Despite a childhood spent reading, I had never heard of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn until Pat Rothfuss mentioned it on his blog as his favorite book. PR goes so far as to imply that you can’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read TLU (I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek…or am I?) Last Monday night I went with some work friends to see The Last Unicorn Screening Tour. It was an interesting experience to see such a classic on the big screen. I wish I had that opportunity more often.
To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from the movie. I have never read the book, but I knew that the people who made the animated version of The Hobbit also made this film. I have very distinct memories of watching The Hobbit as a kid, and I remember thinking it was creepy and boring. The Last Unicorn was…interesting…if I’m being completely honest. I’d like to read the novel before I pass judgment on the story, but the film was so stylized as to be unrelatable at times. Something about the animation made it hard for your eyes to ever rest, and there were long stretches with no dialogue. The music sent my friends into fits of giggles that they had to stifle so as not to ruin anyone else’s theater experience (nostalgia counts for a lot, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience had grown up with the movie and loved it).
But yet, despite all that, I loved it. I walked out of the theater convinced that The Last Unicorn had more to say about loneliness than any lit fic I’ve ever read (that’s a huge theme of lit fic, right? The loneliness of modern man?). I think I could even call it a feminist text.
(1) The first line of the book reads, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” [emphasis mine]
The event organizer and Peter S. Beagle mentioned in the Q&A preceding the movie that until this book, unicorns had always been depicted as male. But now, forty-odd years later, can you picture a unicorn that isn’t “girly”?
I can’t adequately describe how much I love that. To take something that is by default male, and without fuss or pomp, make it a “her?” I wish I had been the one to do that. Not only to feminize the symbol, but to make her the subject of her own story. The hero of her own adventure. Before 1968, how often was that done? It’s hard to quantify, but TLU surely helped usher in a generation of fantasy writers who gave greater import to female characters and female narratives, treating them as humans (or unicorns!) worthy of their own stories rather than as accessories to a default male narrative.
(2) What is surely ahead of its time is the way the story complicates the myth of the “ideal” feminine being. The Unicorn (aka Amalthea) is beauty and grace incarnate. Her wood is constantly in the bloom of spring. Peace reigns among the animals who inhabit it.
But then, the careless words of two hunters lead the Unicorn to believe that she is the last unicorn on earth.
At this point in the movie, I was rolling my eyes. The Unicorn seems so overwhelmingly characterized by her “beauty” that it’s hard to see anything else about her. She reminded me of the sexualized fantasy women of games–women with too-large purple eyes and flowing white hair–which is exactly how the Unicorn looks.
But then, further down the road (literally, in context of the story), the Unicorn meets several men who want to capture her, and she is amazed that they can’t see she is a unicorn. To them, she is only an exceptional mare. The Unicorn realizes that men see what they want to see.
Both named female characters, Mommy Fortuna and Molly Grue, instantly see her for what she is. Because they see her for what she is, they can communicate with her (to be fair, so can the subpar magician Schmendrick who helps free her from Mommy Fortuna’s clutches). The recognition of her true nature gives the Unicorn a voice. This is the first time she actually communicates with other beings. The silencing of women’s voices is a huge theme in feminist lit.
(3) Being the hero of her own story helps the Unicorn become something new.
Eventually, the Unicorn and her compatriots fall into the hands of the villain, who they’re sure has hidden all the unicorns…somewhere. In order to save the Unicorn from the villainous Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman named Lady Amalthea. The longer Amalthea spends in human form, the more she forgets her life as a unicorn. The handsome prince courts her, and eventually they fall in love (I think? The movie didn’t do so great a job at showing this).
But when the final showdown comes and Amalthea must face the Red Bull again, she chooses to sacrifice her human life and her human love to set all the trapped unicorns free. Schmendrick helps transform her back into her true form, and she finds the strength to drive the Red Bull into the sea.
It’s poignant that when she is once again a Unicorn, she chooses to stay that way. This means leaving the prince behind and going back to her wood. But as she goes back, the narrator remarks that she is unique among unicorns in that she now knows both sorrow and regret. It’s those human emotions that make the Unicorn three-dimensional. The Unicorn isn’t a flat symbol of feminine beauty. She isn’t even hackneyed two-dimensional symbol of feminism (ie the victimized female). She is beautiful, but she has sacrificed. She has loved and given that up for something greater, and now she knows human emotion. Giving her human emotions makes her so much more relatable. Not only is she more relatable, but her arc is completed on her own–that is, there is no man by her side in the end. The story is wholly hers, though there are certainly influential side characters who help her. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good romance. But that is not part of this story, nor would it fit.
I’m sure many someones have done more in-depth critiques of this story. I’m sure there are problematic elements I’m overlooking. And there is also not one way to write a feminist story. My reading of the text (screenplay, in this case) is surely relying a bit too much on symbols and archetypes, but I thought The Last Unicorn did a great job exploring feminist themes.