Warning: this post contains ALL THE SPOILERS.
This is another entry in the Ana-is-catching-up-with-the-fantasy-classics-which-were-not-available-to-her-as-a-child-growing-up-in-Brazil series.
So, The Last Unicorn. A book that has been published over 40 years ago (in fact, my edition celebrates its 40th anniversary) and which follows the story of the Last Unicorn in the world as she leaves her comfy forest in search of answers about what happened to her fellow unicorns. On her Quest, she is joined by two Companions: a frustrated magician called Schmendrick (who has a lot of potential but can’t seem to control his magic) and a middle-aged woman called Molly Grue. They go through Adventures and Perils on their way to meet a King (the Villain), his Son (the Hero) and the Red Bull – the Ultimate Danger that the Unicorn has to face. At one point, in order to save her life, the magician manages to control his magic and to transform her into a young woman which is how she learns things that as a Unicorn she is unable to (since Unicorns know nothing of mortality, of love and of loss) . She falls in love with the prince and in the end she is transformed back into a Unicorn but for better or worse she is a changed Unicorn because she experienced what it is like to be human. This is a very hasty summary which does not fully recapitulate this quite complex little book.
I feel that I don’t really have anything new to say that hasn’t already been said by other reviewers which is why I am writing a ponderings post about my feelings instead. I know that a lot of our readers have read this book so I am hoping to open up a conversation with our covenant of readers. Please feel free to leave comments!
For starters, how surprising was this book? I loved how the Unicorn was a thing of Beauty and so inhuman in its immortality and supposed indifference (because if she were truly indifferent, she wouldn’t have gone in the Quest in the first place?).
I expected it to be an old-fashioned, traditional tale given its age but I found it was rather modern and even perhaps, post-modern. For example, the Unicorn at one point meets a talking butterfly that tends to repeat things it has heard elsewhere, some of the things it repeats are lines from known books and even pop songs. At another time, Schmendrick uses Judo to fend off enemies – both of these things signify that perhaps this world is our own world and made me question WHEN exactly this story is set: perhaps in the future after the fall of our modern culture? Is this a post-apocalyptic novel?
I also thought it was extremely fun to see how incredibly self-aware the characters were about their place in the story and the role they must play in it:
The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
This is a fairytale that knows it is a fairytale and I found that to be quite cool. I also didn’t expect it to be funny, and yet it is quite hilarious especially when it comes to Schmendrick and his failures. I found myself chuckling all the time. Like for example in this scene that is so matter-of-fact about the different personalities of the Magician and Molly:
The magician stood erect, menacing the attackers with demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments, and secret judo holds. Molly picked up a rock.
Is this a book to be loved? I think so, it is a beautiful book. I loved how the Unicorn could mean different things to different people. Schmendrick was almost reverent toward her and didn’t even dare a touch, whereas Molly not only tells the Unicorn off when she first meets her but touches her every change she gets. I loved how horrible some of the people in this book could be – like for example, the people from Hagsgate, a town trapped by a curse of such prosperity but instead of making its people happy it makes them utterly unhappy and selfish – the things they do keep their luck going are horrible but at the same time it was easy to understand their motivations.
But inasmuch as I loved it, there is something about it that makes me uneasy and I can’t quite grasp what it is…I can’t help but to think that in the end, falling in love has been portrayed as a tragic event that is more bitter than sweet and which ultimately has brought the Unicorn down? I am not sure how I feel about that or about the fact the Unicorn is female and despite the fact that it is an incredibly powerful being, it ended up literally being saved/rescued by the actions of a mortal man…
Finally, one last thought. For all intents and purposes, this is considered to be a classic Fantasy novel and a beloved one as far as I know. Am I breaking unspoken laws or rules by questioning some of its motives?
What about you? Have you read The Last Unicorn? How do you feel about it?
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