Every Christmas here in Germany “The Last Unicorn” animation film is shown on TV (usually on crappy RTL2). I’ve grown up watching the movie, I know it by heart, and ever year I force my poor family through another screening of the thing. By now, I got my sister hooked, so I’m not the only one forcing it unto other members of my family. Just recently I read the book after years and years (and years) of not doing so, so I thought: Good time to write about one of my favorite movies in the entire world!
The Last Unicorn was written by Peter S. Beagle and published in 1968. It has turned into a classic, although it initially wasn’t overly successfully apparently. By now more than five million copies of it have been sold and it has been translated into many languages, and I’d like to think a lot of that has to do with the movie. The movie has been produced and directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. for ITC Entertainment, and its screenplay had been written by Peter S. Beagle as well (who stated that he thinks the movie is magnificent). It has been released in 1982.
There are a few differences between the book and the movie in terms of plot and characters. The main difference is the whole storyline about the town of Hagsgate that prospers and knows no death because the rest of King Haggard’s country has to suffer, and the whole connection that Prince Lír has to the village, the foretelling about him bringing down the king and his castle and his subsequent ascendancy to the throne. There are also minor differences like the four soldiers in King Haggard’s castle in the book, the extension of the scene of Schmendrick with the enchanted tree in the movie, and the physical description of characters (most notably when it comes to Mommy Fortuna). Apart from that a lot of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book and reading it I felt like watching the movie. I read the book in German, so I guess a lot of its beauty in English is lost to me (well, I can still go and read it in English another time), but the German version was well-written and didn’t read like a translation, so, no complaints there.
Would you ask me to pick I probably would go with the movie. Part of that is without a doubt me growing up watching it every year, but I also like the concise point it makes, more so than the book with the Hagsgate storyline (which is short, admittedly) that reads overly moralistic in a book that already asks a lot of moral questions. Then again, the film version has its own flaw: The musical interludes. Yep, sometimes the characters sing, and it is especially painful when Lady Amalthea (aka the Unicorn) and Prince Lír profess their love for each other in song. Argh, now that I think about it maybe I should rather pick the novel over the film. Bottom line is, they are both really good.
So, what is The Last Unicorn actually about? Other than the plot of a unicorn finding out about being the only one and saving all the others.
The question is not that easy to answer, which has to do with the different characters and the different things they stand for, I guess. One possible answer is: happiness. A world without unicorns is a world without happiness. As much as King Haggard is portrayed to be the villain, he is also one to identify with: There is little that makes him happy, entertainment, money, power, they all do nothing for him, even human contact doesn’t. But to look at unicorns and feel the joy, that is what keeps him alive. But what then is happiness? Possessing beautiful things? Pets? Enslaving other creatures? Hardly. So we could dig deeper and ask what the unicorn potentially stands for, and obviously there is also a moral tale. The unicorn and its close relationship to the forest is a strong symbol for the unity of all living matter, the necessity of cooperation between creatures and nature to make things work, to create a beautiful and healthy environment. However, the unicorn also stands for magic, being a magical creature it is a symbol of human imagination, of the things and the beauty human beings can come up with when they dream. The novel does not endorse just any sort of dream though, because as it repeatedly makes clear: you have to be pure-hearted and kind-spirited to be able to recognize the unicorn for what it is.
One thing the unicorn is, is immortal. And another major theme of both novel and movie is the relationship we human beings have with death. The unicorn cannot die and once it is trapped in a human body it feels the flesh dying, something it has never felt before. Now, we don’t exactly feel ourselves dying, but we feel ourselves getting older, and facing the reality of our own death is something we all eventually have to do.
The Last Unicorn presents and comments upon various concepts of dealing with death and decay. There is Schmendrick, a sort of antithesis to the unicorn, because he is a mortal who becomes immortal temporarily (which is a paradox, I know thankyouverymuch), but wishes to age and die, because for him immortality is not just a symbolic sign of stagnation and zero development, but actually a very concrete reminder of his own inability to use magic the way he is supposed to be using it.
