“In a World That Holds Such Beauty”: Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn Turns 50
To say that The Last Unicorn is personally significant to me would be something of an understatement. My earliest childhood memory is watching the Rankin/Bass animated film in the theater with my parents. I saw the movie again while still a child, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I first picked up the novel upon which it was based. Reading it certainly brought back all those images from my early years, yet it was also a distinct experience. The movie stays quite faithful to the book in tone and substance, but it could never convey the beauty, the wisdom, and the sharp, subtle wit of its source material. Watching the movie and reading the book were two complementary experiences, each distinct and yet each glorious in its own way.
Beagle’s poetic, mellifluous language is its own enchantment, and it reminds us that life lived in barren drudgery is unnatural to the human condition.The book is now celebrating its fiftieth year in print. It was the sophomore novel of Peter S. Beagle, who had published his first work, A Fine and Private Place, in 1960, in his early twenties. The Last Unicorn follows its eponymous character across a quasi-medieval (though at times deliberately anachronistic) fantasy landscape as she seeks to learn whether she is, in fact, the last of her kind—and if not, where the others may now be. In the journey which comprises the first half of the novel, the unicorn is joined on her quest by Schmendrick, a curiously ageless and bumbling wizard, and Molly Grue, a failed but feisty Maid Marian type. Eventually, the trio arrives at the castle of the mysterious old King Haggard, who may command the horrific Red Bull said to have captured the other unicorns. But to help the unicorn elude the Bull, Schmendrick unwittingly uses his magic to transform her into a human woman—a woman who begins to lose her own identity as she falls further and further in love with Haggard’s amiable son, Prince Lír.
Even as I write this summary, accurate as it is, I can feel my own words betraying me. Beagle’s prose in the book is remarkable; a single page may contain more fresh metaphors than most novels can muster in their entire text. The overall tone is melancholy, yet in a pleasurable, Keatsian sort of way, punctuated with delightfully unexpected moments of humor. The language is chosen with care, tapping into a rich vein of literary allusions that can be read through multiple layers of meaning. Beagle’s characters are conscious of the story’s fairy tale tropes and sometimes remark on them, yet he never takes the metafiction so far that it alienates us from the characters, who are drawn with exquisite texture.
Nuanced and elegant as it is, The Last Unicorn can be read in multiple valid ways. It is a short but traditional fantasy in part inspired by Tolkien, of whom Beagle is an obvious admirer. It is, curiously, also an American road trip book in the line of Kerouac or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But what resonates most for me is the tension at the heart of the book between an insistence on appreciating the fleeting moments of our present life balanced against the need for some immortal, beautiful ideal.
I have, in more academic form, argued elsewhere that the central conflict of all the novel’s characters lies in their response to immortality. As Beagle asserts time and time again, the unicorn herself is immortal, and for their immortal beauty she and her kind are pursued and hunted by people throughout the book’s pages (and in the history prior). In this, she is juxtaposed against the ultimate figure of mortality, her counterpart the Red Bull. The Bull’s associations with mortality are evident in Beagle’s first major description of him, which is made up almost wholly by images of death, destruction, and disease: “He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under an old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars.”
We can see early on that Beagle intends to contrast the unicorn and the Bull as polarities or mirror images. Long before encountering the Bull, we hear about him from a butterfly who speaks entirely in quotations. To describe this mysterious nemesis, the butterfly quotes the RSV translation of Deuteronomy 33:17: “His firstling bull has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox” (10). Beagle’s rough draft of the novel shows that he is quite aware of the King James Version’s translation of this same verse: “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns.”
Our first reaction, thus, will be to root for the beautiful unicorn in opposition to the deathly Bull. Such admiration isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. For what the reader soon learns is that the novel’s most distorted villains are precisely those who have become too obsessed with the unicorn or what she represents. The decrepit Mommy Fortuna collects and imprisons immortal beasts knowing that they’ll kill her one day, just so that she can be remembered by them. The feckless would-be Robin Hood Captain Cully desperately seeks folklore collectors who might make his legend last forever. In Hagsgate, the town by King Haggard’s castle, the inhabitants are cursed to despise their own prosperity because they know it can never last.
And King Haggard himself is the worst offender. He claims, “I will keep nothing near me that does not make me happy.” But since all pleasures are transient, he withers inside. Only the immortal unicorns provide some glimpse of supreme happiness: “I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old. Yet each time I see my unicorns, it is like that morning in the woods, and I am truly young in spite of myself, and anything can happen in a world that holds such beauty.” Haggard is terrible, not because he can’t recognize beauty but because he can’t accept it in any transient (dare I say incarnational?) form. Indeed, when the unicorn is transformed into the mortal Lady Amalthea, Haggard intuitively recognizes her immortal nature yet is angered by the fact she seems to be losing and forgetting it.
