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Literature / The Last Unicorn

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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. It's considered extremely faithful, though some events were trimmed out; mostly for time.

Beginning in April 2010, IDW published a six-issue comic book adaptation that includes back in elements the movie had to trim out.

The short story "Two Hearts", published in 2005, is set after The Last Unicorn and features some of the characters from the novel. It was followed by the novella Sooz in 2023.

This novel provides examples of:

  • The Ageless:
    • Unicorns are immortal, though they can be killed.
    • Schmendrick is cursed not to age until he masters his magic.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • Schmendrick loathes Mommy Fortuna, but he weeps after she is killed by the harpy.
    • Lír is the only one to make even a single sound of mourning for King Haggard.
  • All Take and No Give: King Haggard. Beautifully demonstrated when the unicorn is first turned into a woman, and both Haggard and Lír look into her eyes. Lír's eyes reflect the light radiating from her eyes, while Haggard's reflect none of it, as if hoarding it away somewhere.
  • 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.
  • Animalistic Abomination: The Red Bull is about as much a bull as the unicorn is a horse. Sure, it looks like a bull, but it is actually a mystical entity of such age and power that it makes even unicorns tremble.
  • Ascended Fangirl: Molly Grue never stopped believing in unicorns, even when she stopped believing she was worthy to see one. Then she became instrumental in helping the last unicorn in the world to free the others.
  • 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: Hagsgate is afraid to have children because of the prophecy that their prosperity depends on Haggard, and one of their children will bring him down. At the end, when it has been fulfilled, Prince Lír urges the people of Hagsgate to start families.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Molly Grue.
  • Beautiful All Along: Played with near the end of the book, the hard-luck, middle-aged Molly Grue puts her hair down, and the narrator says "she was more beautiful than the Lady Amalthea" — because the narrator is following the thoughts of Schmendrick, who has fallen in love with her.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Unicorns "are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides."
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When the unicorn blows off the princess that tries to summon her because she thinks her time is more valuable than a mortal's, Molly wistfully remarks that she wishes the unicorn could turn into something mortal. The next chapter, this is exactly what happens.
    • The unicorn claims that she didn't approach the princess for this reason — the girl had made promises like "I will abandon my title and go begging if I can only see your shadow" that the unicorn's actual appearance would have bound her to.
  • Becoming the Mask: The danger of the unicorn's human guise.
  • Berserk Button: For the unicorn, being confused for a horse, or compared to a mortal in any way. The death of Prince Lír by the Red Bull.
    • Captain Cully hates it when people unfavorably compare him to Robin Hood.
  • 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. Molly and Schmendrick also fall in love and can live a normal life together now that Schmendrick's immortality has ended.
  • Blessed with Suck: Schmendrick's teacher, Nikos, does this for/to Schmendrick, by making him immortal until he figures out his place in the world.
    Nikos: 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 obviously has no eyes, but sees just fine without them. The Red Bull is also blind, apparently working by other senses.
    Skull: Oh, no. No, you don't. I'm disloyal, but I'm not that disloyal. Not that one. Unicorn! Unicorn! Haggard! Haggard! UNICORN! UNICORN! Haggard, where are you? There they go! Down to the Red Bull! The clock, Haggard! There they go! Unicorn! UNICORN!
  • Captured Super-Entity: Mommy Fortuna, owner of a traveling circus-cum-freak-show, has captured by magic the Harpy Celaeno. The monster has sworn revenge and tries all possible ways to escape, while the witch drains herself of power and ages herself quickly to keep hold of her magic tether.
  • Cats Are Magic: The kitchen cat in Haggard's castle knows the unicorn, even as a woman.
  • Cats Are Mean: The same cat is The Trickster, and when Molly gets frustrated at him for his riddling answers, he protests that he cannot give more help than he already has.
    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.
  • Central Theme: Innocence: its value, its various problems, and its inevitable loss.
  • Childless Dystopia: Hagsgate, due to a prophecy that a child from the town would bring down the king. And it turns out to be true. Haggard adopted his son Lír as a baby, when he found the abandoned infant on a street in Hagsgate surrounded by a group of cats trying to keep him from freezing to death. Lír unwittingly causes Haggard's downfall by enabling the unicorn to defeat the Red Bull.
  • 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, of course.)
  • Death of Personality: The Lady Amalthea dies when Schmendrick restores the unicorn to her rightful shape.
  • Deconstruction: The story is considered one for fairy tales in general, by having the characters pointing out how they're aware that they live inside a fairy tale. The story also deconstructs common cliches of the genre: the princess is cold and aloof (and not even human); the middle-aged woman believes in unicorns the most of them all and is close friends with the princess, instead of being her enemy; the heroic prince starts out as a lazy bum and has to make himself into a hero through effort and experience; the wicked witch merely wants to be remembered; the cruel tyrant just wants to find true happiness; and the good wizard is incompetent. Most of all, the story doesn't end with the princess and the prince marrying and living happily ever after.