Molly Grue as a character feels like people we all know I’d say: Someone who hasn’t aged well, not only in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual one, because she had dreams and hopes and nothing ever really came of it. “Where have you been?” she asks the unicorn, “how dare you come to Molly Grue now that I am old?” Which is touching, because I’ve seen people like that time and again. And I always think that those people should not give up, which is what saves Molly Grue in the end. She thought that she had reached a point where it was all that is to it, but then there is the unicorn, the ability to dream of magic, and adventures ensue, which for her really mean doing chores somewhere else, but also expanding her horizons, meeting challenges and forming intimate bonds with other people.
King Haggard on the other hand has obviously been around far too long. He doesn’t even want to live, and he knows it, but he isn’t strong enough to let go. He is a slave to the Red Bull and/or the Red bull is a slave to him, the relationship is so old that they both don’t really remember, I suppose. He has never been happy, and he probably never really will be, cause his greed has brought him only one thing: Loss. He lost the ability to enjoy what he has, to appreciate it, and the only time he remembers what it means to appreciate what you have is when he looks at something he possesses but doesn’t really have: the unicorns and their connection with all living beings.
There is not much to comment on with Prince Lír. Other than his father he too experiences loss (the love of his life, no less), but he becomes a better person for it, grows because of it, instead of stagnating like his father. Captain Cully becomes a better person because of losing his wife and men, singing and touring across the countries. And yes, of course, the Red Bull himself … There is a lot he potentially stands for and just because I can, I leave this one untouched for now.
A pet-peeve of mine is inconsistency within fictional universes. Now, The Last Unicorn is clearly fictional, although there is the occasional hint at a connection to our world, like e.g. the whole Robin Hood scene that brings Molly Grue to Schmendrick and the unicorn. And I can accept that, that is mighty fine with me. But what bugs me, is the butterfly and his crazy talk which would be okay if it weren’t for him talking about events that happen in a time that is clearly in the future (at least in my head) for the characters within the story. Or are we supposed to think that the world in The Last Unicorn is set in the future of our world? Then there is no representation of noble deeds other than Robin Hood? C’mon, really? It’s like this point in Lord of the Rings when Gandalf says to wakening Frodo in Rivendell “It’s October” and I’m all like: Wait what? You invent whole languages for peoples populating this fictional universe and you won’t even come up with other terms for months? Or another system of counting time, a different sort of calendar? Can’t accept that, sorry. So, Mr. Butterfly, you get little love from me.
However, there is one part of the story I particularly like. In the movie even more so than in the novel, probably because that is really my image of the character. It is of course the part about Mommy Fortuna, how she captures the unicorn and Schmendrick, who we meet there for the first time, sets her free.
What I love about the whole passage is how it sums up so nicely what the rest of the story tries to convey: we are all mortals, trying to find a way to immortality, but we probably couldn’t even handle it.
Mommy Fortuna knows that she is a minor witch and will never become a great person that all humankind will remember infinitely. But she managed to capture two immortal beings, the unicorn and the harpy. She doesn’t say it in the book, but if I remember correctly says it in the movie: This is her kind of immortality. She might be long gone and forgotten by all other mortal beings, but the harpy cannot die, she is immortal and will forever remember the time she was held prisoner by Mommy Fortuna – and that is Mommy’s kind of immortality, being remembered forever by the harpy she humiliated by capturing. I love the brilliance of the concept, the sharpness of the honesty that Mommy Fortuna is able to tell herself that she isn’t made for greatness, but that the unlikely event of capturing immortal beings grants her a place in history that will be remembered longer than any history that human beings write down and pass on. And although I think we should not get stuck on dichotomies, I kinda really like the dichotomy of two immortal beings who are so very different from each other that one of them is willing to kill the other.
Okeyi, sum-up time. Needless to repeat it, but I do so nevertheless: The Last Unicorn, both novel and film, is a great story. It is grand exactly because it knows how to avoid mere gestures of grandness, the characters do not need to be stereotypical heroes and princesses, but they need to be flawed beings (even the unicorn, who has to learn that a mortal existence is no less of an existence than hers) in order to be able to achieve greatness and thus make the story grand and epic.
Get it, read it, watch it.