The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s a narrative about narrative, a fairy tale about fairy tales, and it begins in the simplest way:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone…
The unicorn has no cares or fears, until one day she overhears two huntsmen talking, and she realizes that she is the only unicorn left in the world. For the first time in her life, she feels unsettled. Discontent. So she sets off into the world to try and find what happened to the others.
She’s joined on her adventure by the usually useless magician Schmendrick, who cannot properly control his powers, and Molly Grue, a Maid Marian stand-in who cannot live up to the stories. After months of travel, she learns that the selfish King Haggard used a monstrous spirit called the Red Bull to drive the unicorns into the ocean, trapping them as foam on the waves. But before the unicorn can do anything to free them, she is cornered by the Red Bull, and Schmendrick accidentally turns her into a human to save her from the same fate.
So far, so children’s fairy tale. But The Last Unicorn aches as you read it. It feels fragile, beautiful, yet subtly devastating, rather like the unicorn herself.
In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Schmendrick talks about the importance of narrative order:
But 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.
It’s a beautiful sentiment in dark moments. But it’s also fascinating how the novel weaves this idea through the narrative, making it not a comfort, but a heavy inevitability. Characters in the novel do what the narrative says they must. The prince will sacrifice himself to save the princess. Love will bring him back from the dead. Cats can only act like cats, and butterflies can only act like butterflies. The skull who helps them must also betray them, even though he doesn’t want to do so, and Schmendrick’s magic will only work when the time is right.
And yet, even if things are how they should be, they are not often how people wish them to be. Schmendrick wants to be a great magician, but his magic betrays him again and again. When the unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna and kept in her Midnight Carnival, Schmendrick wastes a lot of time trying to free the unicorn from her cage using magic, making her suffer in the process… yet all the time, he has the key. He wants the story to be one way, but it insists on being another, one that is more mundane, one that won’t allow him to be the hero he imagines. He will use his magic at the right moment, but it won’t be the moment he wishes.
And then there’s Molly Grue, and her fury when the unicorn appears. She “Where have you been?” she asks the unicorn. “How dare you come now, when I am this?” The unicorn was supposed to enter Molly’s life when Molly was young and full of hope, not when she is older and full of cynicism, but despite what the stories would tell her, this is the moment when Molly needs the unicorn in her life. This is when the magic is needed most.
The magician was studying her face with his green eyes. “Your face is wet,” he said worriedly. “I hope that’s spray. If you’ve become human enough to cry, then no magic in the world — oh, it must be spray. Come with me. It had better be spray.”
In the latter half of the novel, the unicorn lives in King Haggard’s castle in human form, as the Lady Amalthea. The unicorn does not want to be human, and we know that her unicorn form is her true self… yet the longer she remains human, the more human she becomes. Lady Amalthea becomes a person in her own right, completely separate from the unicorn she can barely remember. She does not want to die to return to being this creature she does not know. She is in love with the prince, and she has a life, and she wants it to continue. The unicorn that was the protagonist for the first two thirds of the novel is a threat. So which identity is the one that matters? Is it the character who came first? Is the question moot, as destiny, or the inevitability of the narrative, will decide?
As soon as she starts her adventure, the unicorn is no longer completely a unicorn. The key element of the unicorn, we are told, is that she is eternal. She represents pure beauty in the world. She does not feel time, she does not feel love, she does not feel sadness and regret. Her very appearance is magic itself, bringing hope and enchantment to those who look at her. A unicorn should never be in any sort of narrative, where things change and time progresses.
But when she learns she is the only unicorn left, she is suddenly troubled. Her sense of eternity is broken. She questions. She doubts. She must know. And so she leaves. She’s still a unicorn, but she’s also not a unicorn. As the last one, the world doesn’t love her, or even recognise her any more. She feels fear, and recognises how others need her, even before she becomes human. Once she does become human, of course, she becomes less and less of a unicorn… but even when she changes back, she is not the same. She has known time now. She is different from when she began.
I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.
She is and is not who she should be. A unicorn should not change the way that this unicorn has changed, yet the unicorn had to change in this way. It is an inevitable result of the narrative, of the struggle and ultimate success of her mission to save the rest of her kind.
And so the book ends in a way we don’t expect, but also the way it always had to end. At the end of the story, the unicorn leaves without any sentimental goodbye. She is there, and then she is gone. She is a unicorn, so she doesn’t care for mortals or narrative, but she is also not a unicorn, so she pauses. She looks back.
It both is and an ending. The Red Bull is defeated and the unicorns are returned to the world, but the characters’ lives don’t end just because their mission is complete. And so in the novel’s final line, Molly and Schmendrick continue on to their next adventure, and go, as the novel concludes, “out of this story and into another.”