  • Decapitation Presentation: When Lír is first trying to impress Amalthea, he brings her the heads and other trophies from monsters he slays.
  • Dem Bones: The guardian of the passageway that leads to the Red Bull is a skull. He explains that Haggard took his head off when he was trying out "evil despot" to see if that would make him happy.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: King Haggard is a frightening exaggeration of what might happen to someone who never found a purpose yet never stopped looking for one anyway. Even the unicorns only distract him from the emptiness inside.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Molly Grue goes barefoot, although in her case it's probably more like cannot afford shoes.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Amalthea's crisis and Haggard's motivation could be read as symptoms of depression.
  • 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.
  • Empathic Environment: Haggard's land returns to its former beauty when the unicorns are freed — and Haggard's four men-at-arms become laughing young men.
  • Empty Eyes:
    King Haggard: (to Amalthea) Your eyes! Your eyes have become empty as Lír's, as any eyes that... never saw unicorns.
  • Esoteric Happy Ending: In-universe, the story of Nikos and the unicorn he saved by turning him human. The unicorn considers it a horrifying Fate Worse than Death.
  • Feathered Fiend: Celaeno the Harpy
  • Fisher King: King Haggard. Also, the unicorn is believed to be one to her forest in-story.
  • Foreshadowing
    • The unicorn warns Mommy Fortuna that one day the harpy will turn on her, and then there will be nothing left of her carnival but the sound of a spider weeping. The next chapter, that's exactly what happens.
    • Molly remarks at one point that she wishes the unicorn could become a mortal creature, just for a little while, so she can learn to to appreciate what little time mortals have.
  • 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 Genre Savvy: Several characters, particularly Lír, who makes a much-quoted speech about the proper order of things during the climax of the story.
  • Functional Magic: Rule Magic for wizards and witches and Inherent Gifts for magical beings such as the unicorn. Magic sometimes acts like Wild Magic for Schmendrick the Magician, but this is because he is incompetent; he has an intuitive grasp of magic that comes to him in moments of great emotion, but even then he speaks certain words in a certain way to use it.
  • Genre Deconstruction
    • The hopeless wizard, rather than a figure of fun and amusement, is so beaten down by constant failure that he can barely function. For extra ironic cruelty, he keeps taking jobs as an entertainer/clown.
    • Molly eloped with Cully because she imagined the romantic life of an outlaw, thanks to stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The ensuing reality of barefoot poverty and constantly cooking and washing for scores of rowdy men out in the woods made her prematurely old and bitter.
    • The prince and son of prophecy is an overweight layabout. By the time he grows into himself and fulfills his destiny, the beautiful maiden he's fought so hard to save... leaves him forever.
  • Good is Not Nice: Unicorns may be incorruptible, but they're also wild.
    Schmendrick: With a word and a wave, [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.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper:
    • Mabruk, King Haggard, Mommy Fortuna, and Rukh are all extremely quick to take offense, and enjoy bullying and intimidating others.
    • Lír 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!
  • Harping on About Harpies: Calaeno, the harpy held prisoner by Mommy Fortuna.
  • Herald: The hunters and the butterfly for the last unicorn.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Depths: Haggard has sent away everyone except the absolute minimum staff in his castle, because he won't keep anything around that doesn't make him happy. There are so few people left, in fact, that he and Lír have to help with the cooking and doing shifts on guard duty. However, this indicates that doing these things actually does make Haggard at least a little happy. If they didn't, he would be happier with the extra employees (which makes sense - having work he needs to attend to is better than just sitting on his throne all day doing nothing).
  • 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.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: Schmendrick. See Older Than They Look below.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Unicorns, Molly, and Lír.
  • Indifferent Beauty: The Lady Amalthea, who is aware of how ethereally beautiful King Haggard, Prince Lír, and the four guards find her, but couldn't care less and barely sends them a glance.
  • Ironic Hell: The town of Hagsgate. When Haggard refused to pay the witch who built his castle, she went to them and asked them to force his hand; they did nothing. Her curse was impressively ironic;
    ''You whom Haggard holds in thrall
    share his feast and share his fall.
    You shall see your fortune flower
    till the torrent takes the tower.
    Yet none but one of Hagsgate town
    may bring the castle swirling down.
    • Result: The people of the town stop having children (it's implied that any babies born were left to die of exposure). Naturally, one survives to be discovered by Haggard — Prince 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Molly Grue is all but stated to be this.
