The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a special book to me. It encapsulates much of what I love in stories: great characters, beautiful writing, tragedy, love, heroism, and an exploration of the human spirit and nature. I’ve read the book many times, and each time, I relearn why it captured my imagination and heart all those years ago.
As such, because I’ve read it several times and can no longer recall my initial reactions, this read will be a little different than usual. Instead of putting much, if any, focus on reader reaction and response, this read will dig a much deeper than usual into the whys and ways Beagle pulls off a story that still enchants today. But, as always, the main purpose of this read will be to explore a great book and endeavor to learn to be better writers.
Normally, I’d cover two or three chapters a week, but since I want to deeply explore the writing, structure, and mechanics of this book, we’ll tackle one chapter a week to keep these posts from going far beyond a thousand or two words. I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Last Unicorn so you can follow along and make your own observations. Plus, it’s a fantastic story.
Summary: The unicorn lives peacefully in her wood that is always spring and where life flourishes. She has no care for time or love, though watching the animals experience it intrigues her. She has no thought toward the world beyond, for why should she? She is a unicorn: immortal, beautiful, separate. But one day, a pair of hunters come to her wood, looking for deer. They soon turn away, for the eldest of them mislikes the feel of a unicorn’s wood and decides they’ll find no game there. But before they leave, she overhears them say that there are no more unicorns, that she is the last. This revelation disturbs her, and she finds no peace after. At last, she decides she much go in search of her kind and leaves her beloved forest onto a cold, moonlit road that appears endless.
Writer Comments: As I said earlier, we’ll dive deeper into what makes this book work, so I’ll cover multiple aspects of writing in each section.
To begin with, take a look at the opening few paragraphs:
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 still moved like a shadow on the sea. She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs. Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest where there is a pool clear enough for them to see themselves--for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creature in all the world, and magic besides. They mate very rarely, and no place is more enchanted than one where a unicorn has been born. The last time she had seen another unicorn the young virgins who still came seeking her now and then had called to her in a different tongue; but then, she 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. One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer. (pages 1-2)
Normally, opening a book with the description of the main characters is a gamble. There are, of course, examples, like this one, where it works well, but much of the time, opening with describing the protagonist dangerously courts tedium, boredom, and the risk of swiftly losing readers and sales.
So, why does this work now?
At first glance, it works because the writing itself is enchanting. Beagle’s style in this books is lyrical, haunting, and suggestive of fairy tale. It harkens back to all those stories we knew as children that began with, “Once upon a time...” Beauty in writing can be a draw in and of itself. Naturally, if there is nothing more to it than the lyrical melody of words, at some point, readers will lose interest, but for this, it’s enough to encourage us to keep reader and to enchant us.
But there’s more going on here than lyricism. If you look closely, the description is full of contrasts, and as I’m said many times before, contrasts are essential for engaging fiction. Notice that, in this excerpt, while the unicorn is immortal and changeless, time does in fact impact her. How else would her color have gone from sea foam to moonlit snow? Further, in this idyllic scene, we see elements that humans--readers--generally consider anathema to any form of utopia: aloneness, death, and old age. Beagle slides them into the overall beauty that, unless you read closely, this is easy to miss. However, we read on multiple levels. Even while our conscious mind registers the obvious layers of a story, our subconscious soaks in details, mood, and tones which enrich the whole experience.
And, finally, even while Beagle describes a creature foreign to our experience, an element that can also draw us in with intrigue, he anchors us with human emotions. He taps our primal core of feelings and fears with those references to things we fear: loneliness, old age, and death.
Together, all these combine into a powerful opening that sets the mood of enchantment, darkness, and beauty that pervade the story as a whole. Though this takes most of the first two pages, he does one more important thing: He disrupts the idyllic scene with the arrival of two hunters, who functionally bring the change needed to drive the plot--more about that shortly--and figuratively represent the fact that, though the unicorn is immortal and apart, the world can and will still touch and impact her.
