Hidden away in her own sanctuary, Beagle's unicorn has little cares for the world due to her magic and immortality. However, when she hears that she might be the only unicorn left in the world, she sets out on a journey to see if there is any of her kind left. After being captured by a freak show she meets up with a bumbling magician, Schmendrick, and later, a middle aged maiden, Molly Grue. Together these three head on a quest that will take them into the dangerous realm of King Haggard. It will be here that the last unicorn will have to face her nemesis, the Red Bull, in order to free the rest of her kind.
To a large extentPeter Beagle's book is considered an interesting work of fantasy because it was one of the first post-modern science fiction novels. The most salient feature of post-modern science fiction is a rebellion against the classical fantasy/science fiction novel that creates a world that is completely separate from our own. In this world the characters say and do things that are completely in line with the small universe that the author has created in his novel. The author strives to draw the reader completely in to the story. Beagle rebels against this by creating a novel that constantly pulls the reader out of the novel, back in to the real world, only to slide back into the plot. The Last Unicorn is a novel that is written in this post-modern style, of which many examples can be found.Beagle does not immediately strike you with his departure from traditional fantasy. The unicorn lives in a wood all by herself, in what is seemingly a medieval world. There are kings and wizards, and lots of peasants. But just when the reader is being drawn into this "other" world, Beagle introduces a character to disrupt it in the form of a talking butterfly. The thing that pulls the reader out of Beagle's world, back into his own, is not the butterfly's ability to talk (that, after all, is not too bizarre in a fantasy novel), but what he has to say. Among the many things that do not belong in this fantasy novel are the butterflies references to Shakespeare "you're a fishmonger", children's singalongs "you are my sunshine", and songs from America's pop culture "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey, won't you come home" (8). Now, a veteran of fantasy could probably come up with a list of science fiction cliches that could explain his odd knowledge. Maybe the butterfly learned these phrases by falling into a wormhole and spending time in our world. Maybe, the butterfly is in fact a traveler from our world, secretly disguised. Or, this is some bizarre post-apocalyptic world where after many millions of years and genetic mutation, the new inhabitants of our planet are uncovering our twentieth-century pop culture. But this, like other details in Beagle's novel that clearly do not fit in with the rest of the story, are not explained away.
Evidence of Beagle's unorthodox style can be seen later when Schmendrick and Molly are taken captive by Captain Cully. Schmendrick tries to flatter the outlaw by pretending that he has heard of many of the outlaw's exploits. As Cully begins to fall for this, he becomes much more friendly with Schmendrick, offering the wizard a place by his fire, an invitation to talk of what people supposedly say about Cully in other countries, and with a unique twist, a taco(57). An odd foodstuff for outlaws seemingly modeled off of Robin Hood. Later, Schmendrick spends a good part of the night making up stories about the glories of Captain Cully. The reader learns later on that most of tales came from his "good grounding in Anglo-Saxon folklore"(57).Beagle uses many other small descriptions to rip the reader out of his fantasy world. At one point a prince is described " reading a magazine"(75). At another point, Prince Lir is described as having armor that is partially made of bottlecaps(111). A more subtle example of post-modern fantasy is the birth of Prince Lir . The Prince was found on butcher's block, warm despite the fact that it was snowing, surrounded by stray cats(88). As Drinn, the villager that found him said "it purred prophecy"(88). But it is at this point that Beagle breaks the spell. If this were a traditional fantasy, Drill would have become the foster parent for the boy and raised him. But this is not traditional fantasy. Drill instead scares away the cats and leaves the baby to what he expects will be death; because, he fears that the child that seems to have an aura of destiny around him might grow to be the one that brings down the prophecy of doom that had been cursed upon his town by a witch.
These are just a few of the many examples that makes Beagles work a very different kind of fantasy. The post-modern style of fantasy, or the fantastic, has had a hard time becoming accepted by many hard core fantasy fans. Many critics do not like novels that try to constantly toss the reader back and forth between the world in the book, and the real world. These people find it very hard to take the story seriously, they cannot believe in this world, and so do not like it. But,for some readers, Beagles work is very entertaining. They see his work as a fantasy novel that does not take itself too seriously, and can use references too real life as a form of humor and another form of expression in the novel. These people do not think it is all that bad to have fun in a fantasy world.
Two of the central themes of The Last Unicorn are those of being and not being. Most of the characters in the novel are part of the not being, they are trying to become something, trying to reach an ideal. With the exception of the Unicorn, all of the main characters in The Last Unicorn are "wannabees", they are trying to become people that they are not.