    Captain Cully: It is only natural that she should become suspicious, pinched, dour, prematurely old, even a touch tyrannical . . . But she's a good heart, a good heart.
  • 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. When Schmendrick creates an image of Robin Hood the gang quickly runs after him, desperate to join the Merry Men.
  • 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.
  • "Leave Your Quest" Test: Amalthea tries to back out just before the final battle. Her lover, Prince Lír, is an experienced hero and insists that it can't end this way — even though if she stayed human they could marry and be happy together. The same event could also be considered a test for him.
  • Left Field Description: Unusual comparisons are part of the style of the book. The unicorn remembers a "chocolate stable smell," for example, or the late-morning sun melts "into a lion-colored puddle." The unicorn is also called "sea white" long before there's any reason to believe that the unicorns and the ocean are connected.
  • The Load: Downplayed. After Haggard allows the trio to stay in his castle, Schmendrick and Molly are immediately put to work as Haggard's personal jester and scullery maid, while the Lady Amalthea is left free to roam the castle. However, the trio make no headway finding her people for months because Schmendrick and Molly are too busy working all hours to search the castle, while the Lady Amalthea can't be bothered to do anything but sulk about being human. Once she forgets ever being a unicorn, Molly and Schmendrick practically carry her down to the Red Bull's lair for the fated confrontation.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: When the Red Bull is defeated, Haggard's castle collapses.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: After the day has been saved, Lír decides to go find the Unicorn. Schmendrick tells him that he can't have her, and Lír has a flash of jealous rage that makes him look just like his father. Fortunately, he is wise enough to stand down.
    • Amalthea's love for Lír also counts, because in loving Lír she comes to completely forget her past and true self as a unicorn, though she recovers some of it before the end.
  • 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't be with 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 the first unicorn. Word of God has it that the author was not aware of the origins of the name when it came to him and suspects he read the myth as a child and got it stuck in his subconscious.
    • "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.
    • Lír isn't just a Punctuation Shaker — anyone versed in Irish mythology would recognise the name as that of the Irish sea god, most prominent in The Children of Lir, in which his three children are turned into swans and bound to three lakes, for three hundred years each per lake.
  • The Metamorphoses: Arachne: One of Mommy Fortuna's exhibits is a simple brown spider that she displays as the Arachne of mythology. It's a more effective illusion than most because the spider believes it too.
    Rukh: The greatest weaver in the world -— her fate's the proof of it. She had the bad luck to defeat the goddess Athena in a weaving contest. Athena was a sore loser, and Arachne is now a spider, creating only for Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, by special arrangement. Warp of snow and woof of flame, and never any two the same. Arachne.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: The unicorn's frightening personality change following her transformation. The narration even starts referring to her as 'the Lady Amalthea' after calling her 'the girl' for the first part of her stay in the castle.
  • Mistaken for Quake: Referenced: Schmendrick remarks that people who mistake a unicorn for a horse would also mistake the Midgard Serpent for an earthquake.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The unicorn is a composite creature, with legs like a deer, feet like a goat, a lion's tail, and a long twisting horn. She's extraordinarily beautiful, but when fear of the Red Bull robs her of her grace and her magical glimmer, even Molly has to admit she looks "absurd."
  • 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. Interestingly, she is so unearthly in her beauty that nobody at Haggard's castle seems to notice that she's naked under the tatters of Schmendrick's cloak until it's pointed out to them.
  • Nigh-Invulnerable: The Red Bull is essentially indestructible... but that's not to say it cannot back down.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Lír sacrifices his life protecting the unicorn from the Red Bull, and is resurrected by the unicorn afterward... but the unicorn cannot stay with him, leaving him as heir to a throne he doesn't want, ruling over a wretched people in a land he hates, with no more joy in his rule than Haggard ever had. His only reward is that the unicorn will remember his love for all eternity.
  • No Name Given: The unicorn. "Amalthea" is just an alias used when in human form.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Discussed. The Lady Amalthea initially has no interest in Lír because she sees that he wants her just as the Red Bull did, and it frightens her. After she is restored to a unicorn, Prince Lír demands to know where she is and states that he must have her, and for a moment he looks just as Haggard did.
  • Oddly Small Organization: Since Haggard removed anything that didn't make him happy from his castle, his court consists of himself, Lír, a court magician, and four septuagenarian men at arms. And because they're so short-handed, every one of them, including the king and his heir, have to take turns guarding the castle, cooking meals, and cleaning the place.
  • Older Is Better: The unicorn speaks about the Red Bull this way after their first encounter.
    “He was too strong,” she said, “too strong. There was no end to his strength, and no beginning. He is older than I.”
  • 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. Word of God says he's anywhere from 40 to 60.
