Lover of fantasy books though I am, I somehow never read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. It’s been on the To Be Read list for a while, so I was happy to see Lynn’s Read-Along, to give me a push to actually get it off the list!
This week is for the first half of the book. I’ll give it some general thoughts, and then go on to Lynn’s questions.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that was so obviously layered. Many books work on multiple levels, but this one constantly felt as though there was so much MORE going on than the surface story suggested. And you didn’t have to dig deep to realize the layers are there; it’s apparent right from the surface, in everything about the writing.
The plot doesn’t even begin to describe anything more than the topmost layer. The last unicorn goes searching for the rest of her kind, in the company of an inept magician and a fierce woman. That’s true–but I feel like it implies a completely different book, one that’s funny and full of magic and the unicorn is probably pretty and sparkly. And the really strange thing is, that’s true too–it is funny in spots, and there is magic, and the unicorn is beautiful. But that’s not really what it’s about either, because it’s so much more complex, and the unicorn probably isn’t really a unicorn but some kind of symbol though I’m not certain of what (innocence? wonder? childhood?) and the magician’s ineptness and the woman’s fierceness are deep-rooted, complicated and even tragic.
So I think what I’m really saying here is…I didn’t fully understand the book. But that’s okay. And while normally the sense that there’s deliberately much going on irritates me, in this case, it actually seemed to work.
Let’s see what our questions are…
Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival is built upon illusion. Think of Schmendrick’s words in chapter 3 “The enchantment on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes”. How do you think we’ll revisit this theme in the rest of the book? How do you feel it relates to life in general?
The subject of illusion is so intriguing, and I feel like it’s closely tied in to perception. We all perceive each other in different ways–is it truth or illusion? Maybe even more compelling, how do we perceive ourselves? I think that’s the “enchantment” that’s hardest to change, and I don’t think our self-perception is necessarily more true than the truths (and illusions) other people see about us.
Or, to quote Pontius Pilate by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber, “You speak of truth–is truth a changing law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”
To circle back to what I said above, I don’t think the unicorn is really a unicorn, or maybe it’s better to say she’s not only a unicorn. Her identity as a unicorn is in some ways more solid than anyone else’s identity in the book, and yet at the same time, very few characters can see her as a unicorn. And on a deeper, symbolic level, I think she’s something else entirely (I’m leaning towards the spirit of wonder).
Throughout the book, we find several fairly anachronistic moments, some more visible than others. One example is Captain Cully talking about the Child collection in chapter 5. What do you think these moments add to the book?
There’s something so other-worldly and mystical about the entire book that I never gave much thought to when it’s meant to be. If I had to place it, it seems more or less to be in the same medieval-ish time of all (most) fairy tales. However, there are anachronistic moments that throw that off. I noticed anachronisms more in the phrasing than in the particular references. Most of the book is very poetic, very cerebral even, and then suddenly something will be modern slang.
I actually liked the jarring effect of those modern moments. They kept me from getting too swept along by the flowing language. It’s easy to get too caught on the level of “beautiful fairy tale,” and those anachronisms were a jolting reminder of additional layers.
And they were used to comedic effect at times too…
Cully’s chapters are also very concerned with the question of reality versus mythology, with Molly claiming that they are the legend and Robin Hood is real and Cully claiming that they are real and not Robin Hood. How do you feel about the book drawing attention to its artificial nature this way? (It’s not anything new. Tristram Shandy did it even more noticeably several centuries earlier and many other books have since.)
I think we’re back on the subject of truth and illusion, although maybe it’s a nuance to say instead that it’s the subject of truth and story. Stories are often not true in a factual sense, but that doesn’t mean they can’t represent a deeper truth.
Cully is particularly layered on the subject of truth and reality. He’s a fictional character who makes up false ballads about himself, while being extremely conscious of the Robin Hood legend that he is modeling himself after. It’s a fiction, inventing fictions, modeled on what might be fiction, and all self-aware at the same time. Whew! And maybe all of that is really pointing to a truth, not about robbing from the rich, but about the stories we tell ourselves. Above, I talked about our self-perception being false, and I really meant the ways it can be unconsciously false. Cully seems to represent the ways we knowingly tell false stories. Not necessarily lies, but perhaps trying to appear confident when we’re nervous, or claiming we have everything under control when we know we don’t! Although again I have to wonder, are the stories we knowingly tell really as false as we think?
This part of the read-along ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. While they’re walking out of Hagsgate, Molly asks Schmendrick what the unicorn’s role in the story is. Schmendrick replies by saying that, unlike them, she’s real. What do you think that means? What do you think will happen next?
Erm, I’m not any good at stopping books halfway through, so I already finished! And I feel like I want to come back to this question while we’re discussing the second half…
What are your impressions of the characters so far? Do you like them? What are your expectations of Haggard and Lír?
Well, like I said, I did finish the book already… I had some trouble connecting to the characters initially, and I think that’s because there’s a surface level where they feel somewhat removed. Maybe it’s because so much of the book is (wait for it!) layered! I think to a certain extent I had to read farther into the book, or maybe even get to the end and then look back at it, before I could see some of those deeper layers where the characters are actually stronger. That may not make a bit of sense…
I think I’ve exhausted my philosophical thoughts for the moment–now I want to hear what you think! And do go read Lynn’s answers to the questions, for excellent analysis and exploration of some very deep layers in the story.
Have you read The Last Unicorn? It’s not too late to jump into the Read-Along if you haven’t! And even if you haven’t, any thoughts on truth, illusion, and the stories we tell ourselves?