Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here, we look into this classic work of fantasy to gain insights into what elements create a great book. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Summary: Prince Lir returns from another heroic deed, but this time, he does not present the spoils of his work to the Lady Amalthea. Instead, he decides that he will love her from afar and seek nothing of her except some small chance that he might be of use to her. Molly encourages him in this endeavor.
Then, he chances to meet her on the stairs and captures her with his gaze as he has learned to capture many creatures. She confesses to being confused and having a horrid nightmare where she’s locked in a cage and there’s an old woman and a bird and she has four legs like a beast. Lir is horrified at this but seeks to soothe her. He pleads to be of some use, so she asks him to sing to her and gives him the first smile she has bestowed upon him. She bids him to sing so that all the nightmares and this thing that wants her to remember it will go away.
All winter and into what pitiful season Haggard’s kingdom calls summer, the Lady Amalthea and Prince Lir fall deeply in love. They sing together. They picnic in the castle. Everything, though the castle is weighed down with darkness, dreariness, and witchery, is like spring to them.
Meanwhile, Molly and Schmendrick slave away for Haggard, too weary and overworked to solve the riddle the cat gave about how to get to the Red Bull’s lair.
Then, one day, the Lady Amalthea watches from a tower as Prince Lir returns from another great feat. King Haggard comes upon her and challenges her. He confesses to knowing who she really is, and when she pleads ignorance, demands that she not dare deny herself. He will have her. If she loves a little longer, he will have her. He confesses to having known who she was from the beginning and about how he once saw a pair of unicorns. They were the only things ever to bring him joy, so he told the Red Bull--who follows him only because he has no fear--that he wanted them. One by one, the Red Bull rounded them up for Haggard and drove them into the sea. There, they remain imprisoned, terrified to step foot onto the shore lest the Red Bull get them.
The tide turns, and he bids her to see the unicorns as the waves break against the shore. For once, his voice and manner are young. For once, his face radiates joy. And then he looks at her and sees that there are no longer green leaves in her eyes. He threatens to hurl her from the tower with his own hands if she has forgotten herself. She closes her eyes before him, and at last, he departs.
Then she hears Schmendrick reassuring her that it’s over. He has heard all Haggard said and now knows where the unicorns have been hidden. When she turns to him, he sees moisture on her face and says,
“I hope that’s spray. If you’ve become human enough to cry, then no magic in the world--oh, it must be spray. Come with me. It had better be spray.” (page 189)
Writer Comments: This chapter covers an extended period of time. It covers several scenes, some quite brief, and it unfurls a crucial turning point for the unicorn. That’s a lot to cram into one chapter, which begs the question: What should comprise a chapter?
There are many answers to this, and undoubtedly, you can find pages of opinion if you search online or get a group of writers together to discuss it. However, I think, amidst all the various definitions, that there is one crucial element that must define a chapter, every chapter, of a story: shift.
What is shift? Simply, it is a slight or dramatic alteration in the characters and story. Something must change to raise the stakes or reveal a new layer of the mystery. A new development must come up. A new question must arise. Something must change.
This chapter is all about the change in Lady Amalthea from being the unicorn to embracing her human side and fleeing her unicorn self. Beagle takes us from the moment she takes that first real step by accepting Lir, demonstrates how extensively she turns from her true self, to the point where she is on the brink of losing herself completely. In real time, this takes months, but Beagle can’t afford to drag the description of it out and risk boring his readers or at least getting sidetracked. Instead, he highlights the change, the shift, in one powerful chapter.
For stories to be dynamic, they must make small alterations that result in the overall big change that results in the climax. To accomplish this, a writer must make something shift in each chapter and in each scene for that matter. If nothing shifts, take a good hard look at what’s written. It almost certainly needs cutting or rewriting.
Thank you for joining me for this read of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. We’ll resume this read on Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for a sneak peak at Jessi Gage’s Jade’s Spirit, an awesome book about a haunting, hope, love, and redemption.