The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. but her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. (p. 267, SFBC omnibus edition)With this opening paragraph to The Last Unicorn (1968), Peter Beagle makes it clear that this story is as much about the relationships between myth and reality as it is about the eponymous unicorn's adventure quest that makes up a large portion of this novel. This solitary unicorn, apparently the last of its kind, is unaware of its ancientness, not to mention that she (when are there ever male unicorns in these stories?) is not what she appears to be. She is a relic, a last survivor in a world that has changed, as seen in the following paragraph:
Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest where there is a pool clear enough for them to see themselves - for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides. They mate very rarely, and no place is more enchanted than one where a unicorn has been born. The last time she had seen another unicorn the young virgins who still came seeking her now and then had called to her in a different tongue; but then, she had no idea of months and years and centuries, or even of seasons. It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the great beech trees, keeping watch over the animals that lived in the ground and under bushes, in nests and caves, earths and treetops. Generation after generation, wolves and rabbits alike, they hunted and loved and had children and died, and as the unicorn did none of these things, she never grew tired of watching them (pp. 267-268)
This one paragraph contains the germ for the story that follows. The vain unicorn discovers beauty outside herself. The distant years and seasons, although perhaps they meant nothing to the unicorn when this story opens, will have come to have great importance for her by its conclusion. The passive watcher of mortality ends up finding herself enmeshed in the affairs of mortals, as it discovers what love is...as well as what loss can mean, even for an immortal, legendary creature such as the unicorn.
The Last Unicorn is the second Peter Beagle novel that I have read, after his first novel, A Fine & Private Place (which constitutes the first half of the omnibus tradeback that I bought). To my shame, I had never read any of Beagle's stories until earlier this year, but belated as I am to reading his fiction, I am also blessed to have discovered a writer who has a sometimes melancholy, but often poetic ring to his prose. While The Last Unicorn might have the sound of a fairy tale, it has the feel of a self-conscious, rather post-modern one, a tale that is all too aware of the ephemeral nature of such stories. After all, when a fairy tale is told, it almost immediately fades into a ghostlike, unreal existence. But in this particular case, Beagle uses that sense of fading, of loss to drive his tale.
The story is somewhat short, a little less than two hundred pages in my edition. As the unicorn begins her quest to discover if her long-lost kin still exist, she encounters deadly foes and unexpected friends. One such friend is the somewhat incompetent, second-rate magician, Schmendrick. In one passage early in the book, his comment to the unicorn reveals a divide between legend and reality:
"I knew it would come to this," he muttered. "I dreamed it differently, but I knew." He brought out a ring from which dangled several rusty keys. "You deserves the services of a great wizard," he said to the unicorn, "but I'm afraid you'll have to be glad of the aid of a second-rate pickpocket. Unicorns know nought of need, or shame, or doubt, or debt - but mortals, as you may have noticed, take what they can get. And Rukh can only concentrate on one thing at a time." (pp. 297-298)This is but one example of how the mortals appearing in this story compare themselves to the unicorn they meet and how they end up viewing themselves in comparison to the legends that they have heard about her and others:
"Nay, Cully, you have it backward," she called to him. "there's no such a person as you, or me, or any of us. Robin and Marian are real, and we are the legend!" (p. 324)Without elaborating at length, Beagle allows the reader to fill in the blanks about the value of myths, legends, and fairy tales. Whereas the unicorn might have begun by viewing herself as being distant from the legends and realities surrounding her, this is offset by the humans telling tales in which their own deeds are magnified and distorted. Even if "Robin Hood" might not have existed as such, Beagle seems to imply that the stories surrounding the character likely had their basis in actual events done by real, mortal people.
"But whoever you are, you know ver well that Robin Hood is the fable and I am the reality. No ballads will accumulate around my name unless I write them myself; no children will read of my adventures in their schoolbooks and play at being me after school. And when the professors prowl through the old tales, and scholars sift the old songs to learn if Robin Hood ever truly live, they will never, never find my name, not till they crack the world for the grain of its heart. But you know, and therefore I am going to sing you the songs of Captain Cully. He was a good, gay rascal who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In their gratitude, the people made up these simple verses about him."
Whereupon he sang them all, including the one that Willie Gentle had sung for Schmendrick. He paused often to comment on the varying rhythm patterns, the assonantal rhymes, and the modal melodies. (p. 326)
So what does this have to do with his version of a fairy tale centering around a unicorn questing rather than it being the center of a quest? From what I gathered in this, my first reading of this story, there is a value in the things that we seek. Whether we assign the value to them or we are valued instead by others, there is something precious in this. The unicorn comes to learn so much about the world and its peoples, places, and things by opening herself up to exploring them, to discovering new facets that perhaps were lost before her kin disappeared and before she had to confront the terrible Red Bull to find them. Sometimes, as Beagle's excellent story makes clear, it is the act of questing that defines what is precious for us, rather than the object being quested for. And that, I suspect, is why the best fairy tales have a power over us long after their original creators and the conditions in which these stories developed have faded into dust.