The Last Unicorn Read-along: Week 1

Posted June 21, 2013 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments


First up, the promised update on Luna. Every bloodtest we’ve done has come back negative, so we still don’t know what on earth is going on. That said, she’s doing a lot better, so we’re back to just monitoring things for a while. I’m just relieved things are going all right, even if we’re still working out what we can do and what we want to do.

Secondly, welcome to the first week of the read-along for The Last Unicorn! I hope you’re all enjoying the book! In… looking back at my questions (which are hopefully at least decently intelligent) I realise that they are rather geared towards new readers and not so much the rereaders. Um. Live and learn?

I’m reading ROC’s anniversary edition (ISBN13: 9780451450524), if anyone is curious. It’s the copy my mum got me before I went off to live half-way across the globe (sans parents) for half a year. It was my really early birthday present.

Below the cut, you’ll find discussion questions and my answers. You’re more than welcome to use them (it’s why I wrote them and all), but you don’t have to. ^-^

Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival is built upon illusion. Think of Schmendrick’s words in chapter 3 “The enchantment 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”. How do you think we’ll revisit this theme in the rest of the book? How do you feel it relates to life in general?

I am… not even going to try and wing an answer for that. Instead, I will talk about Mommy Fortuna for a bit. Because she too is facing the same kind of enchantment that Schmendrick and the unicorn are. These scenes are riddled with layers upon layers and illusions upon illusions. At one point, the unicorn thinks “The witch knows more than she knows she knows” and I think that’s quite a fitting way to describe the book as a whole, for me. I’ve experienced this book so many times in various ways and I’m still no closer to feeling that I truly understand how the plot works. And yet I feel like I understand it, somewhere inside.

I don’t expect that to make much sense, no worries, but it makes the way people influence one another and how their perceptions alter both the people and the things they do so much more powerful to see that conflict return in my reading experience.

Think about the difference in description between, say, the satyr, the spider and the harpy. The satyr is just an old monkey and it takes the unicorn some effort to see past the truth into the illusion (and then the illusion starts to overlap the truth), but neither the satyr nor the unicorn truly believe in Mommy Fortuna’s illusion. Indeed, at first the unicorn doesn’t even understand the power of illusions. Not so the spider, who is described as genuinely believing what she sees and that adds power to the illusion, that lends it a certain amount of truth. And the harpy, whose description is plain, curt. “This one is real” is all the unicorn says, is all she needs to say. She’s real and that’s the end of it.

Everything about the Midnight Carnival is about the power of illusions and the power of belief. The witch fools the unicorn twice: once when she performs as Elli and once when she puts an illusion on the unicorn for the people to see. Mommy Fortuna tells the unicorn “Do you think I chose this meager magic. sprung from stupidity, because I never knew true witchery? I play tricks with dogs and monkeys because I cannot touch the grass, but I know the difference” and clearly she does have some skill at witchery. She did, after all, capture a unicorn and a harpy. But, as the unicorn’s thoughts and words reveal, Mommy Fortuna too cannot see past some of the things she believes. “The witch knows more than she knows she knows”. What could Mommy Fortuna have accomplished had she really known all she knew. But she doesn’t, and the unicorn gives us at least one reason why: “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

That’s a theme we do see coming back with Schmendrick: “The magic knows what it wants to do, (…) but I never know what it knows. Not at the right time, anyway” he thinks at the beginning of chapter 5. As he tries to free the unicorn using magic, we see him perform true magic. It just doesn’t work and here we get an understanding of why. He’s out of tune with magic. He knows it and at the same time he doesn’t. Real magic asks something of him he hasn’t understood, much like how Mommy Fortuna cannot practice true witchery because she doesn’t understand (and quite possibly wouldn’t want to pay) the price attached with it. She’s tricking herself as much as the people who visit her carnival.

The unicorn, meanwhile, doesn’t understand illusions. She’s already seen and wondered at man’s ability to see what they choose when the farmer calls her a mare. (And this, really, is a theme that comes back again and again and again in a lot of urban or our-world fantasy, where both the world we know and the world of magic exist beside each other and you can stumble from one into the other and wonder how other people never notice the magic.) Her time with Mommy Fortuna teaches her about them. Schmendrick teaches her how to see them (sort of) and Mommy Fortuna gives her some idea of what they’re for. And, perhaps more importantly, they teach her that illusions can cling to you even when they’re dispelled. If you wanted me to put on my “Try to be an academic and say intelligent stuff” hat, then I’d like to point out the parallels to the illusions we take from childhood into adulthood. In this case, some of the illusions bullied people take with them on their journey. I’m a pretty intelligent person, but saying it and believing it are two different things. I’ve been bullied all my life and being smart (and a girl) is one of the reasons kids had. Being smart was Not Okay and leads to kids telling you that you’re stupid until you start believing it. At least in my case. It’s not true. I have objective evidence that tells me it’s not true. I have character witnesses to attest that it’s not true. But it clings to me. It affects everything I do and it’s why hosting a read-along (and writing up my thoughts on things that matter to me) scares me so much. It says “This is the post and these are the words. Now people will see what a fraud I am and how stupid I really am”.

That feeling of stupidity clings to me. “[T]he unicorn knew then that she had not become mortal and ugly at all, but she did not feel beautiful again. Perhaps that was illusion too, she thought wearily.” I know, now, that I am not stupid and unintelligent at all, but it doesn’t make me feel smart (again).” It just makes me, like the unicorn, weary. In my case of trying to poke through at the truth and keeping it in my sight and in my heart.