Going beyond these first few paragraphs, let’s take a closer look at the arrival of the hunters and their news. It is, in essence, the inciting incident, the thing that changes so that the story can even exist. There is little moving about a unicorn in a wood, at least, past the first, “Oh, that’s pretty and nice.” Stories need disruption, conflict, and a constant sense of unfulfilled desire. So, as soon as possible, authors must inject this into stories. Beagle uses the hunters to bring the unicorn something powerful enough to rock her from her world and drive her to action and into conflict: the news that she may be the last of her kind. Imagine that. Imagine if you found out that you were the last human in the world. Wouldn’t that drive you to action? Wouldn’t you have to know for certain that it was true? Wouldn’t some powerful need within you seek out for proof? This is a powerful motivation that readers can identify with easily. Utter aloneness is a frightening prospect.
Before we move onto the next scene, let’s take a look at this first scene as a hole. Scenes are normally broken up by a change in location or time. However, I would argue that this first scene’s perimeters are not defined by a change in time, and only a little by a shift in location. This first scene is timeless in its beginning and covers a range of days, perhaps weeks, in its later part. But that fits an immortal unicorn, doesn’t it? Rather, the element that determines the end of this scene is an internal change in the unicorn. Beagle must take her from timelessness to touched by events and time. The scene concludes when the unicorn leaves her woods and steps into the wider world. Time is not so important, save that it begins to become a factor. Location is somewhat important because she must leave her forest to begin the quest and story. But an internal shift in the character is what really concludes the scene, when she chooses to take that first step out of her woods and into a life not known by unicorns. The thing to take from this is that, while changes in time and location are important for changes in scene, they are not always the only factors.
Summary: The unicorn travels long and far, through seasons and many lands. Normally, she stays out of sight, but once, she lets a gardener see her. He mistakes her for a beautiful white mare and tries to catch her, but being mistaken for a horse greatly offends her. She flees in a fury, but the encounter disturbs her. Has everyone forgotten unicorns? Can’t anyone see her true nature anymore? If no one recognizes her, does that means that all other unicorns are indeed vanished?
Then, one day, a butterfly joins her briefly, singing nonsense composed of pieces of songs and poetry haphazardly strung together. At long last, the butterfly identifies her as a unicorn, and she’s thrilled. She begs the butterfly for news of her people. Where are they? After much more wading through nonsense, the butterfly at last reveals that:
“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.” (page 13)
But the butterfly says no more, and the unicorn isn’t certain anything he did say had any meaning. After all, butterflies will repeat anything. Just because he mentioned a unicorn doesn’t mean he actually saw her as one.
Writer Comments: Only a few pages into the book, Beagle already sets up foundational elements to the story. Obviously, the main quest of the story is to find out what happened to the other unicorns. However, there’s much more going on than that. The unicorn’s identity also becomes a major plot and character point. Here, Beagle establishes that the truth is elusive. Practically everyone sees her as a beautiful white mare. Her offense at the prospect of being mistaken for a horse makes it quite plain that being a unicorn is crucial to her sense of identity. Keep this in mind as we progress throughout the story. Her identity becomes extremely important.
Both as a narrator and as a source of information, writers can choose a reliable or an unreliable source. In this instance, Beagle chooses what appears to be an unreliable source, a butterfly that randomly strings together poetry, songs, dictionary definitions, and bits of petty conversation. However, despite this appearance of unreliability, Beagle tips us off that the key pieces of information about the unicorns and the Red Bull are in fact reliable by having the butterfly grow quite serious when he says them, contrary to his typical manner. So take from this a few things: 1) Just because a character is whimsical doesn’t necessarily mean that he is in fact an unreliable narrator or source of information. That can conversely be applied to a character who seems quite solid and certain. 2) Especially if the information is important to the story and you’re not trying to give red herrings, tip the readers off that the information is genuine. In this instance, Beagle uses an alteration in the butterfly’s manner that draws the unicorn’s attention.
With this, Beagle figuratively drops bread crumbs. All secrets in a story must be alluded to. All twists should have shadows that tip the reader off before they happen. All plots are build with little parts that create a large masterpiece. Beagle drops his bread crumbs of plot and clues. The hunters mention that the unicorn is the last of her kind. The gardener doesn’t recognize her, but sees her as a mere mundane horse. And the butterfly tells her of the Red Bull that chased all the unicorns away. Each builds on the last.
