Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle where we delve deeply into this classic fantasy story to discover why it works and the techniques Beagle skillfully employs.
To catch up or review previous parts or to check out other books I’ve analyzed like this, click here.
Summary: The unicorn, Molly, and Schmendrick come into Hagsgate, but the town is nothing like what the rumors they’ve heard said. Rather than being overrun with werewolves, ghouls, and other horrendous sights, Hagsgate is bustling with prosperity from its well-dressed citizens to its bursting gardens. But they swiftly discover that the people of Hagsgate are far from savory.
Hagsgate’s men take them briefly into custody until they discover that Schmendrick is a magician. A magician, they decide, is exactly what they need. They feast Molly and Schmendrick in hopes of gaining a favor. While they eat, Drinn, their host, tells them of the curse laid over Hagsgate.
Shortly after King Haggard came from across the sea, a witch built the castle for him, but Haggard refused to pay her. She went to Hagsgate and demanded the people make their king render to her what he had promised, but they refused. In a fury, she cursed king and town together:
“You whom Haggard holds in thrall,
Share his feast and share his fall.
You shall see your fortune flower
Till the torrent takes the tower.
Yet none but one of Hagsgate town
May bring the castle swirling down.”
Thus, Hagsgate’s people have prospered, but they dare not enjoy it, for among their number, one will come to destroy them. To avoid this, they’ve ceased to have children for fifty years.
But one night, Drinn came upon a babe in the snow in the town’s square, warmed by a bunch of purring cats. At once, Drinn recognized a prophesied hero. He went home to let the child die from the elements, but his conscience got the better of him, and he returned. Except the child was gone. The very next day, Haggard announced that he at last had a son, Prince Lir. The townsfolk cannot be certain, but they believe Lir is of their own and the prophesied hero who will destroy both the town and Haggard’s castle. So they want Schmendrick to poison him to prevent their fall.
Molly is horrified, but Schmendrick negotiates a price and takes with him thirty-five pieces of gold. Outside, he confesses to Molly that he has no intention of killing the prince and that, had the townsfolk asked him, he would have lifted their curse.
They proceed to the castle beyond the town, but it seems to take forever to get there. Along the way, the unicorn stops to tell Schmendrick that they’re being followed. The three of them hide and overhear their pursuers searching for them and intending to kill them to keep King Haggard from learning Hagsgate’s part of the curse. All seems like it will work out for Schmendrick, Molly, and the unicorn until the would-be murders call for Drinn’s gold in Schmendrick’s pouch. The gold loves Drinn so dearly that it begins calling his name. The townsfolk rush Schmendrick and Molly.
Then the Red Bull comes like a burning dawn. The townsfolk flee, and with lightning in her horn, the unicorn challenges the great beast.
Writer Comments: This, so far, is the best cliffhanger of the book. Earlier chapters had good cliffhangers, but this one works particularly well because Beagle has been building up to it literally since the beginning of the story. At last, we are about to see the Red Bull. At last, the unicorn gets to meet her true opponent. Cliffhangers can take many forms, but this type, one built over the course of a hundred or more pages, is particularly powerful.
Interestingly, though, this is just before the midpoint of the book. Normally, a major battle like this, between the protagonist and her great foe, would come at the climax. But this fulfills the requirements of a midpoint too. It signals a great shift coming in the story, and at the midpoint, something important should change. Otherwise, the story sags and becomes dull. Too, it signals that the climax will be even more epic. It also resolves a few key questions: the Bull is real, Haggard indeed keeps him, and the unicorn indeed faces something quite grave. I won’t elaborate on this too much yet, for the details come in the next few chapters. While spoiling stories is a necessary part of these types of reads, I don’t want to give away too much too soon.
