The Last Unicorn Read-along: Week 2

Posted June 28, 2013 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments


Welcome to the second week of the read-along for The Last Unicorn! This week we’re reading and discussing chapter 8 through to the very end, so HERE BE SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t finished the book yet.

I hope everyone’s had a good week and we’ve all enjoyed (or are enjoying) the second half of the book. By now, you’ll probably know why I ended the previous week with chapter 7 rather than chapter 8 and I hope you approve of the choice! (That could be an interesting discussion topic, actually: where would you have cut the week’s reading material off?)

This week/discussion we’ll continue talking about the way perception and illusion plays a role in the book as well as its relationship to myths and fairytales. And quotes. I’ll probably use less of them than in the first week, but that’s deliberate. I very much fear that I will not stop quoting once I give myself permission to do that.

I’m very much looking forward to the discussion! (Granted, I’m also still terrified. Did I mention my self-esteem issues last week? Yes? Oh, good. I has them. I try not to let them get in the way.)

Chapter 8 is a pivotal chapter. Not only does the story bound forward, but we learn more of Schmendrick’s origins. How does this knowledge affect your view of the character? What are your thoughts on the means he uses to save the unicorn from the Red Bull?

It’s been years (at least a decade) since I ‘met’ Schmendrick, so I’m afraid I couldn’t say how getting more of his origins and history alters my view of him, but I can tell you that even though I’ve reread the book at least a dozen times and I’ve seen the movie well over a hundred times I still feel like I don’t have the first clue who Schmendrick is. Not the wizardly part that matters so much to him. The kind of personality he has is one I quite enjoy and sometimes dither about.

This read-along’s driven home some of the ways in which he’s actually quite deceitful for his own gain and the ways in which he’s brutally honest. Like we’ve seen in the previous week, he’s not above pretending to be a personality he’s not, but he draws the line at being an identity he’s not. We saw it in his interaction with Captain Cully and we saw it again during his discussion with Drinn in chapter 7.

He’s an intriguing character and I enjoy puzzling him out. Every reread I learn something new. I don’t think I’ll ever know or understand as much as I’d like to, but I’m okay with that. It works just the way it is for me. ^-^

As for how he saves the unicorn from the Red Bull… Was it a surprise for anyone? I always find it quite shocking whilst not being a surprise at all. It’s quite heavily foreshadowed, after all, most obviously with the tale of Nikos and the unicorn (and isn’t it gorgeous how that also foreshadowed some of Schmendrick’s history?). It’s a tragic scene and it’s one that never fails to move me and fills me with dread. No matter how well I know this story, and no matter how often I repeat the ending to myself, I am never convinced that it will turn out as well as it can in the end. It’s just too painful and despairing to see the unicorn wake up in a mortal, in a human, body and realise what that means and how very trapped she is. It makes my skin crawl just talking about it.

So… I understand why Schmendrick does what he does (and really if you look at the dialogue it’s more that the magic does what it does and he just summons it up to do what it will), but I find it utterly harrowing and sad. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the whole book. (Remember how I said I wasn’t going to quote much? This chapter is a good reason why. I’d quote pretty much the whole chapter.)

Beagle has chosen to tell the story of how Lír became a hero as a dialogue between Lír and Molly. This isn’t the first time in the book that Beagle has drawn our attention to the way stories interact with one another. What do you think of this choice? How does treating Lír’s growth as a story-within-a-story affect your perception of the tale as a whole?

I loooooooove this. I love stories-within-stories (and they’re really hard to do right) and I respect it so much when authors manage as well as Beagle does. And it’s such an interesting choice, really. On the one hand, it helps keep the narrative focused on the unicorn’s quest, which I feel is a good thing. Lír becoming a hero would be best suited to another book. Writing it out would’ve potentially doubled the book in size and you’d pretty much be squishing two books into one. (It could be done, but you’d have to redo the whole structure of the book and introduce the dual-pov sooner. It wouldn’t be the same book and it wouldn’t retain the fairytale feel it has now and lose a fair bit of its lyricism and quiet pondering.)

