Welcome to the final segment of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we look at the elements that make up a successful novel. To catch up or review previous part of this read, click here.
Summary: After the tide of freed unicorns vanishes, the unicorn returns. In silence, she regards Lir, standing over him much like he stood over her to guard her when she was the Lady Amalthea. Then she restores him to life with a touch of her horn, a touch as clumsy as a first kiss. A second time, she touches him, lingering, then she flees.
Lir is desperate for her, wanting nothing more than to pursue her, even if it means he never sees her again. But Schmendrick persuades him that he is needed more as king and that his people need him, even those of Hagsgate whose town came down around them when the unicorns passed through.
The three ride to the edge of the kingdom, and day by day, they see that spring has at last come and the land been blessed from the passage of the unicorns. It is, despite Hagsgate and its people, a good land.
On the last night, the unicorn comes to Schmendirck in his dreams. She is touched by a sadness that no unicorn before her ever knew, and, as she tells Schmendrick, she regrets though no unicorn was ever made to regret. He apologizes deeply, for he realizes that, in turning her human, he did a greater evil to her than Mommy Fortuna, King Haggard, and the Red Bull combined. But still, she thanks him for it, in part because it lead to the release of her people, in part, though this is implied not outright stated, because of Lir. She vanishes then, and he wakes, he finds that Molly and Lir have also seen her in their dreams. Molly refuses to confess what the unicorn told her, and Lir in agony tells them that the unicorn said nothing to him, nothing at all. He rides away, heartbroken.
Schmendrick asks Molly to come with him as they follow the road before them to their destiny and, on some level he hopes, the unicorn. She accepts and they travel beyond Lir’s kingdom.
Shortly after crossing the border, they come upon a princess in dire straits, so Schmendrick sends her onto Lir, who is a hero of greatness. He gives her his horse and points her in the right direction. Then, after laughing for a long time, he and Molly sing on the road of love.
Writer Comments: For all the sad and beautiful things in this chapter, I want to focus on two: tragedy and love.
Many, if not most, of the most famous and lasting books of all do not end with the stereotypical happily ever after. The villain is defeated and the quest resolved, but it comes at a painful price. This sort of ending lingers and leaves us satisfied yet haunted. It is much like life.
Yet, especially for modern American audiences, it’s risky. True happy endings leave us smiling but rarely imprint as deeply on our hearts. Tragedy, even amongst victory, is more impactful. However, many readers don’t have the tolerance for it. Many readers do not want to close the book and feel any sense of sadness.
I suspect that, on some level, Beagle knew this. His ending is certainly full of tragedy. Everything the hero Lir desired is gone. Yes, the unicorns are free, but the unicorn herself is now corrupted by sadness, regret, and the fear of death. The touch of mortality lingers upon her, and she will never truly be free of it. Yet she knew love. Schmendrick has come into his power, but in doing so, he comes face to face with the fact that, even while seeking kindness, he can inadvertently do great evil.
Yet Beagle pulls the end together at the last with hope. The princess comes, and it’s implied that she will be exactly what Lir needs. Certainly Lir will save her, but perhaps along the way, she too will save him. Molly and Schmendrick ride off together to a kind of happy ending. They’ve both found where they belong. Hope is perhaps a more human and lasting emotion than joy, and so Beagle ends his tale on that note, a note that drives us ever onward to the achievement of greater things.
Lastly, I want to look at love in the context of this chapter. Love is addressed twice. First, it comes between Lir and the unicorn. Despite resuming her natural shape, she clearly still loves the prince. Twice, she touches him, something she has never done for anyone except Molly, who she let touch her often. Then Beagle writes into her a longing, a sadness for the man she loved. That love too is mirrored in Lir, and the two are cleaved in twain, never to know resolution or happiness. In this, Beagle violates every modern expectation of romance. Yet how could he have done anything else and kept the unicorn as the focus? Had he brought happiness to them, it would have destroyed her and cheapened the story.
Finally, Beagle implies repeatedly that Schmendrick and Molly are now together. Schmendrick takes her hand. He tends her kindly. And at the end, they sing together of marriage and love. Yet not once do either of them actually say, “I love you.” Not once does Schmendrick come out and directly ask Molly to marry him. In fact, one could argue that the romance between them doesn’t even occur. However, Beagle heavily implies it. He does not satisfy our traditional expectations, but in going about it this way, he creates a unique glimpse into Schmendrick and Molly’s happily ever after. He creates poetry and beauty and freshness, and that is, after all, what much of the book contains. It is beauty and it is tragedy, and from them springs a story as magical and touching as the unicorns leaping from the sea to freedom.