Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here, we examine a book in depth to figure out what the author does to make it work. To catch up or review previous parts of this read or to see other books I’ve broken down for writing tips, click here.
Summary: Schmendrick, Molly, and the now-human unicorn come to King Haggard’s castle just before sunset the next day. Two guardsmen greet them in shabby, homemade armor, the younger fancying that the lady, who he doesn’t know is a unicorn, is something quite spectacular. The elder fancies her something not to be judged too quickly.
Yet they allow the three inside, believing the unicorn to be a girl named Lady Amalthea, when Schmendrick insists upon seeing Haggard. Through a great hall so vast the walls disappear and a winding stair that becomes narrower the higher you climb, they are taken to Haggard’s throne room. Behind them walks the younger guardsman who, unintentionally, mirrors the unicorn’s every movement.
In the throne room, the elder guardsman reveals himself as King Haggard and the younger as Prince Lir. Schmendrick and Molly are stunned, but Schmendrick quickly recovers and pleas to enter the king’s service. Haggard has no interest, for he will have nothing near him that does not make him happy. Besides, he already has a magician. Schmendrick, however, points out that his current magician does not make him happy, a fact that convinces the king to dismiss the man and take Schmendrick on instead. He decides that, as great magic has ceased to please him, perhaps a bumbling fool of a magician will make him happy.
The old magician, in a rage, conjures an evil wind that makes even Haggard retreat. But in the midst of it, the Lady Amalthea turns, the spot on her forehead glowing, and the wind departs. With it, the old magician’s anger fades and he begins laughing, predicting that Haggard has let his own doom through his front door. He leaves then without argument.
Haggard demands to know who Amalthea really is, and Schmendrick invents a story about her being his niece, but the king will not be lied to regarding her. He demands truth. Molly and Schmendrick come up short, for they cannot tell the king her true identity. Lir, however, comes to her rescue, insisting that it doesn’t matter. After all, she is here. The king lets the question go.
He assigns Molly as his cook, maidservant, scullery maid, and scrubwoman. But he bars the Lady Amalthea from nothing. She unsettles him because he sees green leaves and small animals in her eyes, but each time he demands to know what she looks at and she replies the sea, he calms. He too thinks the sea is good.
After Haggard leaves, Lir offers to get Amalthea whatever she needs, including satin to make a gown. “Let me help you,” he says (page 147).
Writer Comments: This chapter plays with reader expectations when it comes to King Haggard. Most of us, when we imagine a king of any sort, picture riches, luxury, and castles teeming with servants. But Haggard is none of these things. He plays sentry at his own castle, wears cobbled together armor, has nothing of luxury, no servants, and is content with nothing. Too, Beagle utilizes careful storytelling to avoid revealing that the guardsmen are the king and prince themselves until Schmendrick and Molly learn such. The surprise is fun, but it’s also a tricky bit of chicanery.
On the other hand, Haggard is exactly what one might expect from an evil king. He is harsh, demanding, surly, dismissive of everyone, and his eyes are the color of the Bull. He insists on always getting his way. In this, Beagle both plays to reader expectations, yet also inverts them. This is what makes Haggard interesting.
Further, Beagle grants his readers something to sympathize with. Haggard is unhappy and wants nothing more than to be surrounded by things that make him happy. Is that not a human desire we all possess? Even while Haggard is clearly a blight, he is one we can connect with. And yet the simplest thing, looking at the sea, seems to please Haggard. That too we can grasp. After all, isn’t it the simple things that usually make us most content: a welcoming hug from a loved one, the smell of our favorite food cooking, a beautiful sunset.
In this chapter, though, Haggard is only one of two main characters introduced. Beagle uses Prince Lir quite differently. Lir is the contrast of Haggard. He is polite and kindhearted--remarkable considering who his father is. Lir, Molly realizes, is the bored prince who waited with the princess who tried calling the unicorn many chapters back. Yet here he is without that princess, as drab and unfitting as his father. But Lir possesses a whimsical aspect that starkly contrasts with Haggard’s brooding castle and mien.
More, Lir is a character undergoing epic change. He is not so much of a part as Schmendrick, Molly, or the unicorn, but by the unicorn’s very presence, he begins to grow from something dull and simple to something greater. She inspires within him a desire to please himself rather than the father he could never make happy. She inspires him to write poetry when he never had before. In short, his and the unicorn’s meeting is a moment of transformation, a common enough event in fantasy and fairy tale, but one that results in heroes and the examination of humanity.
From a purely logical standpoint, this transformation may seem a bit far fetched, but in many other regards, it’s quite expected. Love, after all, even in our real life experience can make people behave quite oddly. Beagle merely adds a unicorn’s presence to the mix and epicfies the transformation. Fantasy allows for this. Being aware of the tropes, expectations, and allowances of your genre is vital.
Beyond these broader approaches, I’d like to take a quick look at two other things Beagle uses in his writing.
First is onomatopoeia. In the opening of this chapter, he has birds on the shore call out, “Saidso,” (page 130). Normally, we’d expect a standard onomatopoeia like caw or shrieking. Yet Beagle invents his own, combining two real words to roughly imitate the sound of a bird. This is his prerogative as an author--yes, we invent our own words on occasion--but it encourages that sense of blurring boundaries and magic in the setting. Too, it triggers that part of us that sometimes almost hears our own language in the world around us. Don’t go overboard with invented words--in other words, do this rarely--but don’t feel like, as a writer, you are limited to only the words in the dictionary.
Another technique Beagle utilizes is vivid verbs. Consider this line:
They crossed a cobbled courtyard where cold laundry groped their faces (page 134)
“Groped” is an extremely vivid verb. It implies a great deal and brings with it an uncomfortable sensation, and that’s all in one syllable. Beagle could have chosen verbs like hit, brush, smacked, or something plainer. However, they would not have carried such impact. They might have been okay, but they wouldn’t have been just right. It may take many drafts to decide on that perfect word, that verb that so vividly imparts and image or sensation, but when editors ask you to punch up your verbs, this is what they mean.
Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays in fiction, the speculative, and life.