Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we examine what makes a great book work. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Summary: After another day in the Midnight Carnival, Schmendrick at last comes to rescue the unicorn. He tries several spells, but all fail miserably, including one that nearly kills her. Dejected, he withdraws the keys he stole from Rukh and releases her the mundane way.
Then Rukh catches them. Schmendrick heroically throws himself at the much larger, stronger man and yells for the unicorn to run. Instead, she releases all the animals from the carnival before coming to the harpy’s cage.
Schmendrick yells for her to stop. If she frees the harpy, it will kill her. But the unicorn touches her horn to the lock, despite the evil wind the harpy summons and Schmendrick’s warning, and releases the foul creature. The harpy blooms from the iron cage and strikes at the unicorn, but misses. They circle each other in the unicorn’s light and the harpy’s dark wind. The harpy strikes once more, but instead of slaying the unicorn, she takes Mommy Fortuna and slaughters her.
The unicorn comes to a terrified Schmendrick and asks him to come with her. He does, but she makes him walk very slowly, for running from an immortal creature attracts their attention. Though they hear the harpy noisily slaughter and destroy, they creep away. At last, the only sound left is that of a spider weeping.
Writer Comments: This is a beautiful, epic chapter. There’s a lot I could sift out, but for today, let’s focus on what I consider the unifying glue of this chapter: it is epic. It, in fact, has many of the characteristics of a climactic scene, mainly the converging of several lines of conflict into a single, dramatic end. It is, in essence, a mini climax, and we’re only in chapter three. That in and of itself screams epic and promises an even greater story, but there is much more that makes this chapter epic.
To begin with, the chapter, and the book for that matter, includes epic characters. Let’s take them one at a time.
The Unicorn: Aside from the fact that she’s a legendary creature, the unicorn is epic in her decisions and motivations. First of all, she’s hunting to learn whether or not her people are truly gone, an epic quest if there ever was one. She chooses to abandon everything for the sake of her people. Then she chooses to risk herself to save the lives of the other caged creatures, including the harpy, who will try to kill her regardless of the unicorn’s pure intentions. Her motivations are pure, a rarity, epic, and utterly fitting a unicorn. She gives second, third, and more chances to Schmendrick, even when his magic proves erratic at best. She maintains her goodness despite being surrounded with darkness and evil. She cherishes and glories in the life she sets free, even the harpy’s. And yet, she makes no move to spare Mommy Fortuna or Rukh, who actively committed the evil. But Schmendrick, the goodhearted magician, she actively saves. These are decisions, motivations, and actions of epic quality.
The Harpy: Consider her appearance. She is a bird with a woman’s face and hair. Her wings and body are glistening bronze, and her feathers are like knives. She laughs evilly and has power to terrify even the unicorn. Too, she has power to blot out the moon with a cloud, to hasten on the night, and to summon the wind. She can make a unicorn bleed and slaughter a witch who had more power than even the witch knows. She is a creature of epic imagery.
Mommy Fortuna: Though Schmendirck names her as having so little power that she can’t turn cream into butter, the unicorn identifies her as having more power than even she knows. Perhaps her spells are primarily illusion, but she caught and held a harpy and a unicorn, neither of which could free themselves without help. She has the power to make the unicorn feel old and ugly and the capacity to terrify. But those reasons are not the culmination of what makes her epic. What solidifies the quality in her is that, upon her impending death at the hands of the harpy, she claims triumph, reminding both the harpy and unicorn that she truly held them. After all, no other witch in the world ever held captive legends like them.
Rukh: He is the least epic of these characters, but he plays his part. In one sense, he offers contrast. Beside him, Mommy Fortuna, Schmendrick, the unicorn, and the harpy are giants. However, Rukh is both dumber than he appears and yet occasionally unexpectedly wise. Schmendrick twice tricks him with riddles, and it’s Rukh’s ignorance and lack of attention which allows the events of the chapter to unfold. Yet he is wiser than Mommy Fortuna in that he knows the harpy must go before she kills them all. What epic qualities he might have are far more subtle, and perhaps best defined in his highlighting the epic traits of the others.
Schmendrick the Magician: Is he a fool or a great man? He’s certainly far from a great wizard, for none of his magic works as he intends it. Yet what he can make of magic is impressive, if flawed, from summoning a creature of such power and evil that he can’t control it--It takes the harpy’s evil to drive it off--to shrinking the unicorn’s cage so it nearly shreds her and captures her heart. He stops it just in time.
But these are trappings at this point for Schmendrick. His true epic nature comes from his inner genuineness, goodness, and heroism. He risks himself many times over to save the unicorn. He is honest and true with her. Through all his fumbles, it’s blatantly obvious that he seeks greatness and service to something better.
And then, the moment that seals all for him, the unicorn chooses him as her companion. That in and of itself would be epic, even if the rest did not exist.
However, characters are nothing without action. These characters and their choices culminate in a fight of good versus evil, in flawed magic, and the battling of legendary creatures, ancient and immortal. These characters and events span an epic range of emotions from terror to hate to true compassion.
And in the nature of a climax, in this case a mini one, all this--characters and events--bring together many threads of conflict. The unicorn’s capture is resolved, the imprisoned animals are released, and Mommy Fortuna and her evil magic are defeated. Other conflicts reach their culmination such as that between the unicorn and the harpy, Mommy Fortuna and the harpy, the distrust and contempt between Mommy Fortuna and Schmendrick, the mild antagonism between Rukh and Schmendrick, and the question of whether or not the unicorn can indeed trust Schmendrick. All is resolved in a single night of betrayal, bumbling, and battle.
All this is played out and heightened with Beagle’s lyrical style. The lyricism in and of itself harkens back to old works of grand adventures, harrowing tales, and epic feats. But more, Beagle uses his descriptions and imagery to paint epic scenery and action. When the sky itself nearly splits, or so the unicorn feels it might, it raises the story from the mundane to a plane of extraordinary possibilities.
Lastly, Beagle plays out the epic in both a grand scale, which I’ve described above, and in the smaller things, in this case, the smallest. One of Mommy Fortuna’s creatures is a spider, who she makes appear as Arachne. However, unlike everyone else, the spider believed the illusions Mommy Fortuna casts and so believed herself a weaver of such great renown and ability that she can even capture the moon in her web. But when Mommy Fortuna dies and her magic is destroyed, all that vanishes. The spider, with her illusions literally shattered, is left with nothing but the knowledge that she is merely an ordinary, simple spider and that all the beauty she thought herself capable of producing was naught but simple webs and cat’s cradles. The loss is epic, and the contrast with the battle of far more powerful creatures makes the whole affect gut wrenching and darkly lovely.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me on Friday for the next segment where we look at how not to drive away readers.