Instead, let’s return to the idea of that solid information. In this chapter, Beagle reveals the true details of the curse on Haggard, his castle, and Hagsgate. He reveals what appears to be Prince Lir’s true origins too. These are essential pieces to the major story, pieces that, until now, have been speculation at best. While maintaining mystery is important to a certain extent, at some point, an author must begin revealing truths about the shadowy aspects of his plot. However, note here that Beagle reveals these secrets just before his heroes enter the realm where that knowledge will make things more interesting. If they and the readers know that Prince Lir is supposed to be the downfall of Haggard, the castle, and Hagsgate, doesn’t that make their interaction all the more interesting? Beagle could have let us keep guessing and suddenly reveal in a later moment that Lir is actually the prophesied child born in Hagsgate, but he chooses to handle it this way. Why? Because it ratchets up the tension. Knowing Lir is the prophesied hero adds a dynamic facet to the conflict, like adding more explosives to create a bigger bang. Beagle chooses what any smart writer should: the story option that most increases the tension and stakes. This is particularly key in story construction.
However, Beagle does something unusual at this midpoint with Lir. He names Lir the hero of the tale. Technically, Schmendrick names him hero or “leading man” (page 109), but such a claim rings with the author’s voice. But we’re halfway through the book. The hero can’t show up now. It’s too late, isn’t it? Technically. However, the hero and the protagonist don’t necessarily have to be the same person. First of all, hero has numerous connotations and uses. A protagonist, rather, is merely the character who has something to lose and who is in direct opposition to the antagonist. In this case, the protagonist is the unicorn. The antagonist is Haggard. The hero is Lir, but not in a story structure sense. He is a hero in the classical, traditional, character archetype sense. Something similar is also true of narrators. Narrators do not have to be the protagonist of a story. Don’t get tripped up on the idea that the protagonist is the voice from which the story is told.
All that said, it is possible that Beagle considered Lir his true protagonist. I don’t know. But I would argue against such an idea. In my opinion, Lir comes into the story too late to be the true protagonist, and the story is not mainly about his struggles. It is about the unicorn’s. Too, the unicorn has the most to lose, perhaps her whole race. Further, she is in direct opposition to the antagonist/Haggard from the beginning. Lir is not.
Which brings us to the unicorn. Schmendrick contests the idea that the unicorn is anything in the fairy tale. “She is real,” he says to signify that she has no traditional role, (page 109). Yet, for all the pretty fancy Schmendrick, and thus Beagle, paints about fairy tales, leading men, and heroes, as writers, we must look at the unicorn’s role as she truly relates to the story. As I said, she is the protagonist, yet she is an unusual one. Sympathizing with a mythical creature is a tad odd, and that’s perhaps why Beagle includes Schmendrick and Molly in part. They humanize the story. They give the story’s human readers characters to identify with and help better understand the unicorn. As I said regarding an earlier chapter, Beagle uses universal plights to garner our sympathy for the unicorn--the concept of losing everything, of being the last of her/our kind--but this will only take us so far. For all the fun we have at dreaming up spectacular, inhuman creatures, on some level, we cannot escape the human and require human elements to truly be touched by a story. Sometimes this means that inhuman characters will display surprisingly human traits. Sometimes, as it is in The Last Unicorn, the humanity comes in the form of strong, dynamic secondary characters, thus leaving the unicorn free to be the protagonist as something very different from human.
Specifically, those humanizing characters are Schmendrick and Molly. We can comprehend them because they reflect us. We understand their need to follow the unicorn. After all, haven’t we chased impossible dreams and clung to their ghosts too, even when it didn’t entirely make sense? We too understand struggle and can cringe in sympathy as Molly and Schmendrick shiver while sleeping on the open ground, walk barefoot (Molly) over rugged terrain, hunger enough to eat mongrel dog. Perhaps we have not starved or had to travel without proper shoes, but we comprehend want. It is, after all, a common plight of our species. We grasp the idea of jealousy, as Schmendrick is envious of Molly’s special relationship with the unicorn. Molly and Schmendrick are the vehicles through which we are drawn into the human element of the story.
Next Monday, we’ll learn what happens when the Red Bull finally reaches the unicorn. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.