  • Painful Rhyme: Lír's love poetry to Amalthea uses this as a form of Stylistic Suck (since his poetry is supposed to be terrible):
    "It's certainly heartfelt", she said. "Can you really rhyme 'bloomed' with 'ruined?'"
  • The Pardon: The king pardons Captain Cully and his 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.
    • The Lady Amalthea's love for Lír gives her courage to finally face the Red Bull.
  • Princess Classic: Amalthea, especially as her humanity becomes more evident, acts like this, and nearly becomes an actual princess. An actual one of these, Princess Alyson Jocelyn, turns up near the very end.
  • 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, whom Haggard adopted as a baby and, one would presume, brought him into the castle via the front door. 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: The unicorn's search for the rest of her people. As per the normal trope, the quest ends up changing her so that she is still unique even when she succeeds in finding the others.
  • 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.
    Unicorn: Don't look back and don't run. You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention. [...] Never run. [...] Walk slowly, and pretend to be thinking of something else. Sing a song, say a poem, do your tricks, but walk slowly and she may not follow.
  • 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.
  • Shown Their Work: Unicorns are not "horses with horns", and the book acknowledges that. The unicorn is a creature mashup like a griffin or hippogriff: she has deer legs, cloven hooves, a lion's tail... But she has an old, wild grace that makes all her contradictory parts work.
  • Spanner in the Works: Schmendrick by changing the unicorn into a human ended up saving her from King Haggard and the Red Bull, because the Red Bull can't sense her while she's human. While she understandably freaks out on being put in a mortal body and feeling emotions magical creatures aren't meant to feel, he says it buys them time to find out where Haggard is keeping the unicorns and how to free them. Her love for Lir is enough to get her to charge at the Red Bull in her true form and defeat him.
  • 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!
  • Took a Level in Badass: Seeing Lír face down the Red Bull fills Schmendrick with magic permanently, turning him from an Inept Mage to The Archmage. He is even able to turn a human being into a unicorn, a feat his master Nikos himself was unable to perform.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: When Lír declares he will find the Unicorn at any cost at the end, it's noted he looks like Haggard for the first time. Schmendrick advises against it.
  • 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.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • The harpy tries to kill the unicorn right after she frees her. Fortunately, she bears more of a grudge against Mommy Fortuna and her assistant Rukh.
    • Molly begs Schmendrick to use his magic to save the unicorn from the Red Bull, but immediately turns on him after he does so by turning her into a human girl.
    • The Lady Amalthea also displays this after they go to live at King Haggard's court, calling Schmendrick a fool for working as his court jester, even though the whole reason he does it is to buy her time. Even Molly calls her out on it.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Breakdown: King Haggard has one at the end, when he begins to doubt whether Amalthea is really a unicorn or not.
  • 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.
  • Visible to Believers: Unicorns are visible as themselves only to those who believe they exist — otherwise they look like horses.
  • 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 but because everything comes so easily, nothing is satisfying. Probably one of the reasons why unicorns still interest him is that there's one last unicorn out there he's never captured.
    • The village of Hagsgate values its prosperity so much that they haven't had any children in fifty years to try to thwart the witch's curse, and they are so worried about it that they take no joy from their prosperity at all. Any mention by visitors of how well they seem to be doing only reminds them of the curse.
  • 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?
  • Wild Magic: Schmendrick does not so much control the magic he uses, as acts as a conduit for it to do what is needed, which is not the same as doing what he wants.
  • Wild Wilderness: The wilderness outside the last unicorn's lilac wood, which causes her a lot of exhaustion and hardship.
  • Wise Old Folk Façade: At one point, the elderly and extremely competent wizard Mabruk is introduced. He briefly seems friendly enough, including talking to Schmendrick about Schmendrick's old teacher and giving Schmendrick encouragement about Schmendrick's struggles with performing magic. The second Mabruk is crossed, however, his kind and grandfatherly facade drops hard and fast and he becomes a terrifying figure. The description of him in the text explicitly foreshadows this as soon as he is encountered.
    His beard and his brows were white, and the cast of his face was mild and wise, but his eyes were as hard as hailstones.
  • The Wise Prince: Lír, after he's changed by having been in love with Amalthea.
  • 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."
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Maybe not "real," but the illusion of Arachne in Mommy Fortuna's Carnival is stronger than all the others, because the spider posing as Arachne believes it's real.
  • Your Size May Vary: Sometimes the Red Bull is just large, but sometimes it is ginormous.
  • Younger Than They Look: Molly Grue is implied to look older than she is because a hard life of barefoot poverty out in the woods made her pinched, cynical, and aged before her time. (This is in contrast to Schmendrick, who is Older Than They Look.)