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Literature: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 novel by Peter S. Beagle.

In a certain lilac wood, the leaves and snow never fall. This eternal springtime is watched over, and caused by, its magical resident—a unicorn. Having never left her forest, the unicorn is surprised to overhear two hunters speaking about the disappearance of the unicorns. In fact, they believe her to be the very last.

Unwilling to accept this, the unicorn leaves the safety of her forest and sets out to find others of her kind, following the information given to her by a philosophical butterfly. Along the way, she learns through bitter experience of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. She is mistaken for a horse (much to her displeasure), captured and placed in a circus sideshow, and pursued by a demonic being—the Red Bull, which, according to local legend, is responsible for the disappearance of the other unicorns. She also meets allies who join her in her journey; the incompetent but sweet-natured wizard Schmendrick and Molly Grue, a middle-aged bandit woman with a purer heart than most virgins.

Their quest takes them to the barren lands of the embittered King Haggard, master of the Red Bull, and his naive foster son Prince Lír. It is here that the unicorn, superior and aloof to all mortals, is transformed into a mere human, taking the name "Lady Amalthea", forced to see and suffer human weakness and emotion firsthand.

One of the overriding themes is the power of memory. The King remembers feeling happy once and tries to recapture it by kidnapping unicorns, the skull remembers wine, Amalthea is in danger of forgetting herself, Molly Grue remembers her lost youth, and the unicorn will forever remember being in love.

An animated film adaptation, with a script by the author, was produced by Rankin/Bass Productions in the 1980s.

Beginning in April 2010, IDW published a six-issue comic book adaptation.

The short story "Two Hearts", published in 2005, is set after The Last Unicorn and features some of the characters from the novel.


This novel provides examples of:

