Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here, a chapter at a time, we break down the story and examine and learn from the techniques Beagle uses to create a successful novel.
To catch up or review previous parts of this read or other books I’ve shared in this way, click here.
Summary: While tied to a tree, Schmendrick must endure Captain Cully singing the songs he wrote about himself, but at last, Cully falls asleep. Schmendrick tries every trick he can manage to escape, but nothing works. Instead, he accidentally makes the tree fall in love with him. To hold it off, he pleads that he’s engaged to another tree. The tree becomes enraged with jealousy and nearly kills Schmendrick. In the last moments before he goes unconscious from being squeezed between the ropes and the heaving tree, the unicorn cuts his bonds with her horn and rescues him.
They continue on their way together, but Molly Grue finds them. When she sees the unicorn, she recognizes her and proceeds to deliver a tongue lashing to the unicorn. Why didn’t she come to Molly before now? Why does she come now when Molly is this disgraceful version of herself? The unicorn merely says that she’s there now, and Schmendrick scolds Molly for addressing the unicorn so. But Molly proves far more knowledgable of unicorns than Schmendrick, knowledgable enough to accurately claim that the unicorn will take her as a companion as well. This infuriates Schmendrick and makes him so envious of Molly that he does not speak to her for quite some time.
Writer Comments: There’s so much implied in this section between Molly, the unicorn, and Schmendrick. Beagle hints that Molly was something greater many years before. She is something great now, for she, unlike nearly everyone else, recognizes the unicorn on sight and she still deeply comprehends the creature. Too, the fact that the unicorn accepts Molly’s touch, accepts her presence, and allows her companionship implies something deep and, perhaps, pure about Molly. Yet Beagle explains none of this. The result is intrigue. Who was Molly? Who is Molly? Clearly there’s a greater story, and Beagle temps his readers to wonder with these hints of something epic.
Further, when Molly joins Schmendrick and the unicorn, the dynamic of the story changes. Schmendrick has a companion he dislikes, which complicates the story and reveals more of Schmendrick’s character. Beagle plays with the stereotype of the lady in the story. Normally, she would be young and beautiful, innocent, perhaps a great lady or princess, and certainly the love interest of the hero, in this case Schmendrick. Yet Molly is none of these. She is far from young, thought not old, her description is nowhere near beautiful, she’s clearly not innocent for life has cast her eyes in sorrow, and while she may have some great story behind her heritage, for now, she is naught but a poor, barefoot, bedraggled woman. As to the idea of a love interest, at least for now, Schmendrick holds her in such envy because of the special bond between her and the unicorn that the idea of any romance doesn’t quite fit. But then, Beagle pairs Molly with Maid Marian. In fact, Molly calls herself that, so perhaps there is a grain of homage to the original concept or stereotype.
The questions all this brings up, however, make the story far more interesting and unpredictable. A writer must keep his readers asking questions until the end. But on the other hand, a writer must also strike a careful balance. Questions and implications are necessary, but there must be enough grounding and answers for a reader to orient himself in the story.
Summary: At last, the unicorn, Schmendrick, and Molly enter King Haggard’s realm. The land is barren, the people are bitter, their children throw stones at strangers, their dogs chase people away, and Schmendrick pays them back by feasting on the dogs for supper. After many miles, they come upon Haggard’s castle, a pitiful jumble of stone that a witch supposedly built. When Haggard refused to pay her, she cursed the castle so that one day it and Haggard would fall into the sea when Haggard’s greed made the sea overflow.
The scent of the Red Bull is in the air; though, they don’t see him. Dark is falling, and below, in the valley before Haggard’s castle lies Hagsgate, a town with an evil air. They must travel through it to reach Haggard, and so they begin to walk toward the place where, supposedly, no one ever returns.
Writer Comments: As they travel, Beagle begins to weave in the suggestion and the demonstration that, despite her agelessness and eternity, the unicorn is changing. At night, when Schmendrick and Molly sleep, the unicorn sees how their dreams touch them, and it drives her to run so fast that she tries to return to a time when she was untouched and unaware of human sorrow. She wearies of humans because of this, yet she loyally remains with her companions. And while on these runs, she feels the great vastness of time, the fact that Schmendrick and Molly, the Red Bull, the stars themselves will die, yet she will remain the very last, the only unicorn left in existence. Though Beagle does not outright state this, he implies in his language that this thought frightens her and weighs her with loneliness. In that, for all she remains a unicorn, she begins to shift from what she was and what unicorns supposedly should be. In a way, her innocence is tarnishing.
There is great power in this concept: to tarnish the innocence of something of utter purity, the cause a creature of eternity to truly contemplate death and time and the mortal. Yet this power intrigues. It also gives the story part of its epic quality and its dark beauty and tragedy. It’s part of what has made this book a classic among fantasy fiction. Writers who achieve long term fame and recognition usually incorporate a question and conflict of a deep, universal, and unsettling nature such as this.
Next Monday, we’ll resume this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.