The Last Unicorn movie/book: wonder, soft magic and the beauty of the ephemeral

An animated unicorn standing in front of the moon in a blue night

I only recently read Peter Beagle’s American high fantasy classic The Last Unicorn. I read it to my son at bedtime, and I’ve also watched the trippy 1982 movie with him, which I think I saw when I was a child, but didn’t leave an impression on me at the time. It’s always interesting to see how and whether cultural icons stand the test of time.

In my view the movie holds up surprisingly well. The aesthetic is unique, with the soft rock songs by the band America and the anime drawings by Topcraft, the Japanese animation studio that lay at the basis of Studio Ghibli, with gorgeous backgrounds and Hokusai-echoing depictions of the sea. The voice actors include Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, among others (remarkably, everyone who was asked said yes).

The movie itself is very well-paced, the move from one scene to another is terrifically efficient, and in spite of this, the characters are well-rounded and interesting. Notably, I was struck by Molly Grue, a woman in her late thirties who used to travel with a group of Robin Hood would-be robbers. When Molly first sees the unicorn, she says “Can it truly be? Where have you been? Where have you been!… Where were you twenty years ago? Where were you ten years ago when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens who always come to you?” Even now, fantasy stories will rather feature young and innocent unicorn-approaching maids.

It fits nicely with the overall theme of the movie and book that stood out to me, namely our mortality and fleetingness. The fact that we grow old and die is both treated as a source of dread, sorrow and regret, and a source of worth and wonder. Some significant spoilers follow below.

Unicorns are immortal, biologically immortal to be precise (they can be killed if they leave their pristine forests, but they do not age and die). When the unicorn is transformed into a young woman, she is horrified, she says that she feels the flesh die all around her.

Another character who is biologically immortal is Schmendrick, the magician who was cursed by his late tutor Nikos to remain forever the same age until he finally learns to do proper magic (as a professor, I keep on wondering at the pedagogy of that). Schmendrick considers his immortality a burden, and at the end of the novel when he finally masters magic, Beagle mentions that his immortality falls away like “a shroud and an armor”. It’s only at this point that his life can start properly, and he can make some decisions of the directions he wants to take his life in. (I am wondering why the screenplay–written by Beagle too–didn’t use this significant plot line, I think leaving it out it made the character less interesting).

Then we have two characters who are mortal but who cling to immortality in other ways. The Witch Mommy Fortuna foolishly imprisons two creatures that are far too powerful for her to keep, a harpy and a unicorn, and this ultimately kills her.  “You couldn’t have freed yourself alone! I held you!” are her famous last words (see clip).

Mommy Fortuna is echoed in King Haggard, a deeply unhappy man who has as one of the few joys in his life his collection of unicorns in the waves of the sea near his castle. The melancholy disposition of this king is well portrayed by the voice of Christopher Lee, a highlight of the film for me as it’s amazing how his voice brings out the complexity of that character. Haggard just doesn’t get it: he doesn’t understand how to attain happiness, and he destroys everything in the process of trying to grasp it.

As in any fantasy novel, the magic is worth a closer look. Fantasy and SF author Brandon Sanderson draws a distinction between “hard magic” and “soft magic”, based on a realization that dawned on him several years ago. He used to think that magic functions a bit like natural laws in this world, just a kind of alternate natural laws that you teach the reader as you go along. So, when the magic is supposed to do crucial work (otherwise, why even have it) in key moments of the plot the reader does not feel cheated and it’s not a deus ex machina.

However, when Sanderson voiced this idea some writers would go “No, no, no, that’s not how magic functions at all! You’re taking away the mystery!” – and that’s when Sanderson realized there’s another form of magic in fantasy writing, which does not at all make its rules explicit.

It is magic as wonderment, and its narrative aim is to induce a sense of wonder in the reader. (τὸ θαυμάζειν, to thaumazein is “wonder” in Greek, as discussed in e.g., Plato, Aristotle who see the origin of philosophy in wonder, incidentally a synonym for magic, thaumaturgy, has the same root as wonder). That’s how Sanderson came to a distinction between “hard magic” (rule based) and “soft magic” (wonder based). In practice, many magical systems are a mix of both, but lean towards one. Last Unicorn is definitely at the very soft end of the spectrum: we can see it in the Magician’s learning process–fake magic is a bit like psychological tricks, real magic is wild, unpredictable and takes control of the person who uses it. There is an interesting tension between the immortal and very static unicorn (whose stasis is only a little bit softened toward the end, as she has learned to feel regret) and the dynamism of the magic throughout the story. Soft magic is able to balance this tension between stasis and dynamism, leaving the viewer and reader with a satisfied feel toward the end, and a sense that the fact we age and die is not all that bad, all things considered.

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