Finally, consider how you establish setting. Beagle never says that this story takes place on Earth. This is a fantasy tale and could therefore take place anywhere, but Beagle hints well enough at the setting that we know it is Earth. The butterfly mentions Earth legends like Thor and the Fenris wolf. He quotes bit of real world poetry and song. Later, there’s a reference to Robin Hood. Setting can come in sprinkles that ultimately create a colorful tapestry. But notice that Beagle doesn’t take a moment aside to explain that this is Earth. Rather, he drops in setting details where they naturally come up in conversation and in the current world with which the unicorn interacts.
Summary: That night, the unicorn lies down to sleep in the grass. Deep in dreams of her forest, she slumbers through the arrival of a caravan of nine black-draped wagons belonging to Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival, where creatures of night come to light. Mommy Fortuna herself, an old witch, identifies the unicorn for what she is and places her in a sleep from which she won’t awake unless she is touched. She asks her companions, Rukh and a magician, what they see. Rukh identifies the unicorn as a horse, but the magician hesitates before answering. When he at last also calls the unicorn a horse, Mommy Fortuna accuses him of lying, perhaps, she sneers, out of kindness. She commands them to deconstruct one of the cages, then rebuild it around the unicorn without touching her with their hands. She wants the unicorn for her show, so the men get to work and barely finish the cage in time. Dawn comes, waking the unicorn, and she rises, surrounded by iron bars, “her low head swaying like the head of an old white horse,” (page 18).
Writer Comments: Despite the precedent Beagle has established thus far, here, he has two characters recognize, specifically two humans, recognize the unicorn for herself: an old witch and a magician. Perhaps this is because they are both wielders of magic. Perhaps it’s because of something else. However, the clue Beagle gives the readers is that these people are important. There are many ways to clue readers into this fact. Naming characters is perhaps the most common. However, having those characters rise above the norm and defy the expected is another.
Beagle gives other clues in this scene too. Primarily, he suggests the magician’s true character. At first, the magician might appear an antagonist. After all, he arrives in the company of a woman who captures the unicorn for her own selfish purposes, and he helps in the capture. Too, Beagle establishes an air of darkness in how he describes the Midnight Carnival with black drapes and arriving by night. However, when Mommy Fortuna mocks the magician for the suggestion that he shows kindness by lying about the unicorn, we’re tipped off that, perhaps, he is much more than he first appears.
Lastly, look at the final line of the chapter:
The two men slipped hurriedly away, but the tall magician looked back in time to see the unicorn rise to her feet and stare at the iron bars, her low head swaying like the head of an old white mare. (pages 17-18)
Chapter endings are just as important as chapter openings. Ideally, an author wants to intrigue the readers so much that they’ll go ahead and read that next chapter. An author has truly succeeded when a reader does this with every chapter and loses a night of sleep for it.
However, take this last sentence as an example. It does a great many things that tug a reader onward.
1) It sets up the conflict of the next chapter. The unicorn is captured and in the hands of someone dangerous.
2) Once more, Beagle brings in the question of the unicorn’s identity and the impact of the world on her. After a chapter full of her taking offense at the very prospect of being mistaken for a horse. Now trapped by iron and magic, she begins to take on some semblance of the horse, and with this, Beagle suggests the power of the world to impact her. And, in that, he tells us that, despite her immortality, she is indeed quite vulnerable, and that is a frightening thought.
3) He ends with a small glimmer of hope. The magician looks back, and in Beagle’s description, he implies that the magician feels pity for her. His description of her head swaying low and the suggestion on an old white horse is an image designed to draw sympathy. Who wouldn’t want to help such a weary and beaten creature? Naturally, he isn’t saying that she has become this aged, mortal thing, but that the magician can see her as some like that, to be pitied and rescued, inspires readers to hope that he’ll be driven to action on her behalf.
4) Too, Beagle plays on the fear he establishes in that first scene. Is the unicorn truly the last of her kind? If so, how much more of a tragedy is it that she is now caged and diminished? He opens with this fear, ratchets it up, then leaves us hanging with it highlighted darkly, and that drives us onto the next chapter.
And all that is done in one sentence. Recall what I said about reading on a conscious and unconscious level. The words themselves in this last sentence do not actually state all that, but especially coupled with the events and nuances of previous scenes, they imply a great deal that works in the subconscious mind to build the depth the story provides.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. To check out other books I’ve read and broken down for the purpose of writing insights, click here. And be sure to swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.