Next on Fox: When Good Magic Goes Bad

David Washington '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

decorated initiual 'M'agic, which contributes importantly to the extraordinary nature of many fantastic works, certainly plays a key role in the plot of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Although many of the creatures in the work boast magical properties, one of them has the occupation of a professional magician, Schmendrick. Though most of his spells fail, the reader can gain insights into the world's culture through the inhabitants' reactions. One such point occurs during Schmendrick's captivity in Captain Cully's company. Forced to perform tricks for the captain and his crew, Schmendrick begins to perform magic that he knows he can control, such as card tricks. Although this gains him a very polite response, those who seem familiar with magic, e.g. Molly Grue, are disappointed. This prompts Schmendrick to tap deep into his vast, uncontrolled power saying, "Do as you will."

It sighed though him, beginning somewhere secret -- in his shoulderblade, perhaps, or in the marrow of his shinbone. His heart filled and tautened like a sail, and something moved more surely in his body than ever had. It spoke with his voice, commanding. Weak with power, he sank to his knees and waited to be Schmendrick again.

After this, the enormous figures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Little John, appeared to the congregation and walked through. Shortly thereafter, Captain Cully, addressed his crew.

"Robin Hood is a myth," Captain Cully said nervously, "a classic example of the heroic folk figures synthesized out of need. John Henry is another. Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl. Not that it isn't a remarkable trick, of course."

Right after this, the group begins to run after the figures, calling and shouting. They pay no attention the Captain, who is warning of their falsity. Molly Grue, however, did manage to call back to him.

"Nay, Cully, you have it backward," she called to him. "There's no such a person as you, or me, or any of us. Robin and Marian are real, and we are legend!" Then she ran on, crying, "Wait, wait!" like the others, leaving Captain Cully and Jack Jingly to stand in the trampled firelight and listen the magician's laughter."

Cully and Jingly seize Schmendrick quickly following this and stuck a dagger to his chest, rebuking him for such a misleading trick and accusing him of being King Haggard's son.

Discussion Questions

1. Is the passage in which Beagle describes the magic's manifestation in Schmendrick effective? Why? Have we seen other such passages in other fantasy works?

2. What is meant when Cully says, "Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl."? Is this simply Cully's desire to be revered speaking?

3. What is meant by Grue's proclamation, "There's no such person as you, or me or any of us. Robin and Marian are real, and we are legend!"?


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

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Last modified 12 April 2004