Not Your Typical Fairy Tale?

Carol Ann Penney '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn ties together typical fairy tale characters -- unicorns, a magician, a prince and princess, and a king. However, Beagle hints to the reader that his story does not follow all of the conventions of fairy tales by making two characters aware of the roles that they play in the story. These two characters, Schmendrick the Magician and Prince Lir, comment on how the action of the story either follows or departs from the conventions of a fairy tale. Schmendrick the Magician explains one of these conventions to Molly Grue after learning of Prince Lir's history from the townspeople of Hagsgate:

"Haven't you ever been in a fairy tale before?. . . . The hero has to make a prophecy come true, and the villain is the one who has to stop him -- though in another kind of story, it's more often the other way around. And a hero has to be in trouble from the moment of his birth, or he's not a real hero. It's a great relief to find out about Prince Lir. I've been waiting for this tale to turn up a leading man. . . .

Molly said, "If Lir is the hero, what is she?"

"That's different. Haggard and Lir and Drinn and you and I -- we are in a fairy tale, and must go where it goes. But she is real. She is real." [91-92]

Later, when Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into a human, the Lady Amalthea, he informs her of the role she must fulfill within the tale, "You're in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it. . . . The story cannot end without the princess" (108). Beagle also gives Prince Lir this awareness of the tale unfolding around him, but his knowledge pertains solely to the role of the hero. The Prince refuses to take the Lady Amalthea as his wife because "Heroes know about order" and "The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story" (180).


1. How does Beagle's tale follow or depart from the conventions of a fairy tale? Does Beagle depart from conventions in order to create commentary?

2. Why does Beagle make his story self aware? Does it aid or distract from the action or the moral?

3. Schmendrick sets the unicorn apart from the other characters until he transforms her to a human and she becomes part of "the story like the rest of us" (108). Following this point in the tale, Beagle focuses mainly on four characters: the Unicorn, Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lir. Does one character stand out from the rest as the main character? Schmendrick's comment that he has "been waiting for this tale to turn up a leading man" raises the question of whom to consider the protagonist. Does a main character emerge from the storyline, or does Beagle intend the reader to choose for his or herself from the four?

4. Why does Beagle give only Schmendrick and Prince Lir the ability to see the tale unfold?


Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.

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Last modified 12 April 2004