  • The Ageless: Unicorns. They do not age, but they can be killed.
  • Anachronism Stew: Intentionally, in the same vein as The Once and Future King, there are references to tacos, trains, magazines, Francis James Child's ballad collection, etc. in a medieval-Renaissance-Arthurian-whatever age.
  • Author Avatar: According to Peter S. Beagle, the Butterfly is this. Or at least, it represented himself back when he wrote the story.
  • Babies Ever After: Schmendrick urges the people of Hagsgate to start families.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Unicorns "are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides."
  • Becoming the Mask: The danger of the unicorn's human guise.
  • Berserk Button: For the unicorn, the death of Prince Lír by the Red Bull.
  • Beta Couple: Schmendrick and Molly.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Last Unicorn finds and frees her fellows, but at a price. As a human, the Lady Amalthea falls in love with Prince Lír. Returned to her immortal form, she can no longer stay with him (or even feel love anymore), so she leaves both her love and her two human friends behind to return to her home in the lilac wood. Even sadder, however, because she has experienced love, aging, and regret—experiences foreign to "pure" unicorns—she is no longer as innocent and aloof as others of her kind, separating her even from her own species. And yet, as sad as these things may be, she thanks Schmendrick for them. It is a good thing to have known love.
  • Blessed with Suck:
    Nikos, Schmendrick's teacher: "Therefore I grant that from this day forth you shall not grow old, but will travel the world round and round, eternally inefficient, until at last you come to yourself and know what you are. Don't thank me. I tremble at your doom."
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Indicated to be the case with immortal creatures and cats.
    "Cruel? How can I be cruel? That is for mortals. So is kindness."
  • Born as an Adult: Lady Amalthea.
  • Broken Angel: Played straight immediately after the transformation, then gradually deconstructed.
  • By the Eyes of the Blind: The skull.
  • Calling The Unicorn Out: "Where have you been?!"
  • Cats Are Magic: The kitchen cat in Haggard's castle knows the unicorn, even as a woman.
  • Cats Are Mean: The same cat is a Trickster, and when Molly gets frustrated at him for his riddling answers, he protests that he cannot give more help than he did.
    Cat: I am sorry. I would tell you what you want to know if I could, for you have been kind to me. But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.
  • Childless Dystopia: Hagsgate, due to a prophecy that a child from the town would bring down the king.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The butterfly sings songs, recites poetry, quotes a warning from a matchbox at one point, and occasionally says something useful. It's at least implied, if not stated outright, that verbatim parroting what he's heard others say before is actually the only way any butterfly can talk at all. He seems to understand what the unicorn is after well enough, though.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass/Took a Level in Badass:
    • Schmendrick's magic only works on occasion, and when it does, something usually goes wrong with it. But by the end of the book, he is able to return the unicorn to her true form - a feat his teacher, Nikos, the greatest of magicians, couldn't perform. Years later, Schmendrick's name would become even greater than that of his master's.
    • Lír starts off as a lazy schmuck, but eventually rises to become a hero (to impress Amalthea), fights the Red Bull, lays down his life to save the unicorn, and becomes King. In the sequel, he dies saving a small girl from a griffin.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: The butterfly has some good advice hidden in his string of nonsense songs.
  • Daydream Believer: Molly and all of Captain Cully's crew believe there really is a Robin Hood. Molly also believes there are unicorns. (She's right.)
  • Deconstruction. And how. All of the characters know they're in a fairy tale, and the fairy tale itself mocks, parodies, subverts and plays straight Fairy Tale tropes.
  • Dem Bones: The guardian of the passageway that leads to the Red Bull.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Molly Grue goes barefoot. Although in her case it's probably more like Cannot Afford Shoes.
  • Emergency Transformation: Schmendrick and Nikos both do this to unicorns in trouble. Only Schmendrick is able to pull off an Emergency Re-Transformation.
  • Emotionless Girl: Lady Amalthea, initially.
  • Famous Last Words:
    • "The last! I knew you were the last!"
    • Mommy Fortuna's "You couldn't have freed yourself alone! I held you!" Mommy Fortuna is clearly akin to those people who keep venomous snakes as pets.
  • Feathered Fiend: The Harpy
  • Fisher King: King Haggard. Also, the unicorn is believed to be one to her forest in-story.
  • Fountain of Youth: At the end of the book, Haggard's four aged watchmen become young men because they once told the human unicorn that they would become young again if that was what she wanted.
  • Functional Magic: Wild magic, exclusively. Mostly because Schmendrick starts off with a talent he can't control.
  • Genre Savvy: Several characters, particularly Lír, who makes a much-quoted speech about the proper order of things during the climax of the story.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Unicorns may be incorruptible, but they're also wild.
