When I was at university, one of my friends sat me down and insisted I watch The Last Unicorn, which is apparently one of his favourite films. I was intrigued to learn that it was actually an adaption of a fantasy novel published in 1968, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. The film is engaging and much less twee than it looks on the DVD cover, but it’s also deeply weird, so I wanted to see what the novel was like. Last week, I finally picked it up as the next one of my 20 Books of Summer.
Well, I am pleased to report that the book is weirder, somehow. The main character is (unsurprisingly) a unicorn, who overhears two men in her lilac wood discussing the existence or otherwise of her species. To her immense surprise, one of the men insists that all the unicorns have left, while the other says that there is just one remaining – living in the very forest in which they are standing. The unicorn is shocked by the possibility that she might be the very last of her kind, and decides to leave the forest to investigate. Upon leaving the forest, she finds that people no longer see her as a unicorn. When they look at her, they see an unusually beautiful, but otherwise unremarkable, white mare. Suddenly, her journey feels much more urgent and perilous.
During her quest, the unicorn naturally acquires some companions and faces some obstacles. I won’t go into these, not because they are spoilers but because they aren’t the point of the book. Really, The Last Unicorn is about the quality of the prose. There are sustained monologues from many characters – something that often irritates me in books, but that seemed in keeping with the tone of this one somehow. Similarly, there are long-winded descriptions of places and people threaded throughout. Normally I prefer that to be better integrated with the action, especially in genre fiction like this, but I loved it. I can’t really explain why, but the writing felt absolutely lyrical to me.
When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said ‘one o’clock’ as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.
The strangest thing about the book was the sense of unreality it conveys. You are never quite sure whether what the characters see reflects what’s actually happening, or whether it is an enchantment, an hallucination, or a misunderstanding. The characters can rarely trust the evidence of their own eyes, and the reader constantly doubts and suspects things – quite concrete things – of being a metaphor or an illusion. It makes the book – the premise for which is, on the surface, fairly childish and whimsical – much darker than it would appear to be. (In fact, the friend who introduced me to the film apparently abandoned the book a few chapters in, because it was “too creepy”). The whole thing, beginning to end, has a bittersweet tone, and I think that the hallucinatory quality of the novel contributes substantially to that.
In addition to the gorgeous writing, I was fascinated by some sections in which the book strayed into metafiction. Although I didn’t notice until about halfway through, it is commenting on the nature of fiction almost from the start, with the unicorn overhearing two people telling contradictory legends about her own species. About halfway through the book, the theme becomes explicit, when the characters meet a band of Merry Men who are in the habit of arguing with one another about the facts of their existence. (No, they aren’t that band of Merry Men. Yes, it is something of a sore point). It wasn’t quite as fleshed out as later explorations of the same themes, in books like John Scalzi’s Redshirts or Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair*, but I could see how much both books owed to this one. It’s always interesting to read early treatments of a subject I find compelling, and this was no exception.
The Last Unicorn is far from a perfect novel. The characters are not especially engaging (especially the unicorn and Schmendrick, who are the principal characters for a lot of the story), and the plot is fairly slight. The action stalls in a couple of places, and there are jarring modernisms that pull it out of the folklore world in which it is mostly set, and place it firmly in the 1960s, in the US. (At one point, one character calls another “baby”, for instance). And yet I really enjoyed it. The quality of the writing was more than enough to elevate it above its flaws. Another great reading experience in my 20 Books of Summer!
*I’m sure better SFF about metafiction exists, but I love both of these books dearly.