I realized after my last Classics Club post that I’m bad at writing book reviews. I’d intended to just write a short “this is what the books are like, this is what I thought” post for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels but it turned into an essay on what makes a strong female character and the state of modern feminism. I think I’ll give up on book reviews. Apparently I can only write thoughtful, rambling essays.
That’s not a bad thing though, right? These are classics, after all. People have been writing reviews of them for decades or centuries. If you want to find out about the plot you can go on Goodreads. I’d much rather talk about the ideas prompted by these great books. And I think you might rather read about that, too.
NOTE: this post contains spoilers but not enough, I think, to ruin the book for you
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A Perfect Fantasy Book
I feel like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle* should have been a re-read for me, but this was the first time I’d read it. You’d think as much as I love unicorns and fantasy novels I’d have picked this one up earlier. Especially considering how much everyone loves it. Even the guy who wrote the best fantasy book I’ve ever read says, “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again” (Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind*).
On the surface, The Last Unicorn seems like a pretty simple book. A unicorn overhears two men say there aren’t any unicorns left in the world. Worried that she might be the last one, she goes out searching for other unicorns and meets with the sort of adventures you’d expect in a fantasy novel. There’s a wizard, a merry band of outlaws, a wise woman, a curse, a wicked king, and heroic prince, a talking cat, and a beautiful princess. But there’s so much more than that, too.
How People See You
There’s a lot going on in this relatively short book, so I’m just going to focus on one theme that I found particularly interesting. When the unicorn first sets out on her search, I expected that problems would arise when people spotted a unicorn walking down the road. But all they see is a white mare. The unicorn is puzzled.
“I suppose I could understand if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated unicorns and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else — what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?”(p. 11).
Humans lost the ability to see magical, wonderful things for what they really are. And it gradually starts to affect the unicorn. She is immortal, incredibly beautiful, and filled with magic. That doesn’t change based on how people see her. She’s still a unicorn no matter how many people just see a white mare. But she becomes heavier, less hopeful as she’s continually misjudged and mislabeled. Even after two people who know what she really is join her adventure the unicorn only wants to find the other unicorns and get back to her own woods. It’s exhausting to live in a world where no one can see the things that make you uniquely wonderful.
Helping Each Other Toward An Identity
As the quest approaches its end, the unicorn faces an enemy capable of destroying her. In an attempt to save her from the Red Bull who’s hunting unicorns, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman. Molly (the only other person who knows the unicorn is, in fact, a unicorn) realizes what this will do to the unicorn and starts weeping even before the unicorn tells him that letting her die “would have been kinder than closing me in this cage” (p. 148). This (in a rather round-about way) makes me think of a C.S. Lewis quote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)
Lewis is talking about the eternal potential of human beings to become children of God. How we see other people matters. What we do to other people matters. We can point them toward their true selves or we can “cage” them in something else, even with the best of intentions. And the worst thing is that if we put wrong perceptions on them, they can start seeing themselves as something other than what they truly are. That’s what happens to the unicorn.
How You See Yourself
Now that the unicorn is a human called Lady Amalthea, she starts to forget she was ever a unicorn. She loses touch with her true self as she becomes more and more human. Falling in love with Prince Lír only accelerates the change. By the time his father (who’s been trapping the unicorns for himself) confronts her about her true identity she doesn’t recognize the other unicorns. She’s like the people she first met when leaving her woods — she can’t see unicorns anymore. Even in herself.
“Everything dies,” she said, still to Prince Lír. “It is good that everything dies. I want to die when you die. Do not let him enchant me, do not let him make me immortal. I am no unicorn, no magical creature. I am human and I love you.” (p. 249)
The unicorn has lost the ability to see her true self, so she’s content with being something less than she was before. Her two friends aren’t just going to let her forget who she is, however, and Schmendrick turns her back into a unicorn. But even though she’s back to being herself her perspective has changed. She understands what she is and what she was. She has completed her quest and is now the only unicorn who can feel regret, but she’s also thankful for the love that resulted in her one sorrow. Once again, she can see herself for who she truly is including the character growth she experienced during her quest.
Let’s suppose for a moment that we’re all unicorns. Do you know that you’re a unicorn? That is, do you recognize and nurture your unique gifts and personality, whether or not other people see it? And do you see the unicorns around you? Are you looking just at the surface of other people, or do you try to see their full and wonderful potential and encourage them toward the truest and best versions of themselves? I hope we can answer “yes” to these questions. I hope we can find, and then never let go of, the ability to see “unicorns” for what they truly are.