The Last Unicorn’ begins in a lilac wood where two hunters discuss the disappearance of unicorns from the world. One of them is convinced of the existence of a unicorn, because the forest they stand in has magical powers. He calls out to the unicorn to protect herself, as she is the last of her kind. The unicorn hears the entreaties, is moved by the hunter’s words. It leaves the safety of the forest to find the truth.
The unicorn encounters a variety of characters including a band of outlaws, a butterfly and an old witch. Help comes in the form of a bumbling magician, aided by a weary kitchen maid and a love stricken prince. All these characters make the unicorn aware of what befell her kind and ways to save them.
Bobby Luczac, an American poet, goes to India on an assignment for Harper’s magazine in search of a poetry manuscript supposedly penned by a man named M.
Das, who is presumed dead since eight years. Now, the man is back and writes a new poem. Luczac is commissioned to travel to Calcutta, and on the visit, he is accompanied by his Indian wife and baby daughter. The assignment is to write an article on Das and negotiate translation rights for the poem. However, is Das really alive, or back from the dead? His new poem, quite uncharacteristically, proclaims the song of Kali – the Hindu deity of destruction.
Bobby soon discovers that he and his family face great danger in the city.
The family gets entangled in a religious cult engaged in the worship of Kali, a cruel deity, whose doctrine is to gain power through violence. The book contains hair-raising descriptions of Calcutta and strange rites. Calcutta is the major character in the novel portrayed in sinister terms. This is an apt venue for someone to sing Kali’s song of pain and death.
An interpretation of fantasy makes it separate the “I” and non “I” and self from the other. What this means is that fantasy is elevated reality, which tends to draw one away from one’s immediate reality and be completely absorbed, instead, in the substance of the fantasy and the existence of the ‘other’. The best of fantasy draws one away from a sense of time and space, when complete detachment from one’s self is possible. These exotic descriptions will be understood if the experience with films or books is considered. Theatre may not fully deliver the experience of detachment, as there is a certain amount of objectivity.
Fantasy’s theatre of sustenance is in the mind and that is why films and books can draw us into the realm of fantasy quicker. The involvement is intimate – the darkness of the cinema hall and the riveting power of the printed word, releases us from ‘being’, so to speak. While absorbed in the narration we are the ‘others’ in the story “I’ lives in the other.
The mind draws the vivid emotions and scenes in a book and the compelling power of imagery in films has the same effect as the descriptions in a book. The supernatural in narration has more or less, the same impact. In its narration, the “I” is completely the servant of the narrator or the experience narrated. Part of us wants to believe completely while the real person is detached. The strongest enticement of fantasy is here – the elastic struggle between the two extremes of being – ‘I’ and the ‘other’ is really the delicious part of a fantasy.
The novel by Dan Simmons is a dark tale of the supernatural, which has compelling scenes of horror. There is yet another type of fantasy – the rendering of a horror story which almost deliciously,’ shocks us out of our wits” and we revisit horror gain and again to experience the thrill of being drawn beyond ourselves in a terrifying narration. In ‘Song of…’ the author wants us to be drawn willingly to the tiger’s lair in anticipation of what will come next.
“The world is pain, O terrible wife of Shiva you are chewing the flesh; O terrible wife of Siva your tongue is drinking the blood, O dark Mother! O unclad Mother O beloved of Siva the world is pain’ (Simmons, 71). The terrifying invocation to the goddess Kali, while describing animal sacrifice to the deity and the nocturnal presence of the kali cult, draws a part of us willingly into the dark depths of the supernatural/fantasy/ horror story. There are of course three perspectives present in the narration: the author’s, ours and the lead character’s.
Through an interweaving of these perspectives, we live the story in terrified anticipation of events unfolding. The references to blood and sacrifice leave us shocked while a part of us always prods us in disbelief at believing such nonsense.
However, of course by now, the willing “I” has been completely hypnotized and taken away to realms deep within the depth of our subconscious. The detached eye of the author reports that the cult described in such ferociously evil terms was banned by the British and seems to have surfaced again – or that, the cult members are criminals. Disregarding such warnings, we are one with the Luczacs caught up in the terrifying city. A philosophical theory presents the world as gigantic battlefield between Good and Evil forces – and this is used by the author of ‘Song…’ to create his own personal version of the Evil Forces as Calcutta itself.
