a classic of American fantasy, I had never heard of it until a couple of years ago when my daughter became obsessed with the animated film of it; I too found it compelling, somewhat to my surprise. It’s what the offspring of Harry Clarke’s imagination would have resembled had it married prog rock and, believe me, that is no bad thing at all. Despite sometimes weak animation and drawing, it is an exceptionally good film.
Despite my enjoyment of the film I held off acquiring the novel for a long time. I had been burned by my experience with The Princess Bride. Friends, please don’t hate me for this, but I disliked that novel intensely. I couldn’t finish it, the tone and the humour, which I found both lumpen and smart-alecky, grated on me so much. I entirely concede that it’s well-plotted, it’s original, I enjoyed the frame story, I appreciated the narrative vigour and ingenuity; I just hated something about the writing. However, I did worry that I had set it up for failure with expectations that were too high. I did not want that to happen with The Last Unicorn. In fact, by the time I actually started Peter Beagle’s novel, my expectations were so low I’d have been grateful if he could string a sentence together.
Good news: he can. Maybe I should try The Princess Bride again, because I was enchanted by The Last Unicorn, which is charming and thoughtful. The plot is fairly simple: a unicorn becomes conscious that all the other unicorns in the world have disappeared and that she is the last, so she starts on a quest to learn what has happened to the others. She is accompanied by Schmendrick, a failed magician working in a freak show, and Molly Grue, the discontented lover of the leader of a forest-dwelling band of outlaws, as she traces the unicorns to the barren castle of King Haggard.
The book is elegaic, nostalgic, and written in a consciously poetic language which deftly remains just this side of overly portentous. (Though there are also nice little jabs of humour that made me laugh.) The unicorn is immortal but experiences the horror of old age through the magic of the old witch, Mommy Fortuna, who runs the freak show, and mortality itself when she is changed into a human:
‘I am myself still. This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me. How can anything that is going to die be real? How can it be truly beautiful?’
On the other hand, being immortal in a world of mortals sometimes leads the unicorn into a sense of dislocation and loneliness:
The unicorn was weary of human beings. Watching her companions as they slept, seeing the shadows of their dreams scurry over their faces, she would feel herself bending under the heaviness of knowing their names. Then she would run until morning to ease the ache; swifter than rain, swift as loss, racing to catch up with the time when she had known nothing at all but the sweetness of being herself. Often then, between the rush of one breath and the reach of another, it came to her that Schmendrick and Molly were long dead, and King Haggard as well, and the Red Bull met and mastered – so long ago that the grand-children of the stars that had seen it all happen were withering now, turning to coal – and that she was still the only unicorn in the world.
She is further troubled by the fact that most human beings cannot see her for what she really is; they mistake her for a beautiful white mare, although they are also disturbed by her. Thus, in the freak show, Mommy Fortuna affixes a fake horn to her forehead before she displays her as a unicorn. Mommy Fortuna knows very well that the unicorn is a real unicorn, but most people can only perceive and understand a fake unicorn. Later, disguised as a woman, the unicorn begins to lose herself and become human in spirit as well as in shape: you become what you appear to be.
In the greenwood, Schmendrick spends an uncomfortable evening with Captain Cully and his outlaws. Cully is preoccupied with his own fame: ‘How do they speak of me in your country? What have you heard of dashing Captain Cully and his band of freemen?’ and Schmendrick lies:
‘They sing a ballad of you in my country [...] I forget just how it goes –’
Captain Cully spun like a cat ambushing its own tail. ‘Which one?’ he demanded.
‘I don’t know,’ Schmendrick answered, taken aback. ‘Is there more than one?’
‘Aye, indeed!’ Cully cried, glowing and growing, as though pregnant with his pride. ‘Willie Gentle! Willie Gentle! Where is the lad?’
A lank-haired youth with a lute and pimples shambled up. ‘Sing one of my exploits for the gentleman,’ Captain Cully ordered him. ‘Sing the one about how you joined my band. I’ve not heard it since Tuesday last.’
In the ballads lies Cully’s chance of immortality and his ‘true’ reputation, sadly not matched by his ‘real’ acts. Far from being a brave and noble outlaw, he is just a petty robber who steals from the poor and pays a monthly tribute to the local mayor to stay out of gaol. Schmendrick conjures a vision of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and the outlaws are so delighted and entranced that they run off through the forest after them, moved but also deceived by art – and yet the deception is a noble as well as a ridiculous deception, the outlaws respond to the beauty and nobility of the phantom Robin Hood even if they can’t respond to the real beauty and magic of the unicorn.
Beagle likes playing little meta games about literature throughout the novel, poking at that fourth wall with asides on heroes and how stories work, never plainer however than in this episode. (And he writes excellent pastiche ballads and songs – it is in fact a very musical book.) He shows himself conscious of his story’s roots in fairy tale and myth – I am writing about a band of outlaws in the forest and look here is Robin Hood, über-outlaw! – and in that consciousness lies a sadness – Robin Hood is not ‘real’ – and a nostalgia – for a time when it was possible to believe in a noble and heroic figure like Robin Hood. Nowadays we can only accept him as a mythical figure, not a ‘real’ person: instead we have the cowardly and venal Cully as a more ‘believable’ character. Beagle’s meta-fictional nods allow him and us to enjoy a fairy tale about a unicorn while still remaining ‘grown-up’ and knowing: they make a magical children’s story into something sophisticated enough for us to read without being mistaken for children ourselves, yet all the time that we are reading we feel sadness that it is not ‘true’ and that we can only see beautiful white mares, not unicorns. Like J.M. Barrie, like A.A. Milne, Beagle mourns the loss of childhood.
(Roelant Savery, Orpheus with Beasts and Birds, 1622, oil on copper; Fitzwilliam Museum, found here)