5.22.2013

Currently Reading: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn"Do you know what I am, butterfly?" the unicorn asked hopefully, and he replied, "Excellent well, you're a fishmonger. You're my everything, you are my sunshine, you are old and gray and full of sleep, you're my pickle-face, consumptive Mary Jane." He paused, fluttering his wings against the wind, and added conversationally, "Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name."

"Say my name, then," the unicorn begged him. "If you know my name, tell it to me."

"Rumplestiltskin," the butterfly answered happily. "Gotcha! You don't get no medal." He jigged and twinkled on her horn, singing, "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey, won't you come home, where once he could not go. Buckle down, Winsocki, go and catch a falling star. Clay lies still, but blood's a rover, so I should be called kill-devil all the parish over." His eyes were gleaming scarlet in the glow of the unicorn's horn.

She sighed and plodded on, both amused and disappointed. It serves you right, she told herself. You know better than to expect a butterfly to know your name. All they know are songs and poetry, and anything else they hear. They mean well, but they can't keep things straight. And why should they? They die so soon.

Author: Peter S. Beagle

Synopsis: The unicorn lives in a lilac wood where spring never fades, and she knows no sorrow. Upon hearing a rumor that she is the last unicorn in the world, however, she sets out to find the rest of her kind. Joined in her quest by the magician Schmendrick, whose unreliable magic causes more problems than it solves, and gaunt, bad-tempered Molly Grue, whose one grace is her love for the unicorn, she must brave the castle of King Haggard, where the Red Bull awaits her—the demon which drove all the other unicorns out of the world—and so does a more painful fate: that of experiencing mortal fears and loves.

Notes: The best books need more than one read for proper absorption, and this is one of them, which means that at the moment, I can only give it half the review it ought to have. Written in thickly poetic prose, with dreamlike aphorisms of original make broadcast throughout the text, it demands attention and thought beyond the one scatterbrained plunge through I could manage this week. I'm more than a little sorry that the library wants its copy back today.

There are a thousand ideas running loose in the story: the unicorn's mystique and immortality as related to by the humans, the thorough self-sacrifice demanded by love, the effects of greed and fear versus joy and hope on the human life, the effects of the physical body and mortality on the soul, and especially the need for—in the terms of the tale—the presence of unicorns in the world. There are striking Christian parallels, though I don't know enough about the author to tell whether he meant them, or how. The story itself is a wandering, often dark fairy tale, but it's drawn along by a single bright light that flickers but holds true.

Schmendrick and Molly, the unicorn's primary companions, are fascinating in that neither of them starts off as particularly sympathetic, but both earn their place. Prince Lír, too, is an odd mix of heroic and awkward. King Haggard, for all his badness, is not the sort of villain who can be indiscriminately hated, and the reader even winds up feeling sorry for the skull on the wall and partially losing sympathy for the unicorn in her mortal phase. It's uncomfortable at times, but the characters grow throughout the story, and the final juxtaposition of joy and suffering manages to be both painful and beautiful.

There was a moment toward the end where I was reminded acutely of The Little White Horse, another beautifully thick unicorn fantasy written for children but meant for the childlike. The two stories aren't much alike in terms of characters or plot, but both catch the exquisite bliss and sorrow inspired by the mystical beauty of the unicorn. They share a scene, more or less, albeit to different purposes, but it's hard to say whether Beagle's book owes anything directly to Goudge's twenty-two-years-older story, and not just because the older tale is a human drama touched by a unicorn and the newer is a unicorn's drama touched by humans. Goudge wrote a clearer, jewel-toned story with bright, untainted optimism; Beagle wrote in softer, more diluted colors, with a bit more modern sadness and a little less confidence in the goodness of either humanity or magic. Goudge is more my usual style, but I suspect Beagle appeals more naturally to most present-day readers.

The story meanders a bit, but that allows it to be contemplative in ways that heavily plot-driven tales rarely manage. It's the kind of read that can be picked up and put down and picked up again, thought through and relished, and while I didn't have time for a second cover-to-cover read, I did go back over a few key parts. Even that was enough to suggest it would only get better with time and consideration, and prove that it deserves the label of classic.

I've no idea how I made it to thirty-five without having ever read this book, especially since in childhood I saw the first part of the animated movie and have wondered about the ending ever since. Fortunately, I've never lost my little-girl love for unicorns. The tale of this unicorn is one I hope to have in my own library before long.

8 comments:

  1. I. Love. This Book.
    (and the movie)

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    1. It's awfully good. And as I was writing this review, I thought, "I bet Christie would love this book, if she doesn't already." :)

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    2. I was reading it one summer when my family were in Puerto Rico, the last time we were all there together before my great grandmother died. We were staying at the Hilton, whose back terrace went literally right out to the rocks over the breaking ocean, and it was SUCH a mood. I'd been a fan of the movie since childhood but that experience really solidified my relationship to it.

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  2. Oh, what a lovely review! It is decades since I read The Last Unicorn, and I've forgotten so much of it. (I'm not entirely sure I finished it, as I too had to return it to the library.) The comparison to Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse is unexpected; now I'll have to go back and reread The Last Unicorn to see what I think. The Little White Horse is, of course, one of my favorite children's fantasies -- and I agree, it is not at all limited to children.

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    1. Thanks, Lark! I'm always so excited to find other TLWH fans--it's such a beautiful little book. The two stories aren't much alike overall, except in the way humans relate to the unicorns, and there's just that one short scene where they're strikingly similar. With those things, it's hard to tell if they were drawing from the same mythology, or if Beagle gave a hat-tip to Goudge, or if they just had similar flings of imagination. Either way, I loved those aspects of both. :)

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  3. Good review, Jenna. I've only ever seen the animated film & that once & many, many years ago now. As with many things, I might have to pick up the book.

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  4. This one's been on my list for a while--somehow I missed it as a child too. Thanks for the review, and what a wonderful excerpt!

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  5. I discovered this in the library last fall. So good. Great job on the review!

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