Our journey into both love and that happy land of books you really should have read by now and if you haven’t, then you should definitely consider it continues today with The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. In this book, the author plays with narratives about love. He gently teases them, toys with them, and ultimately honors them.
The Last Unicorn and The Princess Bride.
You probably know The Last Unicorn as a movie, and if so, then good, because it is a very good movie. But it was a book long beforehand. The book is a bit like The Princess Bride in that it is not better or worse than the movie, only different in an equally wonderful way. When Peter S. Beagle dies, his obituary will call him “the author of The Last Unicorn,” and as much as that may drive him crazy, it awes him, too, that he’s given the world something this powerful and amazing.
I ran into The Last Unicorn as a little girl, and it always stuck with me. How could you not completely love a book about a unicorn who becomes a princess and finds true love, and beats the villains with the sheer power of her humanness?
It would take many years before I learned that the real love story was the one that sprang up between Molly Grue and Schmendrick the Magician–and, moreover, that the love story between the Lady Amalthea and Prince Lir was really not a real love story at all, but a narrative.
Please, please, please do not let this be a spoiler for you, but if you have never read it, then stop now and go get a copy and read it. It won’t take long; it’s not a hugely long book.
In the book, Schmendrick the Magician transforms the nameless unicorn into a beautiful young woman to save her from a dreadful enemy. She expresses only horror at her transformation, but the magician–who is not terribly skilled–says he can’t change her back. He names her Amalthea after the goat who suckled the god Zeus as a baby, helping the infant god escape death.
In this guise, she walks on bare feet into the lair of the story’s villain, King Haggard. There, she meets his adopted son, Lir. Prince Lir is just a dumpy young man when he meets the newly-christened Lady Amalthea, but her beauty and inaccessibility inspires him to become a true hero to win her heart. His efforts come to nothing–or so it seems. Nothing Lir does seems to impress her at first or even catch her attention. However, over time her human shell begins to soften her unicorn sensibilities, and the two fall in love.
By falling in love with Lir, the unicorn has bought into the narrative that he seeks to create. She doesn’t know what real women are like. She only really knows Molly Grue, who is middle-aged, poor, and quite bitter. Though Molly is real enough, she’s only one facet of womanhood. The story presents Molly as being a poor role model for what Schmendrick has called a “Lady.”
Lir treats the Lady Amalthea like a princess, so she becomes a princess. Her name becomes her nature. The book details how Lir creates a whole life and backstory for her, imagining what her upbringing must have been like, what her opinions are. For her part, she doesn’t know any better, so she lets him do it. His imposed narrative becomes real to her because she entirely lacks one of her own.
The Timing of Narratives.
At the end, when Schmendrick finally figures out how to reach the unicorn’s enemy, Lir comes along. He does so because he loves the Lady Amalthea so much that he wants to go wherever she goes.
When told that she is really a unicorn, Lr isn’t that surprised. He knew she was special somehow. Nor does news of her non-human nature matter much: “I love whom I love,” he says to shut Schmendrick up, with a hero’s steady granite in his words. And it works.
Before the story’s climactic battle, the Lady Amalthea tries to convince Schmendrick not to turn her back into a unicorn. She asks him to just let her enemy win, to let her die a mortal woman, to allow her to remain at Lir’s side for the rest of her life, to allow her to marry her princely lover and live a normal mortal life.
And it is Lir who refuses her outrageously over-generous offer.
He refuses because that ending wouldn’t fit the narrative that he’s created for them. He tells her,
“Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story. . . You [the Lady Amalthea] were the one who taught me,” he said. “I never looked at you without seeing the sweetness of the way the world comes together, or without sorrow for its spoiling.”
When I read this passage as an adult, it hit me like a thunderbolt.
Following the Narrative.
Lir fitted himself into the narrative of the hero, and fitted his love for the Lady Amalthea into the narrative of courtly love. There, a hero must do great deeds to earn his beloved’s attention and love in turn. In that world, all a hero had to do was be heroic and the woman he loved would turn her heart to him. It was all he knew how to do, being a prince.
His strategy worked because the Lady Amalthea wasn’t really a real woman. Therefore, she could mold herself to him and appreciate what he was trying to do. This narrative was so important to Lir that, to keep it going, he’d give up both his happiness and that of the woman he said he loved.
But Lir was a prince in a fairy tale, and he had that kind of luxury.
In the real world, narratives don’t work for everybody. Reality’s a lot messier than that. And if we sacrifice our own happiness for a story we’ve got going in our heads, then we’re only going to miss out on happiness.
This simple truth doesn’t stop parents from feeding narratives to children to make them think that love and relationships work a certain way. When I was a little girl, I thought–like most little girls seem to think–that when you love someone, you get married to him (always “him,” of course). Then, always, you have babies and you live happily ever after. Your One True Love always is the person you marry. You will be with that person forever and ever.
With the exception of Frozen, I defy you to find me a Disney movie involving young adults that doesn’t involve One True Love and a marriage at the end. Even Tangled hints at it, at the end.
