Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here you’ll find insights into what successful writers like Beagle do to make their stories shine.
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Summary: Once they escape the harpy, Schmendrick weeps for Mommy Fortuna. The unicorn is incapable of feeling regret but offers a gentle sympathy in confessing that she can sorrow.
Since Schmendrick helped her, the unicorn owes him a boon. He asks to accompany her to King Haggard and the Red Bull in search of her people. She wishes he would have asked for anything else, but she grants his request. After all, she hasn’t the power to grant his dearest wish, that he be a true magician rather than the bumbling one he is now.
Writer Comments: It’s strange for a male protagonist to weep, especially so early in a book, yet Schmendrick does. This might be a sign of weakness in him or an indication of the depths of his compassion. Beagle makes no overt assessment of it for us, except to compare Schmendrick in that moment to a child in his weeping. In a way, this suggests that Beagle acknowledges its oddity for a grown man in a fantasy novel. However, it also reflects the pureness and depth of his sorrow, at least that’s my interpretation of how it’s written. Regardless, Beagle uses this moment to reveal more of Schmendrick’s character. Further, it’s a reminder to us all that books are open to interpretation. The author may mean something specific, but it is up to the reader what meaning to derive from any given detail, action, or phrase.
Without revealing too much, this passage also sets up a lot of what happens later in the book. Schmendrick and the unicorn’s conversation goes over topics that become important elements of the plot later on. By sprinkling them in, Beagle makes those later plot developments more plausible and relatable. He paves the way for his later plot.
Summary: A bluejay arrives home to tell his wife of a unicorn he just saw traveling with a “party in black.” HIs wife will hear none of it, for her husband hasn’t brought home supper and seeing a unicorn is utter nonsense. She then accuses him of being with her, for only she could make up such wild stories in her spare time, but the bluejay protests that he hasn’t been with this other bird at all.
Writer Comments: Why is this little scene here? It’s barely over a page long and accomplishes very little, so why include it at all? I could only guess. Perhaps Beagle wished to give a humorous break in the unicorn’s and Schmendrick’s dreary plight. Perhaps he wished to indicate that they were at last drawing near to King Haggard, for the bluejay knows Haggard. Perhaps a great many things, but the scene is not necessary to the story’s plot or the characters’ development. It could be cut out completely without a single change to the rest of the book, yet it remains. Whether this was entirely a choice Beagle made or one he and his editor jointly agreed upon, it goes to show that even well-known authors, even successful ones, occasionally include things that your standard writing advice would ban. Sometimes they do so for a clear reason. Other times, they don’t. Regardless, no writer is perfect. We should strive to be our best, but never assume perfection.
Summary: The unicorn and Schmendrick travel through many lands together. Often Schmendrick goes hungry, but when he can, he trades his tricks for a bed and a meal. At one point, they stop in a wealthy town. The mayor treats Schmendrick to an outdoor banquet while Schmendrick’s “white mare” enjoys chomping grass in the pasture. In the middle of the banquet, a band of outlaws rides in, riotous and snatching all manner of things from the gathered townsmen from children and wineskins to Schmendrick’s hat. The mayor puts a stop to it when he addresses Jack Jingly, the band’s exceedingly tall leader. The outlaw band returns most of what they stole and hands over a bag of money to the mayor, an apparent payment to the town. However, they won’t return Schmendrick’s hat, even when Schmendrick insists. Jack demands that Schmendrick better do some magic or start running, so Schmendrick casts a spell, which yanks the hat from the outlaws, floats it through the air, and dips it into the horse trough to fill it with water. Schmendrick means for the magic to dump the water over Jack’s head, but as happens all too often, the magic does it’s own thing and dumps the water over the mayor’s head instead. The outlaws find this hilarious and kidnap Schmendrick. The mayor then tries to steal the unicorn, but she escapes before his men can even draw near.
Writer Comments: Naming characters signifies their importance to the story. In this scene, even though, theoretically, the mayor is an important personage, he is never referred to as anything other than simply “the mayor.” However, Jack Jingly is given a name. Why? Because Jack alters the course of the story. Jack captures Schmendrick, thus derailing his and the unicorn’s intended course. Giving a character a name signals to the reader that the character is important to the story.
Yet consider the opposite. Beagle gives the unicorn no name. She is simply “the unicorn.” Again, why? This distinguishes her. She is not some common animal christened with whatever sounds fitting. She is beyond that. Neither is she like a human who must be identified and named. She is something eternal and legendary. And since she may well be the last of her kind, she literally is the unicorn. By breaking the convention of giving the main characters all names, Beagle sets her apart.
Going onto other elements of this scene, consider the nature of the setting Beagle portrays in a brief moment, but which encapsulates it for his readers.
One morning, they stopped in a plump, comfortable town where even the beggars had double chins and the mice waddled. (page 55)
Setting a scene or a locale doesn’t have to require paragraphs of description. It merely needs a few carefully chosen details to set the foundation for readers to build upon with their own imaginations.
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, swing back by on Friday for the next way to keep readers’ interest rather than driving them away.
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