Schmendrick the magician is an excellent example of the many characters trying to fully become himself. The first time he meets the Unicorn he nearly kills the enchanted animal while trying to free her from her cage(34). He goes on through the novel, continuously making a fool out of himself. When he tries to entertain Captain Cully's "merry" men, he is forced to use slight of hand because he knows his spells are not dependable enough (62). Later in the novel Schmendrick spends time as King Haggard's wizard/fool. Throughout the novel he constantly persists at trying to be a real wizard but fails.
Molly Grue, too, is a character that is trying in her own way to change the person that she is. She is a poor man's Maid Marien. Though, she lives with an outlaw who saved her from an evil baron, she does not fit the classical role of Robin Hood's love. She does not have the sweetness and beauty of the fairy tale, as Captain Cully says she is "suspicious, pinched, dour, prematurely old, even a touch tyrannical"(57). This middle aged woman is cynical and broken. She even admits this to herself when she first meets the Unicorn "How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this? With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart" (70).
Captain Cully is yet another example of a character that desperately wants to be a much greater thing than he is. In his case he wants to be remembered as a Robin Hood. He has his men create songs about great deeds he never did. Though he lives his life as an outlaw, he steals from the poor, and gives the rich a percentage. Even his "merry" men lack much enthusiasm, as one of them says to Cully "No offense, captain, but we're really not very merry, when all's said-"(61). Cully is trying to live an illusion.
Beagle leaves many of the unfulfilled characters the way that he finds them, unfulfilled. The "good guys" like Schmendrick and Molly by the end of the story have come to be the people they wanted to be: Schmendrick is a great wizard, and Molly is a fair and innocent maiden.
You can extend this theme to the two characters in the book that are the most opposite of each other, the Unicorn and the Red Bull. The Unicorn represents "being". It is clear throughout the novel she is a character that is everything a unicorn is reputed to be. The Unicorn is immortal, has magical abilities, and cannot be captured by any normal means. She is a magical being, that cannot be seen from members of the "non-being" world. When the Unicorn begins her journey she first meets a farmer that tries to capture her (6). However, the reader quickly learns that the man is trying to capture because he thinks that she is a beautiful white mare, not because she is a Unicorn. This small time farmer is part of (what I term) the "non-being" world, he does not believe in magic, and so cannot believe that the Unicorn is anything more than a horse. Throughout the story people from the "non-being" world cannot see the Unicorn for what she truly is. The only exceptions to these are Molly and Schmendrick. Both of these characters are in a way trapped in worlds that they do not want to be in. Schmendrick does not want to be the small time charlatan that he is throughout most of the novel, Molly Grue never grew in to the "Maid Marien" character she wanted to be. So because both of these characters wish so much that they could change, that they could grow into greater beings than what they are, they can both see creatures from the other, less-mundane, world the Unicorn is from.
When you talk about the Unicorn, it is only natural to talk about its counterpoint, the Red Bull. The Red Bull is the ultimate representative of the "non-being" world. He in many ways represents the most cynical and dark side of reality, the part which tries to drive out things that conflict with the "non-being", unmagical world that it represents. In many ways the bull represents defeat. What I mean by defeat is the giving up of hope, breaking the will of his captives. The Bull does this through wearing down his captives. Both the first and second time the Bull meets the Unicorn he never tries to physically harm his enemy. He just runs after his captives, tiring them, intimidating them, until they surrender and allow him to drive them into the ocean. Perhaps the Red Bull's personality can be best summed up by what Schmendrick says at one point, "The Red Bull never fights....He conquers, but he never fights"(197). The Bull only represents self-defeat, he can only win when his captives no longer believe in themselves. So in his own way the Bull represents the world of the "non-being", those individuals that have given up on the world of the "being", who have accepted the role of the "wannabe", and live in a truly mundane world.
Why did Beagle put these themes of the "being" and the "non-being" world into his novel. Perhaps because he felt that often times a lot of life is based on perspective. What we want to see, hear, and do, depends upon us. If we want to we can settle for the lowest common denominator, like the simple farmer that mistakes the Unicorn for a white mare, or instead strive to push ourselves to be more than we are given, like Molly and Schmendrick. What Beagle says is that you can see the magic and opportunity in life or ignore it. You can give in to the Red Bull, and despair, or resist it.
The version of "The Last Unicorn" that I used was published by ROC, 1991