…И, за да е пълен празникът ни…

(Може би вече сте чели българската версия на това, ъм, наслаждение тук. Сега го пускам на английски, за да може и Питър да му се, ъм, наслади.)

<2005-12-27~30~2006-01-02~2007-12-04~2008-01-06>

The Last Unicorn

an appreciation

Who has choices need not choose.
We must, who have none.
We can love but what we lose –
What is gone is gone.

How does one go about appreciating Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn?

By, first and foremost, reading it. By laughing with it, sighing with it, singing with it, dancing with it (if one is so inclined); by letting each and every one of its carefully picked, like mellow autumn pears, words intoxicate one with its bouquet of aromas, and searching for their non-verbal, ineffable counterparts deep within one’s soul.

(And if one is truly brave, one may try riding along the unicorn in her quest for kin and truth; but one should be wary of breaking his neck or straining her horse … there are wounds that even a unicorn’s horn cannot heal.)

What one should not do, however, is precisely what I am going to do here: speak about The Last Unicorn. It is not that words fail me; it is rather that next to Peter Beagle’s words mine would inevitably pale like the horns of the Red Bull against the dawn sky. After all, Mr Beagle has taken years and given all of his heart and expressive élan to pick each gem of a word for his tale; and I poor appreciator have but a week and an incomplete command of English. Yet (a stoically resigned “Yet”, mind you) I shall try to do justice to The Last Unicorn through my very own, pale words. I have grown to love this book over the three years of our acquaintance, with a love perhaps fervent enough to offset the blunders of inarticulacy. So let us see…

(Of course, this sacrifice on my part will require sacrifices in turn; it is my strong suspicion that structured approach is going to be the first one.)

The Last Unicorn is the second novel of a twenty-nine-year-old New-York-City-born, whose A Fine and Private Place has already brought him acclaim among readers and literary critics alike eight years earlier. For eight years, young Peter S. Beagle has not produced a major piece of fiction (except I See by My Outfit, an account of a cross-country trip by motor scooter, and a handful of short stories); his next novel, The Folk of the Air, will take him another eighteen years to complete. Acts of love but also much labor, we are already beginning to glimpse; and yet, love forceful enough to conceal the labor from our eyes, keep it from marring the clear-eyed lyricism of the story, keep it from turning into another Finnegan’s Wake.

The novel gallops in the tracks of a fairy-tale quest: a unicorn finds out that she may be the last one left in the world and goes in search for her lost people. On her way, she is joined by two others in quest for their own lost dreams: a blundering magician whose fits of wisdom occasionally stun us, and an embittered middle-aged woman who hides under her querulous looks the fragile purity of a little girl. And since this is a fairy tale, you can count on meeting the handsome prince along the way – and providing him with a beautiful princess (who may have been born just this morning, the way she moves and holds her head); on clashing against his not-so-handsome father, the outright nasty king: another frail human being, who, once we take a good look at him, turns out to be neither a father nor unfeeling, a dreamer in his own right; on dragon-slaying and bull-wrestling – the Red Bull … ah, the Red Bull… This is a fairy tale by Peter S. Beagle, aye: rest assured that nothing is quite what is seems.

Where have the unicorns gone? What is the Red Bull? Who is Lady Amalthea? How do you pass through a clock that never strikes the right time? When is the right time – for passing through a clock with scrambled workings, or for anything? Can you make true magic by offering up someone else’s liver? What do human beings, who cannot recognize a unicorn when they meet one, see when they look at each other? What do they see when they look at their own children?

Even for those questions to which Mr Beagle provides answers, he encourages us readers to look for our own, once we have recognized their equivalents in and their relevance to our very real lives. Having arrived on the literary scene in 1968, some 12 years after The Lord of the Rings and just as many before its emulators, starting with Terry Brooks’s Shannara, began to appear, The Last Unicorn is as far away from an epic, distant (either in time or space) fantasy as is a fairy tale from a historical novel. They are easy to transfer to our own world, those questions and the characters who ask them; and although no character can be accused of being thinly disguised or delineated (even a four-page appearance such as the roving butterfly will stay in our memory with snippets of songs and Shakespeare long after we’ve set the book aside), we know, we readily recall who they are, what they represent – just as we start asking ourselves who we are and what we stand for. Have we, too, unwittingly perhaps, tried to pile up all the happiness in the world just for ourselves? Have we gone out slaying dragons for our lady loves, although they’ve been pining for a gentle word and a merry song? What is it, after all, that we see when we look at our children?

 

The language of The Last Unicorn plays the counterpoint to its story, making it the more unforgettable through its freshness, vividness and sheer force. Each word is shaped to stay and ring within us, just like the golden bell hung in the butterfly’s heart. The text sings with assonance (“a demon more destructive than the dragon, more monstrous than the manticore, more hideous than the harpy and certainly more universal than the unicorn”) and inner rhymes (“And so he waits for Judgment Day and dreams about the part he’ll play. It may be so – I couldn’t say.”). And when it does burst into song, it is as unmistakably melodic as it is memorable:

“And I say to myself, when there’s time for a word,
As I gracefully grow more debauched and depraved,
‘Ah, love may be strong, but a habit is stronger,
And I knew when I loved by the way I behaved.’”

The resulting style may haunt even undemanding readers through its pure polish; it is almost certain to depress most aspiring writers, by simply reminding them about the nine tenths of art that perseverance is – the labor behind the love, the eight years between A Fine and Private Place and this here unicorn. At the same time, Beagle’s comparisons and descriptions are so untypical and wide-eyed (a random pick: “Behind him there fell a bright mist, shivering like the sides of a fish, and bearing no resemblance at all to corroded clockwork.”) that we are bound to forget most of them even as a child’s sense of wonder strikes us. This makes rereading the book a first encounter, any time we reach toward it: and so it helps the questing reader come to new meanings and new ways of perceiving our world any time she stumbles over those unexpected, sparkling words.

* * *

I remember now: the best way to appreciate The Last Unicorn is to read it when you are young – maybe ten, maybe less; and then reread it, every other year or so. You’d see the text flowering before you, layer after layer; and in doing so, you will perhaps grow together: without wasting your strength and sensitivity in fighting dragons and black knights – unless it is truly necessary; without looking for good and evil in the world around you (to Beagle’s characters, good and evil are irrelevant descriptors; if ever an epithet strikes you as bearing some negative or positive color, turn around and see the author winking at you from a corner), but concentrating on the human dreams and fears that make us commit the atrocities and miracles shaping our lives; and, perhaps most important, without being afraid to raise your voice in song, as Schmendrick and Molly and Prince Lír do, in times of joy and sorrow alike. I deeply regret that The Last Unicorn found me only three years ago; but, so much more warmly, I smile when I think of that ten-year-old girl or boy who have overcome their horror from the illustrations[1] and have just gone over: “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.”

Ride well, and ride far, young ones! Your neck and your horse will be safe – a unicorn is guiding you.

 


[1] Mel Grant’s art in the anniversary edition that I have is unduly spooky. We are patiently waiting for a new edition (with artwork by Rebekah Naomi Cox), or for the now-legendary motion picture. Okay, about that last part – we are not. 😉