Reviewing a Feminist Classic: The Last Unicorn

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.

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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”?

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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.

Megan Reviews Books She Read While Procrastinating Writing Her WIP

Or, in other words, the story of my life. Since I got a full-time job, I don’t really come home after staring at a computer for eight hours and feel like staring at a computer screen for two more while I try to make a daily word count. Instead I read. Copiously. Insanely. As of August 15th, I’d read 150 books this year. While I love that I’ve read so much, both my word count on my WIP and my wallet have suffered.

Something good ought to come out my procrastination, so I’d like to do occasional book reviews/recommendations. I’ll mostly focus on the positive and only do reviews for books I loved. Plus, I imagine that I’ll tell you far more about my personal life and psyche than anyone really wants to know. What a treat! (No really. I’m super good at making fun of myself).

Without further ado:

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Beautiful cover, no? (Image via Goodreads)

 

The last of the trilogy, I&HEA is a gem of a novel that follows Isla and Josh (previously introduced in the first book, Anna and the French Kiss) as they go through their senior year at an American school in Paris.

Rather than summarize the plot (you can easily find that on Goodreads), I want to give an aspiring writer’s perspective. When I read the first novel of the trilogy (all featuring a different hero and heroine), Perkins’s debut, I was…swept away. Honestly. I’ve always loved romances, and I love YA, but this book went beyond genre for me. Perkins so effortlessly put me back into high school–but not the sucky parts of being a teenager (at least, not only those), but the best parts. The magic of new places, the hope you find in your dreams of the future, the elation and heartbreak of crushes and cute boys  and their amazing hair and even more amazing accents. As a reader, I was practically salivating at the story. But as a writer? As a writer I wondered how on earth Perkins managed to do that to me. I won’t say the story was unoriginal, because I think originality is kind of a red herring in discussions of quality. But at the same time, it’s a young adult romance novel. Certain elements are expected. And they were present. So what exactly did Perkins do to take this beyond cute and satisfying to OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE NEXT BOOK to picking up the book a week after finishing it the first time and diving in for a second read?

It’s something that I think about a lot. Beyond the craft of writing there is the art of writing, and hopefully at the art of writing you’ll find the heart of writing. I read books that are technically proficient; mature sounding voice, excellent pacing, great plot, rounded characters, and I’ll walk away from it pleased–but then it’s easily forgotten once I read a few more books. But books that have a bit of the writer’s heart and soul in them, those stick with me. Stephanie Perkins’s books are like that.

I’d recommend reading the first books in the trilogy before you get to this title. They’re wonderful, but Perkins strays beyond the normal unfolding of a romance plot (they meet, conflict, first date, conflict, first kiss, conflict, etc.) and develops the love between the hero and heroine rather quickly. What follows is a conflict that turns this from sweet love story to relatable coming of age story. Yes, the others in the trilogy were also coming of age stories. What YA book isn’t? But Isla’s identity crisis feels both authentic and moving and brave. After Perkins’s blog post about moving I&HEA’s pub date back due to mental health reasons, I can’t help but read a little of the author into Isla’s fear of the future and fear of not being good at anything. Whether that’s true or not, I find it both inspiring and brave and it makes me see myself in Isla as I read. I wanted to reach into the pages and pluck that girl up right into a tight hug because I’VE BEEN THERE. I’VE FELT THAT. You can’t judge Isla for pushing away Josh when you know exactly what made her do it–because you’ve done it too. The emotional heft of this book has left me in a state of funk for a week, just thinking about it.

I know that this kind of relatable angst isn’t for some people, but a book can’t please everyone. I’d so rather see books that wear their hearts on their sleeves than books that feel like they’re simply going through the motions.

I’d recommend this book to…everyone. Okay, probably not. I’d recommend this book to anyone that likes contemporary YA or a good romance. I’d recommend this book to fans of graphic memoirs (Josh is working on his own graphic memoir) or to girls who think about the future and feel a little lost. I’d recommend this book to anyone who has loved someone with high-functioning autism (like Isla’s best friend, Kurt) or to people whose parents expect more of them than they can/want to give.

Like I said, this novel has heart.

9/10 stars.