Like last Monday, this review and breakdown of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn will be a bit different than my usual reads. Rather than giving a reader and writer response--as I’ve read this book so many times that I’ve forgotten my initial reactions--this read will focus deeply on the makeup of the book itself. What does Beagle do to fashion an engaging and successful story that has endured as a classic of fantasy fiction?
As a reminder, we’d last left the unicorn on her quest to discover if she really is the last of her kind, but a witch named Mommy Fortuna had captured her as a creature for Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival.
To catch up or review the previous part of this read, click here.
Summary: The next day, Rukh, the man who works for Mommy Fortuna, gives a crowd of villages a tour of the legends caged in the carnival: a manticore, a satyr, Cerberus, the Midgard Serpent, Arachne, a harpy, the unicorn, and the demon of old age. The magician, Schmendrick, stands with the unicorn and bids her see beyond Mommy Fortuna’s illusions. The unicorn sees the truth, that the creatures are nothing but common animals the witch has given the appearance of monsters. But not everything is illusion.
The harpy is real. Schmendrick names her as one of the three mistakes Mommy Fortuna has made, the third her capture of the unicorn. Mommy Fortuna barely holds the harpy, and when she escapes, death will come with her, and the unicorn must not be caged. Schmendrick promises to help the unicorn, but flees before he can give details.
Too, Mommy Fortuna’s illusions have some power, even on the unicorn. When Rukh shows the crowd the demon, actually Mommy Fortuna herself, even the unicorn feels old age and death come upon her. For the first time, she feel ugly and frail. She much concentrate to shake herself free, and this fact pleases Mommy Fortuna, who takes it to mean that, despite Schmendrick’s assessment of her “twopenny spells,” she indeed has power.
But the unicorn warns her of the harpy, insisting she much let both the harpy and her go. The harpy will be Mommy Fortuna’s death. And in the course of this conversation, the Red Bull comes up, and Mommy Fortuna identifies him as belonging to King Haggard.
Writing Comments: For this chapter, rather than analyzing plot and character, let’s take a closer look at specific techniques within Beagle’s style.
To begin, Beagle’s style is laden with imagery, simile, metaphor, and other literary techniques. Such things generally exist in fiction, but these days, authors often lean more toward a starker, more direct style that uses far less of them. However, part of the magic Beagle weaves in his lyrical prose comes from the use of simile and metaphor. Here are some examples. Consider how Beagle’s choices impact the images he draws.
The nine black wagons of the Midnight Carnival seemed smaller by daylight and not menacing at all, but flimsy and fragile as dead leaves. (page 19)
Dead leaves make a vivid and disturbing simile that, like much of Beagle’s style, subtly plays on the reader’s subconscious. Dead leaves imply brittleness, something easily strewn and scattered, something that crunches and crumbles at the slightest pressure, but also something irreversible, as harsh and undoable as death.
No creature of man’s night loves cold iron, and while the unicorn could endure its presence, the murderous smell of it seemed to turn her bones to sand and her blood to rain. (page 20)
There are many great things in this sentence. Consider how original and visceral “the murderous smell” of cold iron is. Not only does it help us see how the unicorn perceives, but the description easily slips under our skin and wrinkles our noses. But go to the simile at the end, “bones to sand” and “blood to rain.” Sand cannot support the weight of a unicorn, surely, and like the dead leaves, it is easily scattered in the wind and dispersed to nothing but dust. It too holds a suggestion of death. Rain as an image of blood has as many possible suggested meanings a water, which is rampant with imagery. Water can represent anything from purity to death, but coupling it with a unicorn’s blood brings whole new meaning to it, coupling her immortality and life and the darker suggestions of blood and death. Notice, death is a frequent reference in this story.
mingling with the bright knives of her plumage (page 25)
This refers to the harpy, who is by far the harshest creature int he carnival and eager to murder Mommy Fortuna.
Rukh grinned like a cage himself. (page 25)
The key word here is “cage.” It implies much in this instance. Cage suggests he’s containing his true feelings and thoughts, but it also references his part in keeping these creatures trapped. It also gives a harsh impression of his teeth.
She sat in the dark and croaked a song to herself in a voice that sounded like a saw going through a tree, and like a tree getting ready to fall. (page 28)
This is how Beagle describes Mommy Fortuna appearing as the demon of old age. He uses words that are often associated with aging and death: croak, the image of a tree falling.
“You better check on that damn harpy,” Ruhk said. “I could feel her working loose this time. It was like I was a rope holding her, and she was untying me.” (page 30)
Can you imagine the sensation of being undone as if someone evil were untying your very being? It’s a distinctly unsettling sensation. And that’s why this simile works so well.
Alone in the moonlight, the old woman glided from cage to cage, rattling locks and prodding her enchantments as a housewife squeezes melons in the market. (page 30)
It’s strange to think of the evil witch, Mommy Fortuna, as like an unthreatening housewife, yet Beagle uses this to convey her manner and dutifulness. It’s also a reference that is universal.
She laughed with a sound like snakes hurrying through mud, (page 31)
Ick, but a very effective image full of sensory detail in so few words.
Similes, metaphors, and images, not to mention other literary devices, should be rich, effective, stark, wrenching, sweet, subtle; in essence, whatever they need to be to capture the emotion, sensation, and deeper essence of the events, characters, settings, and props in a story. Don’t worry too much over them in a first draft, but fine tune them in revisions to create depth and precision.
