Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we examine what techniques an author uses to compose a successful book. To catch up or review previous reads, click here.
Summary: In the scullery of Haggard’s castle, Molly cooks and Prince Lir begs her counsel, desperate for answers about why the Lady Amalthea remains unmoved. Despite all his efforts and great deeds, from dragon slaying to maiden rescue and enough other things for the likes of two dozen great heroes, Lady Amalthea barely even acknowledges he exists. Molly advises acts of courtesy and kindness rather than great deed, and Lir confesses that he only wants to be whatever it is the Lady Amalthea most needs.
Too, he shares a story with Molly about how Lady Amalthea reacted when she learned his horse was burned by the most recent dragon he killed. She rushed to the horse and laid her hands on it as if she expected her touch to heal it. When nothing happened, she fled, crying without tears. Lir cannot fathom this, and Molly cannot fully explain that the real reason for Lady Amalthea’s sorrow is because she’s a unicorn.
Then the Lady Amalthea descends into the scullery. Lir immediately murmurs about a village he must save from an ogre and hurries off. Lady Amalthea sits and tries to beckon the cat Molly fed to come to her. While the creature trembles with desire to yield to her call, he refuses to come within range of her touch.
Molly informs Lady Amalthea that she is cruel to Lir, and she responds that cruelty, like kindness, is for mortals. Too, she dare not acknowledge Lir. He drags dragon heads to her when she won’t acknowledge him, what would he do if she did? And then, she reveals to Molly that the Lady Amalthea has become her own entity, and sometimes she cannot even remember why they came to Haggard’s castle. Gently, Molly reminds she came to look for unicorns and to free them, that she is the last unicorn.
The castle’s men-at-arms come down for the supper, and the Lady Amalthea leaves. These men are old, past seventy and more, and they confess to Molly that the really serve Haggard because he wishes it. Whatever Haggard wishes, the Red Bull enforces, so in truth, they are prisoners of the Bull. Before they depart, the eldest tells Molly that the Lady Amalthea should not remain at the castle, for when she arrived her beauty made the castle beautiful, but now her beauty has turned the castle darker and more vicious.
Then the cat Molly feeds and pets begins to speak. He tells Molly that he dared not let the unicorn touch him because, if he had, he would cease to be his own and belong to her. He also tells Molly that there isn’t much time before the Lady Amalthea takes over and the unicorn fades away entirely. Their only hope is to take the king’s way down to the Red Bull, and he gives her a riddle about how to get there because, after all, he is a cat and cats never give anyone a straight answer.
Writer Comments: Beagle has a number of story challenges by the time he got to this chapter. He had to show that quite a bit of time had passed without dwelling on it and slowing down the story. He had to reveal a ton of information in a way that would be impactful and interesting. He had to set up the coming story’s resolution. And he had to do all of this in a way that felt natural and believable. So we end up with a chapter composed of four conversations and centered around the one character who can perceive and feel it all.
Let’s look at each conversation separately and how it works to accomplish what Beagle and the story need.
Conversation with Prince Lir: Lir goes from the kindhearted boy we saw previously to a kindhearted hero of great courage, strength, and accomplishment. In many stories, an author might have stretched this out and revealed some of the steps Lir took on this transition, but such is unnecessary for this story because the story is not about Lir. The conversation instead gives a sense of how much time has passed and gives us a context to see what the unicorn’s life has been like, to some small extent, in the interim. Too, it makes Lir more of a player in the tale.
Conversation with Lady Amalthea/the unicorn: This particular conversation is the one that jerks our emotions and tugs at our sympathies. We see first hand that Amalthea is still the unicorn, then see that she is slipping, forgetting herself. Beagle has Molly describe her eyes as changing from the unfathomable depths of the unicorn’s to a human woman’s which are definable. This in itself is quite frightening, and through it, we see the stakes of the story rise. We see that, despite the fact all this time has passed, things will soon change one way or another. We glimpse the possibility of catastrophe.
Conversation with the men-at-arms: Primarily, this conversation is all about information gathering. Beagle needed to let Molly and his readers know that there is a way down to the Red Bull and that even the men-at-arms see that Lady Amalthea is in trouble.
Conversation with the cat: Long before now, Beagle established that animals in this world could talk. Before now, they talked only to the unicorn, but even if it’s to a human one speaks, the unicorn’s presence is what drives it to loquaciousness. The cat verifies what the men-at-arms say, what the unicorn fears, what Molly sees, and what we readers suspect. The unicorn has very little time, and she must confront the Red Bull. And then we and Molly are given the way, but of course it can’t be too easy. Instead, it is couched in riddle and mystery. It is couched to seem impossible, for wine must drink itself, a skull must speak, and a clock that is always wrong must strike the right time. Here, Beagle turns the story toward its final path to the climax.
This is, in short, a transition chapter, and transitions are one of the most difficult things to write because they court boredom and tediousness. In short, they should still move a story along in some way, increase stakes, and contain conflict. Just because it’s transition doesn’t mean it shouldn’t follow the usual rules of fiction.
Thank you for joining me for this read 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 into fiction, the speculative, and life.