And that’s without even trying to discuss the illusion Schmendrick conjures for Captain Cully’s band. I’ll quote you a bit of dialogue to give you food for thought, though:

“The eyes are perjurors, right enough. But do you truly trust the testimony of your ears, of your nose, of your tongue? Not I, my friend. The universe lies to our senses, and they lie to us, and how can we ourselves be anything but liars? For myself, I neither trust message nor messenger; neither what I am told, nor what I see. There may be truth somewhere, but it never gets down to me.”
“Ah. But you came running with the rest of us to go with Robin Hood, and you hunted for him all night, crying and calling like the rest of us. Why not save yourself the trouble, if you know better?”
“Well, you never know. I could be wrong.” (chapter 6, p 72)

But there you are. This is apparently quite personal to me. The things you learn… ^-^ What are your thoughts?

Throughout the book, we find several fairly anachronistic moments, some more visible than others. One example is Captain Cully talking about the Child collection in chapter 5. What do you think these moments add to the book?

To be honest, I’ve never liked them much. The magazine always throws me, for example. It’s just one word, but it always throws me out of the story. The Child example isn’t necessarily the best of examples, but it’s certainly the one that goes on the longest. Francis James Child was a 19th century scholar who collected a lot of folk songs now known as the Child Ballads. Robin Hood and Child both place the story firmly into our world and yet the geography and setting of the book is uncomfortably vague and abstract for such concrete presences as a widely-known legend and an existing historian. Cully’s awareness of Child (and the assumpting that Schmendrick is Child in disguise) put the book somewhere around the mid-19th century, but very little of the technology we see fits with that time frame. It’s a disconcerting mix. It’s also a fascinating one, but it isn’t one I’ve ever really tried to poke in great depth. (I’m a terrible academic, I know.)

Anyway, for me personally, they don’t add that much when I’m reading the book as a reader. They throw me and disquiet me, but as an academic, I find it fascinating to consider what their function might be and how other people interpret them.

Cully’s chapters are also very concerned with the question of reality versus mythology, with Molly claiming that they are the legend and Robin Hood is real and Cully claiming that they are real and not Robin Hood. How do you feel about the book drawing attention to its artificial nature this way? (It’s not anything new. Tristram Shandy did it even more noticeably several centuries earlier and many other books have since.)

As you can probably guess, I find it a bit disquieting. It’s nowhere near as obvious as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but that’s why it’s so disquieting. Even rereading the book for the umphteenth time and knowing that it’ll happen I stumble in my reading. Still, the example I’ve mentioned there is one I do actually really like. It may make me stumble, but it also makes me sit down and think. And I like philosophy and wondering about the implications of Cully’s discussion with Molly from a more philosophical standpoint is… I’m afraid I haven’t really kept up with either my philosophy or my religious studies modules, so I’m rusty even on most of the basics, but this discussion between them isn’t anything new.

If you want to, you could draw connections all the way back to Plato’s Cave, couldn’t you? (Or, more accurately, his Theory of Forms). Robin Hood is the Form of the tale that Cully is trying to live. Cully is just a shadow of the real thing (and if you listen carefully rather a bit of a mockery of it, and everyone – save perhaps Cully – knows it.) And, of course, for added thoughts, remember that this is a book and from at least one perspective, both Molly and Cully are right to the reader at the same time.

It also takes us back to the illusions of Mommy Fortuna. Robin Hood, Schmendrick’s Robin Hood, is an illusion. Cully’s view of his outlaw life is an illusion. His belief that Schmendrick is Child is an illusion. Almost everything Schmendrick does is pretend. He pretends to know Captain Cully (and the narrative winks at us and tells us that we know how it really is, much like Schmendrick did to the unicorn during his show at Mommy Fortuna’s), he pretends to be interested in Cully’s songs. So while Schmendrick actively denies bearing (or being) an identity that isn’t his, he does adopt a persona that isn’t his. He creates his own illusions, without magic, and so do the people around him and these affect the relationships the characters have to one another. Note what happens the moment he’s summoned Robin Hood and he’s believed to be Haggard’s son, Lír. He’s captured and tied to a tree. Just like that the illusion of perception changes someone’s feelings about a person.

That’s what I like most about Cully’s chapters: the way it makes me think about perceptions and the way they affect people as well as the way it makes me think about truth and reality.

This part of the read-along ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. While they’re walking out of Hagsgate, Molly asks Schmendrick what the unicorn’s role in the story is. Schmendrick replies by saying that, unlike them, she’s real. What do you think that means? What do you think will happen next?

I’m going to refrain from answering that question on account of knowing what’ll happen already. But I’m looking forward to reading about it again!

What are your impressions of the characters so far? Do you like them? What are your expectations of Haggard and Lír?

Yeeeeeees. And I’m bouncing in anticipating of getting to see Haggard and Lír again. And seeing more of Molly (yes, minor spoiler: there will be more Molly scenes) and Schmendrick and the unicorn. We’re getting close to “I want to quote ALL THE THINGS” territory now. (No, really, I do. If I had a better memory I would know this second half by heart.) I love how little we learn about Schmendrick, but it still feels like we learned more about him than anyone else in the book. (Well, to me anyway.) I’m fascinated by Mommy Fortuna and the harpy. And the unicorn, of course. I love the combination of her innocence and her wisdom. I love the way stories are so important to the, well, story. The importance of presentation and belief.

So… Yes. I’m looking forward to the next week very much! (Which surprises exactly no one.) I can only hope I’m doing a somewhat decent job of wording my enthusiasm (and haven’t made too many embarrassing typos).

Next week! Chapter 8 to the ending!

You can read Cheryl (Tales of the Marvelous)’s thoughts on the first half here. I highly recommend it!