The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
Those of us who love The Last Unicorn treasure that first sentence, and it truly is a marvel as an opening from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective. The subtle fantasy nature of the story is evident from those first few words: “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood…” These words can open few other stories, even in the fantasy genre, and the fact of the matter is that a subtle opening is often forgotten for one of drama and bombast.
“And she lived all alone.” Continuing the introduction, the status quo is established. The state of the world is deceptively simple: a unicorn living alone in a lilac wood. Yet how picaresque. What if these words weren’t present? We would have a possibly congenial unicorn, but because those words are present, we know this unicorn stands apart. That, like the title, it is the last unicorn.
A beauty of a first sentence. But the first paragraph is a beauty as well. Elaborating on the unicorn without lasping into melodrama, stuffy exposition, or a too-intent fascination on description… instead, Beagle relies on metaphor and simile to sketch in our minds the grace and the agelessness of the unicorn. Simple and effective, and loses none of the narrative steam that is being carefully crafted here. Indeed, any other kind of continuation would have killed this story before it had a chance to breathe a second paragraph.
To hear Beagle tell it, he was barely aware that he was doing all of this as he worked and slaved on a stubborn-dog story that he hated half of the time. As a writer, I can empathize with him on that. Giving birth to a work, even with a competent muse as midwife, is a messy affair. Hell of a way to treat a unicorn, says Beagle in his introduction to the deluxe edition of The Last Unicorn.
I’m not going to examine every paragraph and sentence in such minute detail, but I wanted to get a sense of why we fall in love with this book from the word “unicorn”, what The Last Unicorn expresses which is unlike and missing from other works, from the drek to the new classics. And I find that Beagle works subtly and deftly in The Last Unicorn.
Anyways, moving onto the rest of the story.
From the movie adaptation, I got the impression that unicorns were truly innocent. And actually, a lot of works profess the innocence of unicorns. But true innocence can be blanding if not coupled with some other brilliant aspect, like looks or personality. Unicorns, as it turns out, are not pretty decoumpage illustrations, but vital and self-aware. In the book, they’re vain, and that’s why there’s always a reflecting pool in their domains; in the book, our unicorn has had various adventures (killing dragons! healing kings! knocking down nuts for bear cubs!) instead of simply existing in her lovely wood.
Then we have the scene with the hunters, which is done quite well in both book and movie. The book has, of course, more time and, in that time, explores in more depth; we learn more about the lore of unicorns and have some intimate details (“My great-grandmother said only that the unicorn had a good smell. She never could abide the smell of any beast, even a cat or a cow, let alone a wild thing. But she loved the smell of the unicorn.” My gods, that’s a lovely detail).
The last unicorn is an introvert, and thus one of the things I was looking for was that which would drive her from her wood. Simple knowledge can do it, of course, gnawing at even the mind of a unicorn, who were apparently not made for puzzling through deep decisions going beyond their daily functions. Watching this play out in the book makes more sense to me than in the movie where, seemingly on a spur of the moment, the unicorn leaves.
Her vanity comes out again when she’s mistaken for a mare. This is done ever so exquisitely, alluding to a time when unicorns and humans may once have communed, but that time is gone. As the unicorn muses later after the incident, it is one thing if humans hated unicorns and tried to kill them all, but it’s another and more disturbing thing for humans simply to not see unicorns anymore. It’s a challenge to not just one’s own self, but the existence of one’s entire lineage.
Then there’s the butterfly. I think he’s done a bit better in the movie, if only because it’s difficult to express old songs in a non-auditory format. So far, the movie and the book cleave close together, and in a way it’s a bit of a letdown, despite also being fascinating.
And then there’s Mommy Fortuna’s carnival stopping near the unicorn in the night. This is done better in the book than in the movie, so far. I quite like how Mommy could tell that Schmendrick was not just a fool, but “a worse fool than Rukh, and a more dangerous one. He lies only out of greed, but you lie out of fear. Or could it be kindness?” Definitely more creepy in her awareness in the book.
And after the encounter with someone trying to catch her as a mare for himself, now that the unicorn is caged? “… the tall magician looked back in time to see the unicorn rise to her feet and stare at the iron bars, her low head swaying like the head of an old white horse.”