Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. On this second to last chapter, we’ll take a look at climaxes and how a skilled writer manages them.
To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Summary: The Lady Amalthea, Prince Lir, Schmendrick, and Molly make their way down the dark, earthen passage toward the Red Bull. Along the way, Schmendrick explains who they are and their adventures to Lir. Too, he explains that Amalthea is actually a unicorn. Lir refuses the idea that anything Schmendrick or anyone else might do could impact his and Amlathea’s love for each other, but he knew she was something other than a mere human girl.
In the midst of their conversation, Amalthea comes between them and insists she will not be turned back. She wants to die when Lir dies, and she professes her love for him. Lir assures her that she needn’t fear, for it’s only Schmendrick and he can’t work real magic. But the Lady Amalthea knows differently and says so. She says Schmendrick will turn her back and she will not love Lir. But she assures him that, if there is any shred of love left in her for him, she will let the Bull drive her into the sea so that she will at least be near him.
Schmendrick declares then that the quest is ended. The unicorns will all be gone, but isn’t that a fair price for the addition of one more good woman? Then Lir says, “No,” for whatever his heart desires, he is a true hero and cannot allow his perceived order of things to be violated. Someone must save the unicorns, and no quest can be abandoned.
But as they’ve talked, the light of the Red Bull’s rising has crept into the passage. Lir and Amalthea go toward it to face it, and Schmendrick and Molly follow. Then they meet the Bull, and Schmendrick wishes with all his heart that the beast won’t recognize her, that she’ll be mortal forever, and become Lir’s in truth. Amalthea even extends her hand toward Lir, who, if he touched her then for the first time, would make her beyond even Schmendrick’s theoretical power to return to a unicorn. But Lir, in his efforts to defend her, does not see her hand.
The Bull charges, revealing that, no matter her form, he now knows Amalthea for what she truly is. They are scattered, and a desperate flight begins. The Bull charges at them again and again, and Amalthea falls. Lir stands between her and the Bull, weaponless but determined.
And it’s that awful, beautiful sorrow and strength of Lir before the Bull that gives Schmendrick what he needs. Magic fills him beyond his dreams, too much to ever be used, and his immortality falls away. He steps forward and utters the spell that turns her back into a unicorn. Lir turns just as Amalthea fades away forever, then the Bull charges anew and she breaks before it.
Wildly, they run. Then they come out of the cavern and onto the shore before the cliff where Haggard’s castle sits. Like before, the Bull drives the unicorn toward the sea, and, horn dim, she yields before him, only springing away when her hoof touches the water.
Lir demands Schmendrick do something, for what is the use of magic but to save unicorns? But Schmendrick reminds him that not even his magic can save her now. Saving unicorns is for heroes. Lir understands and turns to meet the Bull, standing in its way as it rushes the unicorn. Defenseless, he falls, crushed beneath the Bull’s weight, dead.
The unicorn turns and sees his broken body upon the shore. A horrid scream comes from her that was never meant to come from any immortal creature. Her horn flares to life, and she charges the Bull, driving it into the sea.
The Bull yields and swims away, and with his parting, the unicorns come out of the sea. Schmendrick picks the dead prince up and shields him and Molly with magic as the unicorns break over them like a flood. And then the castle comes swirling down. Haggard falls with it and perishes.
Writer Comments: This chapter is the climax of the story, and it’s a powerful one. Climaxes are crucial. They bring everything together and resolve it. They bring the reader satisfaction. And while you may find a thousand different bits of advice in how to write them, in this story, here are what I think are the key elements that make it work:
The Loss of Hope:
In good climaxes, there must be a point where hope is lost. Figuratively, the heroes must plummet off the cliff to their presumed deaths. This makes the reader fully wrapped up in the outcome. It creates a desperate desire for a pleasant resolution and amps up that desire.
In this case, Beagle has the unicorn as Amalthea refuse to be returned to her natural form, thus condemning all unicorns to eternal imprisonment and herself to her own death. And then he does it again by having the hero everyone lose everything he desired, or at least making it appear that way. When Amalthea reaches out for Lir, it means Schmendrick would never gain his magic and his mortal life back, Molly would lose her unicorn, the unicorn would lose herself, and then when Lir doesn’t realize she’s reaching for him, it means he loses the woman he loves.
Characters Face the Worst Parts of Themselves:
To earn and achieve the ending, the characters must face the worst parts of themselves. As part of their journey and to bring deeper satisfaction to the readers, they must overcome themselves, not just the villains.
Here, Beagle has them each face themselves. The unicorn faces herself as Amalthea and loses. This in itself is significant for many reasons, but by this point, we don’t entirely want her to lose all that Amalthea gave her like the ability to love Prince Lir.
However, Lir faces his desire to turn from true heroism so he might have the woman he loves. When reminded of heroism, though, he does the right thing and refuses to give in to the easy answer. Molly begs Schmendrick not to turn Amalthea back into a unicorn, even though Molly desperately wants her unicorn. And Schmendrick, through Molly, is faced with himself and his relationship to magic. He turns from his quest for that magic, willingly surrendering it so that Amalthea and Lir can be happy.
The reader must see the possibility and, I would argue, likelihood of failure to feel satisfied with success. It’s like how sweets taste all the better after eating something bitter.
The Bull comes after Amalthea despite her having the shape and seeming of a human woman. Schmendrick’s magic doesn’t come to him, at least not when he thinks he needs it. The unicorn yields to the Bull. Lir is killed. All of these sound like failure. The trick is to then turn that perceived failure into part of the solution for victory.
Resolution of All Plots:
Ultimately, this is what a climax is about. However, any book will have multiple story lines that need resolving. If an author resolves them before the climax, tension will be lost and with it, perhaps, reader interest.
Yet resolution is even more challenging because each story line’s resolution must play into the others. In this case, for example, Prince Lir dying for love of the Lady Amalthea and for his heroic duty--both presumably resolving his story lines--gives the unicorn the strength to drive the Red Bull away, thus resolving her story line.
Yet, further, all this must be advertised earlier in the story. The reader should not be able to guess exactly how the climax will be resolved, but by the end, they should be able to go back and nod in understanding at all the pieces that brought about the end.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Next Monday, we’ll finish this book and I’ll announce the next novel we’ll read. Until then, join me this Friday for further forays into books, the speculative, and life.