Going beyond typical literary devices, Beagle does something in this chapter that, at first, threw me. It took me a few pages of consideration and analysis to realize why he did it. At times, when Schmendrick speaks to the unicorn, Beagle doesn’t break paragraphs the way they are typically broken for dialogue. Take a look.
The man named Rukh was leading a straggling crowd of country folk slowly from one cage to the next, commenting somberly on the beasts within. “This here’s the manticore. Man’s head, lion’s body, tail of a scorpion. Captured at midnight, eating werewolves to sweeten its breath. Creatures of night brought to light. Here’s the dragon. Breathes fire now and then--usually at people who poke it, little boy. Its inside is an inferno, but its skin is so cold it burns. The dragon speaks seventeen languages badly, and is subject to gout. The satyr. Ladies keep back. A real troublemaker. Captured under curious circumstances revealed to gentlemen only, for a token fee after the show. Creatures of night.” Standing by the unicorn’s cage, which was one of the inner three, the tall magician watched the procession proceeding around the pentacle. “I shouldn’t be here,” he said to the unicorn. “The old woman warned me to stay away from you.” He chuckled pleasantly. “She has mocked me from the day I joined her, but I have made her nervous all that time.” (pages 19-20)
“It’s got the whole world in its coils,” Rukh was droning. And once more the magician said, “Look again.” (page 21)
Normally, Schmendrick and Rukh would get separate paragraphs to designate each of their speech’s. But Beagle chooses to keep them together in a single paragraph, almost as if they were running over each other. If you look at this next passage, you can see that there is indeed an effort to blend these characters and have run over.
His [the magician’s] voice grew hard and secret. “She’s made her third mistake now,” he said, “and that’s at least two too many for a tired old trickster like herself. The time draws near.” “The time draws near,” Rukh was telling the crowd as though he had overheard the magician. “Ragnarok.” (page 22)
But why do this? Simply put, it allows the illusion that Schmendrick and Rukh are acting and speaking simultaneously. In a book, where a writer cannot normally accomplish that without stating something like, “They said at the same time,” another technique can more deftly accomplish this feat. In this instance, Beagle has created on subtle enough that I didn’t catch it until this readthrough.
Before we move onto my final point of this chapter, take another look at that first paragraph where Rukh describes the carnivals legends.
The man named Rukh was leading a straggling crowd of country folk slowly from one cage to the next, commenting somberly on the beasts within. “This here’s the manticore. Man’s head, lion’s body, tail of a scorpion. Captured at midnight, eating werewolves to sweeten its breath. Creatures of night brought to light. Here’s the dragon. Breathes fire now and then--usually at people who poke it, little boy. Its inside is an inferno, but its skin is so cold it burns. The dragon speaks seventeen languages badly, and is subject to gout. The satyr. Ladies keep back. A real troublemaker. Captured under curious circumstances revealed to gentlemen only, for a token fee after the show. Creatures of night.” (pages 19-20)
Beagle has Rukh use a lot of incomplete sentences. Now, this could simply be a characteristic of Rukh’s speech, but normally, Rukh uses full sentences in his dialogue with Mommy Fortuna. So why use this method now? It accomplishes a number of things:
1) The difference from his normal speech helps signal readers that he is playing a different role than usual. Here, he is entertainer, not just Mommy Fortuna’s grunt.
2) The broken nature of the speech helps highlight the dramatic nature of his job and adds to the crowd and readers that added sense of mystery and horror.
3) The broken nature also mirrors and emphasizes the flaws of the carnival and Mommy Fortuna herself. This is, of course, not obvious or conscious, but it’s another of those subtle qualities to helps set mood for the reader. Mommy Fortuna’s spells are fragile, especially with the harpy eager to escape and slaughter her. The broken sentences and hanging phrases lend themselves to an atmosphere strained and uncertain.
Lastly, Beagle uses an oddity of Schmendrick’s action, based on what he’s established with practically no one recognizing the unicorn, to set up a change in the story. Even while Schmendrick speaks to the unicorn, Beagle has a conversation with his readers, tipping them off that Schmendrick is different than all other characters in this story. First, he speaks to the unicorn at all and carries on a conversation, which no one else has done so far. In fact, until now, no human has seemed to be able to hear the unicorn’s speech. Then, Schmendrick tips her off to his knowledge, and the unicorn realizes that he has managed the impossible for humans these days: he has recognized her as a true unicorn.
“She can’t turn cream into butter, but she can give a lion the semblance of a manticore to eyes that want to see a manticore there--eyes that would take a real manticore for a lion, a dragon for a lizard, and the Midgard Serpent for an earthquake. And a unicorn for a white mare.” The unicorn halted in her slow, desperate round of the cage, realizing for the first time that the magician understood her speech. He smiled, and she saw that his face was frighteningly young for a grown man--untraveled by time, unvisited by grief or wisdom. “I know you,” he said. (pages 23-24)
This oddity and break from what Beagle has already established launches Schmendrick into prominence. Generally, writers should adhere to what they establish in earlier chapters to maintain internal consistancy. However, there are times when breaking established conventions is effective and necessary. Just make sure that you do it on purpose and with consideration.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.
For additional reads like this one, click here.