When the Narratives Don’t Fit.
When I got older, I began to second-guess this idea. But still, I labored under this concept that once you fell in love, you were then morally obligated to try to make some kind of relationship happen with that person, even if you weren’t really very compatible. And love would make you compatible somehow, magically.
Then I fell for Armand.
Armand was a goth, but not the normal sort of goth. He had a poetic way of talking and he was pale as milk. He also had intense dark eyes, coppery hair, and an irresistible smile. In many ways, he seemed like he knew how to handle himself in a fight. He was one of those “still waters run deep” sort of men.
And I was a bit of a flutterbudget, as my dad had nicknamed me. Somehow the two of us really got along. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was something about him that I really liked. The sentiment was mutual. For his part, he seemed as surprised as I was that we clicked so completely.
But I pulled back here. I was a few years out of Christianity and second-thinking a lot of what I’d once thought about relationships and how people worked. Something in me knew that a relationship with Armand was a bad idea. He was polyamorous, for one thing, and I’m not. That means that he didn’t feel the need to restrict himself to one other person. I’m monogamous, so I don’t like the idea of sharing. And friends, that was just the beginning of our serious incompatibilities.
I skirted the very edge of his orbit without falling in. We continued with our very amiable friendship for many years. As far as I know, he settled out his own misgivings in similar fashion. To be sure, he never brought up to me any issues he had around considering friendship a consolation prize.
I had learned to trust my own common sense and to take responsibility for my actions. Could I help that I loved him? No, I really couldn’t stop myself from loving anybody. But did I have to follow up that feeling with action? No. Later on I’d develop other crushes and be able to look at them critically to see if I had any business pursuing any sort of relationship with those men, and when it was obviously a mismatch, I was able to bow out before things got even close to being dramatic. It hurt sometimes, but I knew the drama that would result would hurt worse, so I endured it.
(Notice, please, that I’m not talking about fundamentally re-wiring my sexuality or denying an attraction to an entire class of people, as Christians often mean when they talk about “choosing to act” on feelings. I’m talking here only about not wanting to pursue a relationship with one particular person because I knew our personalities and habits were so incompatible that it’d only end in huge drama. I wasn’t foregoing relationships with an entire demographic of people–and the only demographic I feel attracted to, at that–because an imaginary friend would totally get enraged at me for loving them.)
The Fairy Tale Can’t Be Real.
The love between Prince Lir and the Lady Amalthea could exist in a fairy tale, but not in the real world.
In the real world, the thorny, slow, gradual love between Schmendrick and Molly Grue was what was real, happening in the background of that grand love narrative springing up in the story between the beautiful young actors in the foreground. The narrative of love between Lir and the Lady Amalthea is very lovely for fiction, but even within their own fairy tale, it wasn’t real. After he watches Lir finally lose his One True Love forever, Schmendrick must bring the prince back to earth:
“This is not the end, either for you or for her. You are the king of a wasted land where there has never been any king but fear. Your true task has just begun, and you may not know in your life if you have succeeded in it, but only if you fail. As for her, she is a story with no ending, happy or sad. She can never belong to anything mortal enough to want her.”
Now, as Schmendrick makes clear, the prince’s fairy tale ends and his messy reality begins.
Indeed, once the narrative is over, then the real story can begin. Indeed, that is what happens for Lir. His father’s castle has fallen and his father has died. Now, his people need him to help them. He pulls himself together and plunges into the hard work ahead of him. At the end, he gets rewarded by Schmendrick with a potential romance. The magician sends him a real human princess who needs a rescuing.
Pulling Back from the Narrative.
When people get too caught up in narratives, they start using them as a substitute for real life. When they sacrifice their own truths and contort themselves to fit into their chosen fairy tale, they run into real grief. We’re humans, and the ways we’ve figured out to handle love and live together and choose each other are as varied as people themselves can be. In that way, our ability to love functions similarly to the ways we’ve chosen to pursue and define the divine and a host of other things.
Some folks want those things to be cut-and-dried and always work out this way or that way. It’s never that easy or that smooth. The important part is to figure out what you really need. From there, you can figure out a path to get it without causing unnecessary pain or deceiving anybody, even yourself. If the fairy tale just doesn’t fit you, then make your own, or go without entirely. As scary as it can be to forge a new path, if you need to do it, it’s a lot more honest than using one that goes the wrong way entirely.
Otherwise you will be like the spider when her home, the Midnight Carnival, gets destroyed by Schmendrick and the unicorn.
Even when offered freedom at last by the unicorn, the spider preferred to stay behind in captivity. So even amid that wreckage, she continues to weave what she believes is a sea of stars in the fairy tale pressed upon her by the evil witch Mommy Fortuna. Even after the witch is dead, the spider cannot bear to lose the fantasy. She cannot leave the narrative. No, thanks; I don’t want to be stuck like that.
The unicorn is right, when she tells that newly-freed spider:
Weaver, freedom is better, freedom is better.
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(This post was tidied up by Cas on February 14, 2019.)