The descriptions of Calcutta (it would take a lot of willing disbelief to do so !) and inhabitants and dark rituals is portrayed in a form of ‘realism’ which is convincing to our ‘other selves’ by now completely immersed in the flight of the family through the winding lanes of the city – ‘the ceremonies in progress were most dignified. It was the day of the new moon in celebration of Durga and the head of an ox was on an iron spike…’ (Simmons, 71)
Our ‘rational side’ says, completely ignore such nonsense – while the ‘other ‘self takes flight in supernatural alleyways. Calcutta itself being a major character is latter day hell on Earth – a place where different laws of reality apply- the tales of Kali could be cooked up by the cult members or could be true in this bizarre world of elevated religious superstition. People are almost apparitions – not even real beings. What happens to the main characters is realistic description to which our shell-shocked selves are frequently returned to savor slices of violence and reality.
The foreboding tale of evil spun against the background of deeply entrenched religious superstition is not really a fantasy. It is not something we would like to learn a lot from, there are no heart tugging insights – no matter how well told the story.
Two of the central themes of this book are those of being and not being. Most characters in it are part of the ‘not I’, they are trying to become something, to reach an ideal. With the exception of the unicorn character all, the main figures in the book are really trying to be people they are not. People in the book remember songs and stories of unicorns from days gone by however, they are unable to see a real Unicorn standing in their midst.
The Unicorn also senses that she is encountering things that are not as they appear, and has a difficult time along with us as readers, making out the difference. “This is illusion, the unicorn told herself. This is Illusion – and raised a head heavy with death to stare into the deep of the last cage and see, not old age, but Mommy Fortuna herself. And the Unicorn knew she had not become mortal and ugly at all, but she did not feel beautiful again. Perhaps she was illusion too, she thought wearily” (Beagle, 25).
The bumbling magician, Schmendrick is one example of characters trying to become someone else. The first time he meets the Unicorn, he nearly kills the enchanted animal while trying to free her from her cage (Beagle, 34). He goes on through the novel making a complete fool of himself. When he tries to entertain Captain Cully’s “merry men”, he is forced to use sleight of hand because he knows his spells are not reliable at all Throughout the book , Schmendrick constantly persists at trying to be a real wizard but fails.
Molly Grue is a character who is trying to change from what she is. She is a poor man’s Maid Marian. Though she lives with an outlaw who rescued her from an evil baron, she does not fit the pat as the love of Robin Hood. She does not take on the sweetness and beauty of the fairy tale. Captain Cully professes “she is suspicious, pinched, dour, and prematurely old, even a touch tyrannical” (Beagle, 57). This middle-aged woman is cynical and broken. She even admits this to the unicorn “How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this with a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes and yellowing heart” (Beagle, 70).
Captain Cully is yet another example of a character that desperately wants to be much greater than he is. He wants to be remembered as a Robin Hood. He has his men write and sing songs about great deeds he never did. He lives the life of an outlaw stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and gives the rich a percentage. Even his ‘merry men’ lack enthusiasm: as one of them says “No offense, Captain, but we’re really not very merry, when all’s said” (Beagle, 61).
Peter Beagle, the author, leaves many of the unfulfilled characters that way. The “good” characters – Shmendrick and Molly for example have come to be the people they want to be. Schmendrick is a great wizard and Molly is a fair and innocent maiden.
One can extend this theme to the two characters most alike to each other, the Unicorn and The Red Bull. It is clear through the novel that she is everything a unicorn is claimed. She is immortal, has magical abilities and cannot be captured by mortal means. She is a magical being that cannot be seen by members of the ‘non being” world.
The farmer who tries to capture her thinking that she is a mare, is part of this” non” being world. Because Molly Grue and Schmendrick so intensely want to change to much greater beings than what they are, they can see creatures from the other not so mundane world. The devotees of the Kali cult in ‘Song of Kali’ seem to be doing so but do they really?
Why Beagle inserts themes of “being” and “non being” is perhaps because he felt that life is often based on perspective. What we want to see, hear and do depends on us. If we want to, we can settle for the lowest common denominator, like the simple farmer. Alternatively, we can push ourselves to be more than we are given, like Molly and Schmendrick. What the author says is we can either see magic and opportunity in our lives or ignore it.