Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here we break down each chapter to see what Beagle does to create a book that has been a classic of fantasy for years.
To catch up or review previous chapters, click here.
Summary: The Red Bull charges after the unicorn. Her horn goes dim, and she breaks before him. Frantic and terrified, the earth itself seeking to slow, trap, trip, and beat her for the Bull, she flees. Molly and Schmendrick are hurled aside at the force of the passing Bull, but as they recover themselves and watch, they realize that the Bull is driving the unicorn toward the castle. Each time she tries to run, he heads her off like a sheepdog. Then, at last, the Bull’s power overtakes her, and she hangs her head and walks before him, beaten.
Desperate, Molly begs Schmendrick to do something to save the unicorn. He protests. What can he do? No whimsical tricks of his are powerful enough to drive away the Bull, much less save a unicorn from him. But Molly insists that he has true magic if only he’ll look for it.
Emboldened by her words, Schmendrick stands before the Bull and commands the unicorn to flee. But she is too far gone and pays him no heed. At the last moment, he grasps the magic and lets it do what it will. The power comes to him, does its work, and leaves him once more.
The Bull stops, confused. Molly and Schmendrick race toward the unicorn, but they find her a human girl naked upon the ground. Molly is furious with Schmendrick. How could he turn her into this? But he insists that the magic chose her form, not he, and he will change her back to her true self when the magic returns sometime in the future.
The Bull leaves at the coming of dawn without the unicorn, for it has no interest in human beings. The unicorn wakes, horrified to find herself trapped in a mortal shell. She and Schmendrick argue briefly. He explains the magic and how it works for him: As a boy, he was apprenticed to Nikos, the greatest magician of all time, but he was so abysmal as a magician that Nikos declared his true power must be supremely great. However, as it might take Schmendrick a very long time to find it, Nikos made it so he would not age a day until he found that power, and so Schmendrick has walked the world for a very long time, but one day, the magic will come to him and he will turn the unicorn back into herself.
Too, he insists that no other form would have been better for the quest before her, though she may despise being human. No other form can go to Haggard’s castle and discover what really happened to the unicorns. Still, she demures from the prospect, but gives it some thought.
However, before she can say a word, she turns back and the magician and Molly have fallen asleep, exhausted from their travels and a night without rest. She waits with them.
Writing Comments: What a shift in the story. K.M. Weiland states that, at the midpoint of a story, something must change. In The Last Unicorn, that something is that the unicorn becomes a human being and mortal. She becomes the opposite of herself without fully losing herself.
The stakes too have increased. Now, not only must she find her people, she must find it with the Red Bull desiring her and with a body that is dying. She also must discover the truth of her fate without letting King Haggard realize what she truly is. Until the story’s climax, the stakes should always get higher.
Another aspect to this midpoint chapter is the revelation of character background. Most writers, especially new or inexperienced writers, feel they must give background details for their characters so readers will understand them better. But this is incorrect. Ask any well established writer, agent, or editor and they will tell you that character backgrounds come much later in the story and only when truly applicable to that specific moment.
Here, Schmendrick gives his background with his mentor, Nikos, and how he came to know something of immortality and why his magic works the way it does. Yet Beagle waits to give this information until the book is halfway over. Too, he only gives the most basic details that relate to the immediate situation: Schmendrick is immortal until he discovers himself and his magic, and so, in a way, he understands better than the unicorn what harrowing issue she faces and that to be mortal is in fact beautiful.
Also within this chapter, Beagle uses great descriptive language to set mood and give a disturbing image of his monstrous antagonist, the Red Bull:
He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under and old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured off him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars. (page 113)
Consider his word choices. Blood, stirs under and old wound, terrible light, sweat, landslides flowing, and pale as scars all are extremely evocative. They harness every sense except taste, and all in ways that elicit cringing or fear. Yet the language is structured to be lyrical and beautiful as all this book is written. The combination of beauty and vileness is all the more powerful for its contrast. When describing, consider the mood you wish to set and the reaction you want from your readers. Simple things like word choice and engaging the senses are crucial.
Now, go back to what Schmendrick says about himself and his understanding of mortality and immortality:
“I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful--more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world.” (page 128)
One of the fun things about this genre, the various subgenres of speculative fiction, is that it can ask and bring up interesting philosophical questions. Many science fiction and fantasy fans enjoy these questions. Which is greater, immortality or mortality? Which is more enviable? Which is more beautiful? Here, Beagle states an opinion, at least Schmendrick’s opinion, and it is for his readers to make their own judgments. However, he presents and interesting idea that will color his whole story. Do not fear philosophical questions in fiction, especially if you write speculative fiction. Though fiction is no place to build a soap box, it is a medium for exploration, even into the intellectual, philosophical, and emotional.
Lastly for this chapter, consider the end lines:
She stood by them, watching them breathe, one hand holding the black cloak closed at her throat. Very faintly, for the first time, the smell of the sea came to her. (page 129)
What a quiet, gentle way to end a chapter full of action, high tension, and drama. Normally, this end might appear bland for a chapter close, but here it works eerily well. Why? First of all, it’s contrast is unsettling, and the need to resolve that unsettled feeling helps drive readers to the next chapter. Further, it is beautiful, an intriguing contrast to the shuddering events of the chapter. And lastly, the smell of the sea coming to the unicorn while she’s a human is subtly suggestive of many things. It is literal, first and foremost, since Haggard’s castle sits beside the sea. But it is also figurative, standing in the place of change, the sea’s association with birth, coming death, and something quite human. We like and notice the smell of the sea, at least most of us. Would a unicorn notice something so mundane? What this chapter end teaches, ultimately, is that a chapter should close in whatever fashion is most unsettling to the readers and will drive them onto the next page. That can mean high action, harrowing threats, or a subtle disquiet as lies here.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. My normal Friday post will be on hold this week as Friday is the 4th of July. So happy 4th of July in advance, everyone!