Unicorns Are Dignified, Or Enjoying the Roles Heroes Play

Back before Christmas, Rachael and I went with our friend Becky to Atlanta in order to see a screening of The Last Unicorn which was preceded by a book signing by the original novel’s author, Peter S. Beagle.  It was a fun outing, and Rachael and Becky were very excited by the prospect of meeting Mr. Beagle.  Having never read the book myself, I went along because I wanted to see the film on the big screen (I saw this movie multiple times when I was a child and rediscovered it in college thanks to Rachael).  The prospect of meeting Mr. Beagle was a cool idea, but because I’d never read any of his fiction, I wasn’t nearly so excited by it.

Consequently, at the book signing, I think all I said to him when I handed over my purchases for signing was something to the effect of, “I’m just the guy who drove those two here.  Do you mind signing that to my wife, since it’s a gift for her?”

Last unicorn hb.jpg

First edition cover of The Last Unicorn. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Honestly, I felt like kind of a jerk, but I think that’s an unavoidable part of conversing very briefly with a famous person who’s used to conversing very briefly with not-famous people.  Maybe there’s a secret to having a meaningful exchange with anyone you meet, but if that’s the case, it eludes me.

Anyway, watching the movie was very enjoyable, and afterwards, Rachael finally convinced me to read the novel (I’m not sure I’ve ever had an aversion to reading it before now, but actually getting introduced to some of Beagle’s other fiction was the spur I needed to finally read it).

For anyone not familiar with The Last Unicorn, the plot follows the eponymous unicorn as she sets out to find the other unicorns when she hears rumor that they’ve all disappeared.  It’s mostly a series of fantastic vignettes as the unicorn travels along, with the central plot becoming more apparent and important in the last third of the novel.  Along her way, the unicorn meets Schmendrick, a talentless magician, and Molly Grue, a middle-aged woman who’s had a very hard life.  Together, the three of them journey to the kingdom of King Haggard, who has been using a magical beast known as the Red Bull to capture all the unicorns for his own satisfaction.  While in Haggard’s domain, they encounter the Bull, and Schmendrick has a moment of prodigious magic and transforms the unicorn into a human woman, whom he names Amalthea.  In this state, the Bull ignores the unicorn and they’re free to continue on to Haggard’s castle, where they meet him and enter his employ.  Haggard’s adopted son Lir falls in love with Amalthea and proceeds to become a hero in order to try to impress her.  Eventually, the three travelers and Lir enter the lair of the Red Bull and confront it to free the other unicorns from the sea, where they’ve been corralled.  In the process, Schmendrick transforms Amalthea back into the unicorn, and Lir is heartbroken that his beloved is no longer human.  Haggard’s castle collapses in the wake of the unicorns escaping, and Lir becomes the new king.  Schmendrick and Molly encourage him to devote himself to reigning responsibly over his kingdom, while they ride off to pursue the unicorn.

The ending to the book feels a lot more subdued than the ending of the film, even though the plots are essentially the same.  I think the big difference is the characterization of Lir, because the film really doesn’t dwell very much at all on his mourning over Amalthea’s transformation back into the unicorn, while the novel’s denouement seems almost exclusively concerned with Lir’s grief and Schmendrick’s efforts to persuade him that he’s mistaken in wanting to spend the rest of his life chasing after the unicorn instead of being a responsible monarch.

Now, this may be colored by my recent playthrough of Mass Effect 3, but I really sympathize with Lir’s frustration here.  Schmendrick tells him that he’s a hero, and as a hero it’s his job to die for the greater good if need be.  In the novel’s climax, that’s exactly what happens: Lir jumps in front of the Red Bull and gets trampled to death in order to give the unicorn a chance to drive the beast into the ocean and free the rest of the unicorns.  He makes the noble sacrifice even though he much would have preferred if Amalthea had remained human and they could have had a happy life together, because the cost would have been the continued enslavement of the unicorns to Haggard’s whims.  It reminds me a lot of my Shepard’s scenario where he couldn’t make the selfish choice because of the cost to other people.

What’s interesting about Lir is that he makes this decision because he knows it’s what he’s supposed to do.  Everyone in The Last Unicorn is aware of the role they’re playing in the larger fantasy story, and they frequently comment on doing what they’re supposed to because that’s how these things work.  Lir compares being a hero to being a carpenter; it’s an occupation that carries with it certain specialized knowledge of how to handle certain situations, and when a situation calls for a hero, the hero responds because that’s how the job works.  It’s rather fatalistic, but part of the charm of the novel is this ongoing commentary about fantasy tropes where the characters do what they’re supposed to, but they aren’t always happy about it (Lir most especially).

Lir’s case is just interesting because he’s called to make the noble sacrifice, but unlike in other stories where that’s the end of it, and he’s not required to suffer with the consequences of his actions, the unicorn revives him following the Bull’s defeat out of remembrance for the love that they shared while she was human.  She’s trying to do him a favor, but the way Lir reacts to his new reality suggests that he would have preferred to stay dead if he’d known what would be in store for him.  With his revival, Lir acquires a kingdom that he doesn’t want to be responsible for, and the sorrow of knowing that the woman he loved is now an immortal creature that he’ll probably never see again.  Lir is doomed to be haunted by a life of reluctant duty and regret even though the implicit hero’s compact is that his death relieves him of dealing with his actions’ consequences.

Essentially, the story betrays him for fulfilling his role, and it does so in the cruelest way possible.

Schmendrick tries to reassure Lir that he’s fortunate to have such a burden, because no other mortal can claim to have been loved by a unicorn, but on this point I think Schmendrick’s full of crap.  Yes, unicorns in this world express some kind of Platonic ideal of beauty, and yes, their love is wondrous, but Lir did not fall in love with a unicorn; he fell in love with the Lady Amalthea, and for all intents and purposes, she’s dead.  Lir’s lot is a bitter one.  The only comfort Schmendrick can even offer is the role of hero, which it’s presumed Lir will continue to play dutifully for the rest of his life.

It occurs to me that this may be a very cynical reading of the book’s ending, at least as far as its treatment of Lir goes, but it’s what I have at the moment.  If anyone has any of their own thoughts on The Last Unicorn, feel free to leave them in the comments, because I do think this book has a lot that’s worth discussing.  I’m just fixating on the designated hero because his plot is reminding me of other plots that I’m unhappy with at the moment.

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