    Schmendrick: With a word and a wave, he [Nikos] transformed the unicorn into a handsome young man, who woke, and seeing the astonished bowmen gaping there, charged upon them and killed them all. His sword was of a twisted, tapering design, and he trampled the bodies when the men were dead.
  • Go Through Me: Lír to the Red Bull, twice. Tragically, he doesn't survive the second time.
  • Green Eyes: Schmendrick's green eyes are especially mentioned.
  • Harping On About Harpies
  • Hair-Trigger Temper:
    • Mabruk, King Haggard, Mommy Fortuna, and Rukh are all extremely quick to take offense, and enjoy bullying and intimidating others.
    • Lir displays this trait when warned by Schmendrick not to chase after the unicorn. He then realizes that that path is the one that leads to Haggard's dissatisfaction and tyranny.
  • Hannibal Lecture: King Haggard.
    Haggard: "I know you! I almost knew you as soon as I saw you on the road coming to my door. Since then, there is no movement of yours that has not betrayed you! A pace, a glance, a turn of the head, the flash of your throat as you breathe... even your way of standing perfectly still—they were all my spies!"
  • Herald
  • Heroic Sacrifice: That would be Lír. Twice ... again, alongside Malka in Two Hearts. Leaving The Unicorn to make the heartbreaking choice of who to save ...
  • The Hero's Journey
  • Hero's Muse: Amalthea to Lír.
  • History Repeats: The story reveals that Lady Amalthea/The Last Unicorn and Lír are not the first unicorn and human couple to be romantically involved. A male unicorn lost his immortality, fell in love in a mortal woman, they lived happy, grew old and died together.
  • Humanity Ensues:
    • The unicorn is transformed by Schmendrick into a human woman, against her will.
    • This is foreshadowed by a story Schmendrick tells about his own teacher Nikos turning a unicorn stallion into a human man. Unfortunately, Nikos could not reverse the spell, and the unicorn/man died in comfortable old age. The protagonist unicorn is horrified.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: Amalthea eventually gains enough to the point where she "dies" when Schmendrick changes the unicorn back.
  • I Just Want To Stay Normal: Amalthea begs Schmendrick not to change her back into a unicorn.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: Schmendrick. See Older Than They Look below.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Unicorns, Molly, and Lír.
  • It Must Be Mine: Haggard and "his" unicorns.
  • It's All About Me: Haggard's biggest vice—and danger—is his selfishness and obsessiveness.
  • Jumped at the Call: Both Schmendrick and Molly are willing to travel with the unicorn within hours of meeting her.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: Captain Cully and his outlaw gang certainly aspire to be, but instead are quite the opposite. They rob the poor because they can't fight back, and pay off the rich to turn a blind eye.
  • Karmic Death: Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Lír.
  • Last of Her Kind: But not exactly. It turns out that there are more unicorns—but they have all been imprisoned in the sea by King Haggard, with the help of the Red Bull.
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Love Martyr: Oh, Lír.
  • Magikarp Power: Schmendrick's magic. Similarly, see also Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass.
  • Mayfly-December Romance: Prince Lír and the unicorn... sort of. As Lady Amalthea, she's as human and mortal as he is, and when she's turned back into the immortal unicorn she can no longer feel love for him, but he still loves her all the same.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • Molly sings parts of Mommy Fortuna's song, and Amalthea sings a verse of a song she heard as a unicorn... but by then she's forgotten what it means and where she heard it.
    • There are also a lot of conversations about promises.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The unicorn's alias, "Amalthea," is a reference to the nanny goat who nursed Zeus. The original Amalthea had lost a horn, which became the Cornucopia, effectively making her a unicorn.
    • "Haggard" pretty much speaks for itself.
    • "Schmendrick" is a Yiddish word meaning someone who is foolish, clueless, or hopelessly out of his depth: a boy sent to do a man's job.
    • The Harpy is called "Celaeno"note  both as a Shout-Out to the harpy of the same name from Greek mythology, and because she is the dark and twisted yin to the Unicorn's light and pure yang.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: The unicorn's frightening personality change following her transformation.
  • Mistaken for Quake: Referenced: Schmendrick remarks that people who mistake a unicorn for a horse would also mistake the Midgard Serpent for an earthquake.
  • Motive Rant: King Haggard has one when he wistfully tells Lady Amalthea why he holds all the unicorns prisoner in the sea.
  • Mystical White Hair: Amalthea, the unicorn's human form.
  • Naked on Arrival: Due to an aversion of Magic Pants, this is the unicorn's human form at first sight.
  • No Name Given: The unicorn. "Amalthea" is just an alias used when in human form.
  • Older Than They Look: Schmendrick. He was cursed to stop aging by Nikos, under the condition that he find out who and what he was. It's implied that he's much older than he looks.
  • The Pardon: The king pardons the outlaws at the end.
  • The Power of Love: The desire to be someone worthy of Amalthea's love spurns Lír to change from a lazy coward into a Genre Savvy hero.
  • Princess Classic: Amalthea, especially as her humanity becomes more evident, acts like this, and nearly became an actual princess.
