"That's different. Haggard and Lir and Drinn and you and I -- we are in a fairy tale, and must go where it goes. But she is real. She is real."The best fantasy tales are so much more than mere escapism. The best, the ones you remember forever, actually teach you more about reality than the most gritty piece of realism you can imagine. The best are set in another world as solid as the one you stand in, but leave you aching, for another time or place, or maybe they open your eyes to the magic and mystery of the one you call home.
Children know this, and maybe that's why Madeleine L'Engle said we should write our books for children if they're too difficult for adults. And certain tales leave marks on our souls long after we've grown up. For me, one of the first was The Last Unicorn.
I didn't read the book when I was little, but my sister Sherri and I were obsessed with the animated movie from 1982. Sure, looking back, it had cheesy 80s music and sub-par animation, and yeah, the obsession may have just been that unicorns are cool and pretty, but there was still something special about it, and a lot of fellow 80s kids seem to agree. Now that I'm older, I realize it had nothing to do with the art or the music. Everything hinged on the story.
It goes like this: "A unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone." (Before you read any further, re-read that line, out loud if you can do it without embarrassing yourself. It's the proverbial "once upon a time" that opens the book, but there's something mysterious, poetic, rhythmic, lovely and sad all at once.) This doesn't bother her until she hears some woodsmen discussing a time when unicorns existed, and it piques her curiosity. She exists, but humans don't seem to know that, thinking the unicorns either the stuff of old fairy tales or a creature from a far off, purer time. So the unicorn sets out on a quest to find out why she is the last.
I read this book for the third time recently. I love Beagle's lyrical writing; it feels very old-fashioned high fantasy in some parts, perfect for the mood of the story, but can turn contemporary and quirky at the turn of a page. Though it appears to be set in a fairy tale world, an odd anachronism now and then (like a character talking about field-recordings or reading a magazine) pulls the story back into our own. As the characters ruminate, fight, love, and grow, fantasy and reality are turned upside-down. In a shadowy world where magic is nearly forgotten, she is the rare, real, and true thing.
But what I find most remarkable is how on this journey no one comes through unchanged. In the unicorn’s quest, a bumbling wizard finds his true magic, a rough and forgotten woman is made beautiful and noble, and a lazy prince becomes a hero. Even the unicorn isn't quite the same... still immortally herself, but changed by love. Deeper. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I have to say it grows more bittersweet every time I return to it.
There’s a part of us, no matter how grown up we are, that still longs for mystery, even though the world is stripped of its magic, and I believe that’s why The Last Unicorn lives on and so many 80s kids have fond memories of this story. The unicorn is awakened to the reality that there’s a whole world outside her lilac wood that doesn’t know her and needs her magic, but I’m more drawn to the human characters who are transformed by her presence and let themselves get swept up in her fairy tale. And I don’t want to sermonize this, but when I read the scene where Molly first sees her, greeting her with a curse (“It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue.”) and tears, the hope in her eyes reminds me of my own rescue, by a faith that there’s more to the world than the dirt and buzz of everyday life, and a hope that there's still a little magic in this old world yet.
"The unicorn was weary of human beings. Watching her companions as they slept, seeing the shadows of their dreams scurry over their faces, she would feel herself bending under the heaviness of knowing their names. Then she would run until morning to ease the ache; swifter than rain, swift as loss, racing to catch up with the time when she had known nothing at all but the sweetness of being herself..."
The Last Unicorn is available at Amazon.com or your favorite bookstore. There's also a gorgeous new graphic novel version out, illustrated Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon. I haven't read it yet, but I'm going to steal it from my sister very soon. :)
What's a story you loved at a kid that still affects you now?