This villainy does not, I believe, justify a complete rejection of immortal beauty, however. No one in The Last Unicorn is perfect, but its most admirable characters are those who appreciate the unicorn (both as a being herself and as an ideal) while allowing her to remain wild and free rather than possessing her. Schmendrick, who knows a thing or two about immortality himself, sees right away that he needs to rescue the unicorn from Mommy Fortuna and help her in her quest. Molly Grue, who retains a love of beauty amidst the ruins of her own life, fights fiercely on behalf of the unicorn. Prince Lír, unwittingly in love with the unicorn in her human guise, becomes a great hero for her sake, telling Molly, “I want to serve her, as you do, to help her find whatever she has come here to find. I wish to be whatever she has most need of.” Without the immortal beauty toward which to aspire, these characters’ lives would be sad and empty. Indeed, before they fall in with the unicorn, our heroes live pathetic and incomplete lives.
The return of the other unicorns into the world, accompanied by Haggard’s final downfall, suggests the possibility of a renewed, reenchanted world. This new enchantment isn’t identical to the old one—the unicorn, who has been mortal, is now changed, as is the world into which her fellow-creatures enter. Writing as he was in the late 1960s, Beagle caught the crest of the wave of countercultural hippy optimism, perhaps the same wave that helped make Tolkien suddenly so popular.
There is, of course, a Christological dimension to Beagle’s unicorn—the immortal who becomes mortal, descends into hell, and raises the dead. But I’m not actually sure that’s the most helpful dimension of the story, at least not if taken too far. The Last Unicorn may in some senses describe a Christian narrative arc, but it’s not really a Christian novel. Beagle’s unicorn—his conception of immortal beauty—is (likely by design) ill-defined. She is something to strive for, something beyond ourselves, but not necessarily God (or even a Platonic world of ideals).
Still, that’s plenty to work with. The novel’s heroes all begin in unheroic ways before they join the quest. Schemndrick, wise about the nature of stories, is foolish about his own pretensions; Molly seems to have given up hope after her youth’s lost innocence; Lír is vapid and bland. They are all redeemable because they see the wild beauty of the unicorn’s immortality as something transcendent, beyond their full grasp. In this, they show just how much our disillusioned world needs the enchantment of a supernal ideal.
The villains work from the wrong end, however. They all accept immortality as an axiom, but they cannot accept the limitations of the world in which they live. Each is in some way Pharisaical, seeking to grasp something that (to borrow from C. S. Lewis) is not tame. Beagle is no dogmatic religionist, and if his heroes’ faults are mundane, his villains’ flaw make them zealots. They seek to capture a perfection that cannot be claimed in this lifetime, and as a result, they fail to make anything noble of their lives. Mommy Fortuna becomes a wretched hag whose only “immortality” comes in her death. Captain Cully never acts courageously, but hopes the centuries will think of him as such by hearing his homemade ballads. Haggard destroys himself and his kingdom in pursuit of a happiness that will last, so he can no longer appreciate any fleeting but true joy.
It is this narrow road between disenchantment and fanaticism that the unicorn treads, which is one reason why I love this book so dearly and, I think, why it has endured. Beagle’s poetic, mellifluous language is its own enchantment, and it reminds us that life lived in barren drudgery is unnatural to the human condition. That is certainly a reminder Christians can celebrate as we sing our own song to a world without hope.
But our tendency to turn pious devotion into religious militancy pushes us uncomfortably close to the territory occupied by The Last Unicorn’s wickedest characters. Their discontent with this world turns into a foolish, hardened hatred. No one saw more clearly our need for a transcendent vision than Jesus, the transfigured and exalted one. Yet who lived more fully in this world than he did, “the Son of Man” who “came eating and drinking,” who celebrated and wept? When we testify that Jesus was incarnate, we testify not only that he took on a physical form but that he lived alongside us. No one knew better “the joy that was set before him,” yet even with his eyes set toward Calvary and the New Jerusalem, Jesus found the time for a job and parties and friends.
Fifty years after its initial publication, The Last Unicorn still retains its power, in part because of this dynamic. Without a unicorn, without a beauty worth pursuing, the human spirit becomes desiccated and diseased. But when the pursuit of that ideal, the desire to grasp and own it, takes us over, we become predacious and vile. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” affirms the Apostle Paul. A truly incarnational Christian life follows the unicorn’s road, enchanted by a supreme reality that impels us onward while content with our state in this gritty waste land. “Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?” asks Schmendrick at one point. And to that the Christian can reply, “We always have been.”
Best thing I’ve ever read on this great story. Many thanks.
This is my favorite novel. Just finished reading it (again) to my children, though I read it as much for myself as I did for them. The book is as lovely and saturated with meaning as poetry. I love your your description of it, unpacking the symbolism and the characters. I’d wondered why a book that is so beautiful, and in some ways hopeful and even hilarious at times, had such power to make me feel sadness, horror, and regret deep in my bones — an enormous range of feeling for a “fairy tale.” I understand it better now through your words. Thank you.
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