The Nature of Time

Gregory Souza '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn chronicles the quest of the last unicorn to discover the fate of the rest of her species. The unicorn must leave the peace and safety of her forest and face many dangers before learning the fate of her species. When she encounters the mysterious and powerful Red Bull, her friend Schmendrick turns her into a human to save her from him. They travel to the castle of King Haggard, where they receive hints about how to find the Bull again and save the other unicorns. As ordered by one of the hints, they must make the King's old and broken clock strike the correct time. While trying to figure this riddle out, a skull mounted on the wall tells them the following:

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 walls. [169]

The skull goes on to tell them that the clock will never tell the right time and that it does not matter. He says "You can strike your own time, and start the count, anywhere." When they understand this, "any time will be the right time" for them. The skull's speech brings up important questions about the nature of time, which is an important theme in the book.


1. According to the skull, what is the basic nature of time? Compare this concept of time to other books we have read.

2. What effect does the metaphor of living "in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes" have?

3. How do you think different characters in this book feel about time, and how do you think they would react to the skull's description of time? For example, consider the immortal unicorns, the semi-immortal Schmendrick, and any mortal character.


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

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Last modified 12 April 2004