In a forest where the season is only ever Spring, existed one Unicorn – the last. The troubling realization that she was the only unicorn led her on a journey to find the others. Along the way she befriends Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue, who accompany her on her quest. Together they travel to King Haggard’s castle to free the unicorns who were trapped by the Red Bull under Haggard’s command. Prior to reaching the castle, Schmendrick turns her into a woman and gives her the name Amalthea due to a battle with the Red Bull, who he claims is his niece. While staying at the castle, Haggard’s son, Prince Lir and Amalthea fall in love. But she cannot remain a human and the unicorns cannot remain imprisoned and they must fulfill a quest that no longer simply belongs to the last unicorn, but now also to Schmendrick, Molly, and Lir.
As a kid I was obsessed with this film, The Last Unicorn. As an adult, personally, the film still holds up. Within the last 6 years or so I learned it was adapted from a book of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. The book is beautifully written. Throughout the story, lying underneath the main objective of the characters lies this tension of time between the Unicorn, who is immortal, and her friends, who are mortal, and their connection to each other. This contention and understanding of the differences in time reminded me of a different way in which historians have studied history called “total history” or “la longue durée.” Revisiting this fairy tale as an adult, the tension of the story is not simply just the Red Bull but also the character’s awareness of the importance of their quest but also how they exist within each other’s lifetime.
Historians Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel were members of the Annales School who studied history in large time frames – Bloch described it as “total history” and Braudel as “la longue durée.” Both used this approach to study the nation state, Bloch studied societies that predated the modern state in his book, The Feudal Society, to deconstruct the nation state. While Braudel was driven to understand the authority of the nation state. Braudel argued that historical events were consequently unimportant when viewing them through a large time span. He also asserted that the importance of an event fluctuates depending on when it is being analyzed and how close or far that analysis is occurring to the time of the event. Studying history through massive time frames necessitated the understanding of the construction of time, which historian Ernst Kantorowicz (not a member of the Annales School) discussed in his book, The King’s Two Bodies. The creation of time, made time more tangible and possible to keep track of government schedules – such as tax schedules. The formation of time was necessary for Braudel’s argument, as he asserted that importance of an event could vary depending when the analysis was occurring in relation to the happening of the event.
While my argument here is not to question the importance of freeing the unicorns in la longue durée, as I do not know if the existence of unicorns was beneficial or detrimental within this realm, but rather focus on the incredible awareness that the characters, specifically Schmendrick and the Unicorn, possess throughout the story in understanding their own existence within this longue durée. For example, one night while everyone is sleeping the Unicorn thinks of her current situation traveling and knowing her human companions describing:
The unicorn was weary of human beings. Watching her companions as they slept, seeing the shadows of their dreams scurry over their faces, she would feel herself bending under the heaviness of knowing their names. Then she would run until morning to ease the ache: swifter than rain, swift as loss, racing to catch up with the time when she had known nothing at all but the sweetness of being herself. Often then, between the rush of one breath and the reach of another, it came to her that Schmendrick and Molly were long dead, and King Haggard as well, and the Red Bull met and mastered — so long ago that the grandchildren of the stars that had seen it all happen were withering now, turning to coal — and that she was still the only unicorn left in the world.
Due to her immortal time frame, she moves quickly through time and does not feel the effects of aging or feelings of regret – she is constantly moving forward with no concern of the past. Unicorns move through this longue durée with the faces of mortal creatures blurring by them.
Time is two-fold in the story, with endings for mortals and never ending for immortals – portraying the different levels of history in which Braudel described. Prior to the battle with the Red Bull, Schmendrick says, personally I find the most beautiful line in the film, “There are no happy endings because nothing ends” in response to Molly pushing Schmendrick to allow Amalthea to remain human which would allow her and Lir to be together and live happily ever after. For humans, endings do exist but in the la longue durée nothing ends, the world still continues. Things come to an end but something else grows out of it and continues on. The story does not end if they decide to be together everything continues on and the immortal unicorns will remain trapped continuing their forever lives imprisoned by someone who has an ending, King Haggard. As historian Ernst Kantorowicz articulated, time is continual and while constructing the idea of time made it manageable for humans, it did not give it an ending.
Throughout the story Schmendrick describes the journey as the characters existing in a fairy tale – fully understanding the structure that makes a story a fairy tale. They are existing within this timeframe that has a single purpose and once that purpose is fulfilled then the fairy tale will be complete. As the reader or viewer, the awareness of the characters existing within this story creates a sense that they are also aware that this story exists within a much larger never ending time line. For example, at the end of the story Schmendrick tells Lir “She will remember your heart when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits. Of all unicorns, she is the only one who knows what regret is – and love.” Within the never-ending time, even after men no longer exist – in la longue durée, Schmendrick articulates that the Unicorn will remember Lir because of the emotions she can and now forever experience due to him – Lir forever changed her.
In The Last Unicorn, as in most books or films in which an immortal creature lives alongside mortals, there exists a complexity of time. The book and film tell the story of immortals and mortals and how they struggle with the differences in lifetimes but also their hyper awareness of their own lives – existing within a fairytale. The discussions of the humans’ effects on the Unicorn were reminiscent of Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying history through the lenses of “total history” or “la longue durée.” The work of Ernst Kantorowicz on time also gave another dimension of the understanding of the relationship, sometimes contentious, throughout this fairytale.
Read by Jenny Juniper, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, YouTube.com
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn, (New York: Viking Press, 1968).
Marc Bloch, The Feudal Society, (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2014).
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean, (California: University of California Press, 1995).
Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).