The Last Unicorn and a Better Remembrance

By

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” This is how Peter S. Beagle swings open the door to the world of his classic, The Last Unicorn. But before I was able to make words out of letters, and stories out of ink on a page, my unicorn lived in the 1982 animated classic under the same name.

Her world unfolded to me again and again in a VHS found on the second-from-the-top shelf of a movie rental in the corner of a grocery store, because—once upon a time—that was a thing. There was no lilac there; there was a lot of frantically flashing and buzzing of overhead light. But I felt the magician as I stood on my tip-toes to push the tape across the counter. I held the magic in my throat, knowing what would happen to my unicorn, and longing to be caught up in it again. And later, I would sit entranced on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, watching the medieval Unicorn Tapestries coming to life in the opening credits.

It was only a few months ago, while scrolling through my Goodreads feed, that I realized The Last Unicorn had its origin as a novel. I breathed out an “of course.” Of course this enchanting story that ebbed and flowed over the weekends of my youth began in written words. And yet, as I tried to recall the storyline for nostalgia’s sake, I couldn’t come up with anything clear. Was there a band of derelicts on a quest? Was the unicorn captured? Or lost? Or both? I was gripped by excitement as I suddenly realized I had the rare chance to become young again—to enter afresh into a story and to be surprised and enchanted like a newcomer.

Beagle’s storytelling is really remarkable. He plays with metafiction and anachronisms, but never at the risk of losing credibility or investment in his characters. His writing moves from poetic prose to stand-up-comedy material, and amazingly without giving any sort of mental whiplash.

But I wasn’t here for literary analysis. I was watching for this: What was my childhood heart thirsty for when The Last Unicorn kept beckoning me to return to its stream?

Even thirty years later, when I could produce nothing more than a fuzzy outline of the plot, I knew, at least, that my childhood stance towards this fictional unicorn was not one of playful friendship. I could not imagine myself wanting to throw my arms around her neck, and there were definitely no daydreams of flights over rainbows. My stance was reverence. It was wonder. She was an Aslan to me (though a poorer version, as I’ll share) before I knew Aslan.

Does remembrance only mean being an echo in someone's mind?

Elizabeth Harwell

The story goes roughly like this (spoiler alert! But really, the story is in the fabric—and I’m not going to ruin anything for you by giving the design): A unicorn discovers she is the last of her kind running free in the world. On her quest to reclaim the captured unicorns from the clench of the Red Bull, she meets a wizard named Schmendrick and a vagabond named Molly who she allows to join her. As this last unicorn is just about to be driven away by the Red Bull, Schmendrick uses his magic to turn her into a beautiful—though now mortal—woman. Now as three humans, this band of travelers shows up at King Haggard’s castle: home of the Red Bull. Haggard’s son, Prince Lir, falls in love with the unicorn-turned-woman who is now known as Lady Amalthea and, as she forgets her true self, she becomes lovesick, too.

The story is chock-full of sign-posts to Christ: purity, immortality, incarnation, sacrifice, substitution, resurrection. And yet, it wasn’t until the last few pages that I realized what had set my heart ablaze and left me longing, as a child, to watch unfold again and again: the unicorn remembers.

In one of the closing scenes, Schmendrick turns Lady Amalthea back into a unicorn to fight a battle with the Red Bull. After winning the battle, she stands over a dead Prince Lir, who sacrificed his life for her in the midst of the chaos. She stands for a very long time, as if scanning the history of the world to remember who he is. She then touches him once with her horn to resurrect him, and a second time over his heart saying, “I remember you. I remember.” And then she leaves. Forever.

Now, as a unicorn again, she could never be with her Prince Lir in the same way she was with him as Lady Almalthea.

The scene is haunting, and melancholic, and a little jarring. We ache with Prince Lir that after such a pure love—a love that birthed sacrifice—the unicorn could walk away from him. Schmendrick consoles Lir with the famous line: “As for you and your heart and the things you said and didn’t say, she will remember them all when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits.” This is meant to quiet our hearts. Though she leaves, she remembers. An immortal unicorn will carry you in her heart for eternity—even after you exist.

His remembrance will mean action—a storming of the gates of heaven on our behalf. The water will recede. The waiting will be over.

Elizabeth Harwell

But it didn’t quiet my heart. I kept returning back to the story because of this display of remembrance: It was beautiful. Being remembered by someone infinite is an unfathomable love. But does remembrance only mean being an echo in someone’s mind? It felt like a hollow beauty. This unicorn dazzled and enchanted and loved. And then she left. I think I must have, unknowingly, kept coming back to see if one time the unicorn’s remembrance would make her turn around. Maybe one time she would come back.

What I didn’t know then, as a child, is how this longing could be so sweetly met by another who came incarnate. He touched me once for resurrection, and a second time to say, “I will remember you. I will remember.”

And his remembrance spurs action.

When Noah sat in a corner of the ark with his knees pulled up to his chest, his body and soul rocked to the lullaby of the waves: “You are alone. This will not end.” And then, God remembered Noah. The water receded and the doors opened. Noah walked out into life; he walked out into conversation with God. Great, hollow silence was shattered by remembrance, and then: action.

The Israelites, with the sun searing their backs, labored in vain at the hand of Pharaoh. Brick by brick, they built someone else’s dream to the tune of their collective cry: “This is for nothing. Our lives are for nothing.” And then, God remembered. He sent all of heaven and earth into a chaotic upending of the natural law to rescue his children. Remembrance. Action.

Jesus hung on a cross between two criminals. One of them shouted demands and jeers—”If you truly are the Messiah, get us out of here! You can’t be God if we suffer.” In his religion, there could be no long nights in a boat of silence. There could be no enslavement to another’s dreams. There could be no cross.

But the second criminal understood. He didn’t need to change God’s plans; he just needed to be remembered in the midst of them. He only needed to hang on to Jesus’s coat tails when he would inevitably burst forward into action.

So this criminal—this wise fool—called out: “Jesus! Remember me. Hold me under you arm when you make all of this right. Carry me forward in your grand crescendo.”

And Jesus responded, “Truly, you will be with me in paradise today.”

We don’t get to peer behind that curtain. But it will be our story one day, too. He will remember you. He will remember me. And his remembrance will mean action—a storming of the gates of heaven on our behalf. The water will recede. The waiting will be over.

His incarnation gave us the means to have a relationship, to love and be loved. But his ascension isn’t the end of this story. We will not just be an echo in his mind when men are fairy tales.

One touch for resurrection. One for remembrance. He will come back for you.

And when he does, I think our hearts will shout something like the best line of The Last Unicorn: “I did not know that I was so empty to be so full.”


5 Comments

  1. Sarah M

    You hooked me in with a title I recognized from my childhood (I, too, watched that movie time after time from a supermarket video rental spot!) and now here I am blubbering just after 7AM. Really lovely writing. Thank you.

  2. David Mitchel

    @dmitchel

    Have you read Peter Beagle’s Two Hearts? It’s a short-fiction sequel to The Last Unicorn. I approached it with some trepidation because I would have hated to see an unworthy coda to the Amalthea-Lír story, but I thought it was beautiful.

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