David Madore's WebLog: The Last Unicorn… and other tales

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The Last Unicorn… and other tales

I read Peter Beagle's classic, The Last Unicorn, the other day. I can't quite make up my mind as to whether I liked it. It's a strange book: much like a fairy tale, but with a number of elements which seem alien to the “fairy tale” genre, often humorous and sometimes bordering on the satirical, or which lead (apparently) nowhere—red herrings, if you will. I mean, in a conventional fairy tale, every part of the story is supposed to belong to some kind of general pattern, it takes the plot a step toward its conclusion or something of the sort: not so in Beagle's book—most of the time the story is rambling about with no definite aim. For example, the author doesn't seem to be able to decide whether the (eponymous) unicorn is very wise or very ignorant, or very powerful or very weak: well, maybe that paradox is part of what being a unicorn entails, but really every character is like that (Schmendrick, Molly, King Haggard, Prince Lír, even the Red Bull…). On the other hand, the work is beautifully poetic, and exudes a genuine charm of naïve innocence: somewhat, but not exactly, like The King of Elfland's Daughter (another classic which I read some time ago and which it sort of reminds me of), because the language is much plainer (Lord Dunsany's verb is highly sophisticated), but more “lively” in a subtle way.

I have the dimmest memory of seeing the motion picture of The Last Unicorn when I was young (perhaps just when it was released in France). All I remember was that I had found it somewhat frightening or, at least, disturbing: I guess that King Haggard's strange sort of nihilism could have been, indeed, disturbing, and I have a vision of the Red Bull, made of flame, which must have frightened me because it is essentially the only image I can conjure. Probably my memories are quite mixed up with those of a film I saw more recently (and which is also about unicorns and vaguely in the same spirit): Legend (not a motion picture, this one, but a genuine movie, with Tom Cruise at his debuts—and Zeus was he f*cking good looking in his early twenties). There's also something of Miyazaki's magic in The Last Unicorn, so I'm not surprised to learn that the Topcraft studio, responsible for the animation in the movie, was later hired by Miyazaki to produce Nausicaä.

In a completely (completely! despite the misleading word tale) different genre, I picked up on one of my bookshelves a copy of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which, I am told, is a must read for queers. But I confess finding it a bit hard to follow: not because of the English as such, but because of all the references to obscure facts of American, or, more often, Californian, San Franciscan, or even (I guess!) San-Franciscan-of-the-early-eighties culture (or all sorts of other cultural references: I found a few lines undecipherable, for example, because I didn't know what Gertrude Stein's last words were: fortunately, Google enlightened me). Or take he following excerpt:

The sun in the park was warmer now, and the birds were singing much more joyously.

Or so it seemed to Edgar.

‘Madrigal. That's lovely. Aren't there some Madrigals in Philadelphia?’

Anna shrugged. ‘This one came from Winnemucca.’

‘Oh… I don't know Nevada too well.’

‘You must've been to Winnemucca at least once. Probably when you were eighteen.’

He laughed. ‘Twenty. We were late bloomers in my family.’

‘Which one did you go to?’

‘My God! You're talking about the Paleolithic period. I couldn't remember a thing like that!’

‘It was your first time, wasn't it?’


‘Well, then you can remember it. Everybody remembers the first time.’ She blinked her eyes coaxingly, like a teacher trying to extract the multiplication tables from a shy pupil. ‘When was it—1935 or thereabouts?’

‘I guess… it was 1937. My junior year at Stanford.’

‘How did you get there?’

‘Christ… a dilapidated Olds. We drove all night until we reached this disappointing-looking cinder-block house out in the middle of the desert.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘I guess we wanted it to look like the Arabian Nights or, at least, one of those gaslight-and-red-velvet places.’

‘San Franciscans are spoiled rotten.’

He laughed. ‘Well, I felt we deserved more. The house was ridiculously tame. They even had a photo of Franklin and Eleanor in the parlor.’

‘One has to keep up appearances, doesn't one? Do you remember the name now?’

Edgar's eyebrows arched. ‘By God… the Blue Moon Lodge! I haven't thought of that in years!’

‘And the girl's name?’

‘She was hardly a girl. More like forty-five.’

—I guess one is supposed to know that Winnemucca is renowned for its brothels: I did not (I still worked it out, but I was rather baffled on first reading, especially as I tend to skim more than I really read). One is also supposed to know, of course, that an Olds is an Oldsmobile (that's something I knew: my grandfather had one) and that Franklin and Eleanor are the Roosevelts (all right, that one really wasn't hard, but it still requires an extra fraction of a second of brain activity to process). Reading this book is something of an advanced Turing test: I guess I fail because I didn't catch the pun in Sanskrit (actually, there is a mention of the Bhagavad-Gītā just before the reference to Gertrude Stein's last words).

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