A Sea of Metaphor

Brooke Wolfe '07 English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

Unicorns are creatures of a fantastic world, but Peter S. Beagle brings them to life in The Last Unicorn with his unique use of description and metaphor. Unicorns are normally portrayed as very peaceful and innocent animals, but Beagle gives the unicorn of his story a bolder manner. In his description of others becoming frightened at the unicorn's presence, the reader almost feels frightened himself because the description is so real, it makes this make-believe creature seem like it exists in the real world.

With an old, gay, terrible cry of ruin, the unicorn reared out of her hiding place. Her hooves came slashing down like a rain of razors, her mane raged, and on her forehead she wore a plume of lightning. The three assassins dropped their daggers and hid their faces, and even Molly Grue and Schmendrick cowered before her. But the unicorn saw none of them. Mad, dancing, sea-white, she belled her challenge again. [94]

Unique adjectives are not Beagle's only device in capturing his audience's attention to his realistic description of fantastic creatures. He uses other metaphors besides the one in this quotation that link the especially bizarre characteristics of the fantastic world to elements of the real world like "rain of razors" (94), "tautened like a sail" (63), "sour as boiled beer" (76), and "eyes are perjurers" (72) This gives the reader the notion that the events and characters in his story possibly exist as real things, even though their true characteristics could represent nothing more than a fantastic being.


1. When one sees the unicorn (as described above), it is not merely by sight she is experienced, but with a powerful combination of all the senses. In another instance, the unicorn's way made dead trees stop "when they saw her" (76). Why does the unicorn have such an effect on her viewers/beholders?

2. Beagle makes interesting use of description by giving sounds adjectives with which one normally describes a touch or by creating some of his own nonsensical descriptive words. What does a "dry sound" (40) sound like, or something that "rings coldly" (85)?

3. What effect do the relatively uncommon words like "gelid" (57), "greep" (59), "scrabbly" (86), "gormless" (65), and "theorbos" (72) have on the description; is the reader able to make sense of them or define their meaning? Why does Beagle leave the proper noun "enlglish" not capitalized and misspell "Damme" (53)?

4. Beagle alludes to a lot of different stories, like Rumpelstiltskin, Bill Bailey, Robin Hood, and even Shakespeare's Hamlet with his mention of "Excellent well, you're a fishmonger" (8). Even the character King Lir's name is very much like Shakespeare's King Lear. Do these allusions make a fantastic seem more realistic? Can they be paralleled to Carroll's technique of writing some shorter stories within the longer story?

5. A man and woman's faces are described as "beautiful as though they had never known fear" (64). Is Beagle suggesting that fear can make one ugly?

6. Beagle uses many similes and metaphors to add to his huge amounts of descriptions.

7. "Eyes" get mentioned repeatedly especially in association with their color description. Do eyes have special significance in this story?


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

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Last modified 20 April 2004