Not only that, but in condensing it into a story-within-a-story you get a slightly better chance of Amalthea’s dismissal of his feats as heroic. For me it highlights the dynamic between them at this point. It also strengthens the timeless, fairytale feel and Lír’s personality. There are no grand discourses on the riddles he’s solved or the battles he’s fought. It’s understated, quiet, modest, like Lír himself. He only became/becomes a hero for Amalthea’s sake. He wishes to alter her perception of him and, in doing so, alters his own perception of himself. Illusions and views again. This reread seems to be all about the layers that make up a person and a reality.

In chapter 11, we see Lír giving up his courtship of the lady Amalthea to become a secret admirer. He’s mulling over what name to use when he runs into Amalthea again. She’s suffering from nightmares about her past and, once more, Beagle highlights the theme of story versus reality and the theme of identity. How do you think he’s shown these themes in the latter half of the book?

Um… I think I just started to answer that? ^-^; It comes back with a vengeance in the second-to-last chapter, when Schmendrick changes the unicorn back into herself and Amalthea is forever lost. The unicorn too, timeless and changeless, has changed. She’s spent much of the second half of the book forgetting her true self, losing herself in Schmendrick’s illusion and in her understanding of human emotions and mortal time and feelings. It scares her, but she grows accustomed to it. The illusion starts to grow stronger, more real. Like with the spider’s web, the magic gains in power the longer Amalthea believes. The longer she remains human, the more she becomes human and believes herself to be human. The longer she remains human, the stronger the magic becomes.

Isn’t that heartbreaking? And then, just when there is barely any unicorn left at all, when the illusion has almost eclipsed the truth, it gets ripped away. And we get to see how very, very much the unicorn’s mortality and humanity was not an illusion at all, but a different kind of truth, layered over her immortal self. It’s the time she spent as a human, the feelings she learnt as a human, that ultimately allow her to stand up to the Red Bull. It’s the strength of the magic altering her sense of self and being that allows her true form to find what it needs to defeat the Red Bull and save her people.

And yet she’s forever changed and the girl she became is forever lost.

What did you make of the ending? Was it everything you wished it would be? (Will you be back for Two Hearts?) How do you feel about Schmendrick’s ending? Did you think the ending was long enough?

I seem to be answering these questions before I get to them. Er. Oh well? I will definitely be back for Two Hearts. I mean, I kind of have to be, being the host and all, but beyond that I haven’t reread it quite as often and I don’t know it as well. I’m looking forward to experiencing it again and seeing what I can pick up from it this time. ^-^

Anyway! I’m still as stymied by my lack of words for the ending as ever. I do think the last chapter goes on just long enough, though. I love the openness of the ending and the fact that it doesn’t focus on the unicorn. It helps return some of her timelessness. It’s not so much that she fades out of the story, but that time goes on and her immortality and timelessness put her apart from all things mortal, the way Molly and Lír and Schmendrick are. Her brief dream-magical return just serves to highlight how much she’s actually changed. She’s out of time and yet a part of her will always be in it.

I love the ending. I love the beauty of it and the hope and the sense of forward motion it has, but it also never fails to break my heart for all that was lost in the gaining of the unicorns and, being a human reader, I never really get to share in the unicorn’s joy at the return of her people. The most of what I feel is the sorrow for her losses. It’s a beautiful ending.

And… of course, what did you think of the book as a whole? Did you enjoy it?

Oh, self. The sarcasm is so tempting… As you’ve undoubtedly gathered by now, I did enjoy the book and love it as a whole. It gives me all the feels and it makes me want to try and be coherent and intelligent so I can have discussions about it and it makes me do things that scare me because I just enjoy the story this much.

This reread, as I’ve said, has been all about the ways perception and reality interact with one another, the power of the illusions we tell ourselves and others. It’s also about the fairytale, about the emotions and the growth and the subtlety with which Beagle tells his story and paints his characters. It’s about the setting and the unicorns and the magic. It’s about identity and myth, love and friendship, selfishness and altruism. It’s about honour and strength, about time and timelessness, change and stagnation.

It’s a book that’s about all the things. Have a quote from chapter 13! The only quote I’ll allow myself for this round.

[T]he true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

Did you read The Last Unicorn (before the read-along)? What were your thoughts?

I hope you’ve enjoyed the book and that you’ll be back next week for some of the related material! There are two posts going up, one on Friday and one either on Thursday or Saturday because it’d be a really, really long chunk of text otherwise.