The unicorn was grey and still. “There is magic on me,” she said. “Why did you not tell me?”
“I thought you knew,” the magician answered gently. “After all, didn’t you wonder how it could be that they recognized you?” Then he smiled, which made him look a little older. “No, of course not. You never would wonder about that.”
“There has never been a spell on me before,” the unicorn said. She shivered long and deep. “There has never been a world in which I was not known.”
“I know exactly how you feel,” Schmendrick said eagerly. The unicorn looked at him out of dark, endless eyes, and he smiled nervously and looked at his hands. “It is a rare man who is taken for what he truly is,” he said. “There is much misjudgment in the world. Now, I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so I must be if you see me so. The magic 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. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference ‘twixt the two – the false shining and the true, the lips’ laugh and the heart’s rue.” (pg 40)
I’ve been trying to savor this book, choosing to read it only a chapter or two at a time even though it lends itself to a hurried read, and for that reason, I’ve had the opportunity to be struck by passages like this one. On the one hand, the story itself transports me back to childhood, with its shady glens and mystical beasts – it has all the magic I searched for with less experienced eyes; on the other, moments like the one above remind me of the endless struggle of growing up, the struggle that continues even after enough years have passed that a birthday cake looks more like a melting wax torch than a celebration.
The Last Unicorn is such a melancholy adventure. Its protagonist is a character that lives for an eternity, after all. I find it hard enough to be mortal, to have the years I have and hope desperately that they are enough, that I will make some small mark on the hearts of people I love before my time is up. Like Schmendrick, poor human wizard that he is, I want to be known and understood for my best intentions, even if even I don’t always know what those are.
It’s always fascinating to me to find a book that’s so well-suited to a young audience – fast-paced, straightforward story-telling, understandable language – but which resonates so deeply with a more mature one. I have no doubt I would have loved this book as a child or teenager, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated the subtly of the Beagle’s writing. It’s so lovely, and sad. I keep finding myself sighing and saying, “Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like to grow older. How does he know? How does he know?!” Quests are supposed to change us, and in this book, I have no doubt that by the end, the evolution will have occurred.
The straightforward nature of such quests, however, in a great book, is turned on its head. I still remember finishing The Magician King and experiecning the rising dread of a quest thwarted:
“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”
“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396, The Magician King)
(Damn it, Grossman – that still hurts. Please finish writing the next installment of soul-crushing delight soon.) Maybe The Last Unicorn will have a cheerier ending. Maybe it will be a straightforward “happily ever after,” but I have my doubts. Beagle seems too tapped into the reality of our flawed existence for a cut-and-dry resolution. That isn’t how the real world works, and it isn’t the most satisfying ending to most books either.
Sure, it can be great to know a character has vanquished every demon and reaped righteous rewards, but that may be difficult to relate to as a reader. Off the page, we know that the victory of one week may not matter the next, and more than anything, books serve as a reminder that the world is not only what we know from our own experiences. It’s tangled, and messy, and often brutal. It requires of us great sacrifice, and a willingness to love what might eventually be lost.
The world can be a hard place, and the quests we are asked to complete don’t always seem like the stories we have read. This is because we tend to remember endings above all else. We like to think of every obstacle overcome without bothering to recall how it came to be. We forget that the story is not just the final chapter but everything that came before it. It is the long, lonely nights in unfamiliar forests. It’s the roads that seem to stretch endlessly before us under a scorching sun. It is the friends we have cut with sharp, careless tongues, the friends who have left us so that we may find our better selves again. It is the old crone we must show kindness to, and the kindness we beg from strangers in return. The quest is the most special hard thing we’re ever given – it’s the rock we rub our lives against to shape them into what we want to be.