I just finished reading The Last Unicorn. On my phone, as the last three books had been, since I cannot find the hardcopy in local bookstores.
I saw a feature animation of it once when I was maybe five or eight, and it had enchanted me completely. The opening theme stayed with me for thirty years even after I’ve forgotten how the story went. It had been so long that I couldn’t remember how exactly the unicorn rescued the others.
So when I found the film uploaded on YouTube I eagerly sat down to watch it.
I was disappointed. The story began well enough, but became disjointed after Momma Fortuna’s Circus.
I guess things don’t look so good thirty years on . The same thing happened when I watched The Flight of Dragons as an adult. You lose the old magic. It’s never as good as you remember.
(Or do you? Maybe it was never that good to begin with, and you didn’t know better?)
The ending was magnificent though. That part matched my memory.
I felt something was missing, and when I learned that the film was based on a book, I resolved that I would read it if could find it.
I suspected there was something more profound written in the book. A theme hinted at in the film was the tension between possession vs cherishing, and how King Haggard never understood the difference. I also suspected there was more to Schmendrick the Magician’s inability to use magic. And how did he discover that really magic does what it would? And Prince Lir, raised by a crabby tyrant, how did he turn out a gallant hero?
So when I found a copy online I could read I went and read it.
It was… magic.
I’m not sure if this could really be called a children’s book. I’m not saying there’s gratuituous sex and violence; rather, there are subtle themes that take a certain amount of maturity to understand. It’s more suited to a mature reader, and I mean that in a good and introspective way.
The book does explicate on the theme of possessiveness vs love, as I had suspected, but also more: it revealed the inner dialog of Schmendrick; it takes him longer to figure out how to work his magic than simply saying “magic, do what you will” as in the film. Schmendrick feels like a failure every time magic briefly appears and fizzles out beyond recall. Not until something truly awes him does he realize what was missing, his character grows like it never does in the film. Prince Lir, who in the book starts out a bit dumb, doesn’t become a hero overnight, but does so in the process of trying to win the love of Princess Amalthea, a long and drawn out process that develops his character. He becomes not only physically stronger but more empathic, more sympathetic. He turns from an mere heir into a hero.
The unicorn, previously unconcerned with the feelings of mortals, learns regret… and cherishes it.
It is a deep book. If it is indeed written for children, those children must be wise beyond their years.
Or do I underestimate children?