  • Prophecy Twist: Haggard's previous magician, Mabruk, tells Haggard "You have let your doom in by the front door, but it will not depart that way!" We assume that he's referring to Amalthea (and maybe that's all that he realizes). But Haggard's doom is actually caused by Lír, who was left on Haggard's doorstep as a baby. If Lír hadn't sacrificed his life, the unicorn would have just gone into the sea and would not have fought back against the Red Bull.
  • Punny Name: As well as being a Yiddish word (see above), "Schmendrick the Magician" is also a pun on "Mandrake The Magician."
  • Purpose Driven Immortality: Schmendrick's teacher makes him immortal until he can learn to use his magic.
  • Quest for the Rest
  • Rapunzel Hair: Lady Amalthea.
  • Really Was Born Yesterday: Amalthea. Haggard and Lír discuss this trope when they see her approaching the castle.
  • Refusal of the Call: The unicorn frets and delays for some time before setting out to find the others.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: What finally defeats the Red Bull and frees the unicorns.
  • Run or Die: Subverted. Running from the harpy would have gotten them killed.
  • Scenery Porn: The comic adaptation is absolutely gorgeous, whether for the actual scenery or even the panel layout.
  • Screw Destiny: Just before the final encounter with the Red Bull, Lady Amalthea wants to back out, marry Lír, and live happily ever after—Lír is the one who insists that the story can't end that way.
  • Taking the Bullet / Diving Save: Prince Lír jumps in front of the charging Red Bull to save the unicorn, killing the prince instantly. Cue Berserk Button.
  • This Is Reality: Captain Cully gets upset over the Robin Hood incident. Molly turns it back on him:
    Molly: Nay, Cully, you have it backward. There's no such person as you, or me, or any of us. Robin and Marian are real, and we are the legend!
  • Unable to Cry: Immortal creatures. When the unicorn returns to her real shape after being human, she confesses that she wants to cry now but cannot.
  • Unicorn: One of the most famous. She's the size of a large pony, is often mistaken for one by the unobservant despite looking as much like a goat or deer as a horse (albeit more ethereal than any of the above), and has a leonine tail. Males of her species have beards.
  • Unicorns Are Sacred: King Haggard captured all the unicorns but one with the Red Bull and drove them all into the sea, just because he could, and because they were the only things that could make him feel happiness.
  • Uniqueness Value: The Last Unicorn is so very, very precious to all involved because she is the last of her kind. After freeing all the other unicorns she remains unique because she's the only one to have ever experienced (and will remember) human emotion.
  • Unperson: A threat by King Haggard, made all the scarier by the vagueness of just how Haggard would accomplish it.
    "You are losing my interest," the rustling voice interrupted him again, "and that is very dangerous. In a moment I will have forgotten you quite entirely, and will never be able to remember just what I did with you. What I forget not only ceases to exist, but never really existed in the first place."
  • Unusual Euphemism:
    Molly Grue: Slit his wizard!
    • The book explains that she meant either "gizzard" or "weasand" (an archaic term for the throat), and amalgamated the two.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Subverted; a virgin princess is obliged to call a unicorn before she can marry, but rather than being silly and naive she is pragmatic and cynical, treating the whole ritual as a joke.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: This is King Haggard's Fatal Flaw, and it even extends to Hagsgate, his town. Everything comes easily to him (and the town doesn't have to work to earn a living) but because everything comes so easily, nothing is satisfying (and the town is basically a prosperous craphole.) Probably one of the reasons why unicorns still interest him is that there's one last unicorn out there he's never captured.
  • Wild Magic: Schmendrick does not so much control the magic he uses, as acts as a conduit for it to do what is necessary, which is not the same as doing what he wants.
  • Wild Wilderness
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?:
    • A major theme in the story is that immortal beings cannot appreciate mortality.
      Schmendrick: I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again—so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful, more beautiful than the unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world.
    • Mommy Fortuna had a twisted view of immortality in regards to the Harpy:
      Fortuna: Oh, she'll kill me one day or another. But she will remember forever that I caught her; that I held her prisoner. So there's my immortality, eh?
  • The Wise Prince: Lír
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Not explicitly stated, but when the most beautiful creature in the world becomes human this seems to be the result. It's worth noting however, that as she becomes more human she stays beautiful, but the mystical quality of her beauty fades away.
  • You Can See Me?: Mommy Fortuna, Schmendrick, Molly, and (terrifyingly) the Red Bull all know the unicorn when they encounter her. Most ordinary people mistake the unicorn for a white horse, and Mommy Fortuna has to put a fake horn on the unicorn to exhibit her to the public. The cat is also able to see her, because "No cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances."

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