Thursday, 31 January 2013

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

As a child, The Last Unicorn was my favourite film. Its sumptuous depiction of magical beasts and a suitably noble quest delighted my growing imagination, adding characters and colours to the mythic landscape of my private fantasy world. As a teenager I discovered (and promptly sped through) the book (by chance, my father had an old paberback copy in his library), falling in love with the story again, albeit for different reasons. It seems right that I nurtured a love of the film first, and the book later, as the book is much more poignant about adult experience. As I got older, leaping into my twenties, I found that I revisited this story many times, recognising new resonances with the characters, and their hopes, and the inevitable tragedy of their fates.

It isn't a ghost story, but at its heart are themes which plant the seeds for ghostly legacies: that things must end although stories may continue. It recognises also the role of characters in the story; that they have their parts to play within a wider narrative, and are not the beginning or the end of that script. There is a sense, particularly as you near the end of Peter Beagle's tale, that the consequences were always inevitable. Despite the crossroad of choice in the Red Bull's lair in which Amalthea, now human, may decide to remain in the cast of her mortal form and marry the prince she has fallen in love with, we know, deep down, that this can't happen. Even though she begs Schmendrick the magician to let her remain as she is, it is ultimately her mortal lover, Prince Lir, who knows that "...things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned... The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story." While Schmendrick remarks that "...there are no happy endings, because nothing ends..." he is refering to the grander scheme of things. Mortals, after all, know above all else that some things must end.

The Last Unicorn is a story about the agony of endings, about the agony of not being able to hold onto that which is beautiful and wonderful and which you wished would last eternally. It is also a story about the agony of finding that you will not have the fate you wanted. This theme is further illustrated by the morose antagonist King Haggard, whose touch corrodes all that is boyant and good. A jealous gaoler, he keeps all the unicorns but Amalthea captive in the sea, so he can watch them at his leisure and feel something other than emptiness.

"I suppose I was young when I first saw them... Now I must be old - at least I have picked many more things up than I had then, and put them all down again. But I always knew that nothing was worth the investment of my heart, because nothing lasts, and I was right, and so I was always old. Yet each time I see my unicorns, it is like that morning in the woods, and I am truly young in spite of myself, and anything can happen in a world that holds such beauty." Haggard knows but loathes the limit of the mortal world. He is quintessentially a tragic figure, for he recognises and knows joy, but is ruined by the knowledege that it is fleeting. Such understanding is all consuming, and his rejection of the world around him sees it manifest as cold and grey and withering. His hunger for a recapturing of that moment of youthful joy is a greedy one, motivated by his misery, for his need to deny the frailty and age that chains him to his mortal life and its subsequent boundaries. In the end, he could not hold it forever. But then, he knew she was the last... and, as the magician Mabruk decreed, the last would bring his doom. There must always be a last. And, as our protagonists notion, unicorns may go unnoticed for a long time, but not forever.

The story also communicates a painful melody about the loss of childhood. A nostalgia for youth is demonstrated by another character, Molly, who joins Schmendrick and Amalthea in their quest to find the other unicorns after their escape from outlaws with whom she was assocaited. As the unicorn steps from behind a copse of trees, Molly's eyes fill with tears: "How dare you! How dare you come to me now... when I am this." For Molly, the unicorn is the visitor of young women, full of hope and their own innocent magic, and she cannot bare for that visitation to find her in the creases of late middle age, when the hope of maidenhood has gone and she is a woman of the world who has accepted her lot.

I found Molly's sadness particularly moving when I was in my late twenties. I remembered that longing for a sight of unicorns, for a recognition from the magical when I believed in all its possibilities. I'm 31 now, and sometimes wonder how I might feel if, after all those years, a unicorn stepped onto my path. A similar sadness perhaps, because my adult eyes would never see a unicorn as my childhood eyes would have done, and I fear I am beyond the rapture of pure, simple magical experience when one has no real concept of what the future will bring them.

At the end of the story, Amalthea is once again a unicorn. While she lamented that she would not be able to love her prince when recast into her immortal form, she watches him from the hill and remembers. It is the beginning of a new life, despite the return to her former immortal body. There is a sense in the story that immortality is something pure and untainted, it is always as the mortal young are so briefly, by the very nature that it is beyond that thing that ruptures mortals so: death. Before returning to her forest, she visit Schmendrick and Molly one last time. While Molly sleeps, Schmendrick regrets that he has done her a harm that he cannot undo. She understands this with a new uncertainty about what will befall her. "...I do not know if I will live contentedly... I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die." And yet... "My people are in the world again. No sorrow will live in me as long as that joy - save one, and I thank you for that too." The quest ended as it was supposed to, although unicorns will be coveted by magic, and may as well have remained in the sea for most mortals in the world. Similar fantasies written by contemporary Western authors have leant toward this order of things. After all, such magical things are banished by science.

The prince will mourn his lost love until he dies, and perhaps some ghostly essence of that will continue when he does not. The unicorn will mourn her lost love always. She has grown older, and cannot entirely reverse that. Once one has bloomed into adulthood you can never be a child again. Both Amalthea and the prince are powerless to be anything other than what they are now, and while there was great joy and love and beauty in their time together, they must go their separate ways. Regret, as something ghostly, weaves between Beagle's lines, just as his story recognises the sorrow of our mortal condition. We will only be young once, and we will not live forever. Somethings, however, deliver us into the wrappings of regret's unhappy bandages that stick to us because it is the nature of what they are, but which we would not free ourselves from even if we could. The unicorn had to seek others of her kind, in the beginning, because she was lonely. Once we have a regret of this kind, it is with us always... and yet, there is a comfort in the memory of what it stems from that makes it worthwhile. This seems relevant for an understanding of the nature of an aspect of our consciousness, and perhaps that is what this story primarily deals with, and what it argues we must carry if we wish to really live. Loneliness is always worse than regret.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me:

Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;

And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
- Christina Rossetti

A Pair of Wings

The church sat in the countryside, bold and brown and shearing shut the faded corpse road she had followed from the nearby village. The sun was shining, but it felt cold for early Spring. She pulled her coat closer around her shoulders, shuddering thrice as she drew near.

It was the kind of church she had seen many times: a signpost to the sacred for a rural community that had dwindled, since the industrial revolution called its inhabitants to far away places of smoke, dirt and metal with the promise of possibilities. She was saddened by the emptiness of these past migrations, feeling sure that any hope for a better life had been slowly bled from those crammed into rows upon rows of tightly knitted houses as they fed and drank inside a growing swell of smog and disease. But then, she had grown up in a large city, and she had hated the noise, and the stench, and the claustrophobia inflamed by having to travel in prisms of strangers. Her urban friends had mocked her, deemed her difficult, and she'd spiralled in a cocoon of isolation until escape appeared in the form a handsome, countryside dwelling young man encountered at a late summer garden party.

To the left of the church, separated by a narrow path between an untidy garden and the edge of the graveyard, was an abandoned cottage that might once have been considered pretty. Time had dulled its whitewashed walls, which now peeked subserviently between the thick coils of ivy that seemed long since post health. The windows were all greasy, with slivers of white amid the gloom like clumsy snail trails. An aura of neglect pervaded here, and she felt a flicker of regret for this forgotten home that had been abandoned to emptiness and the greed of second rate foliage.

There were clusters of gravestones that had been eroded by an equal dismissal. The memorials - these last stamps of name and lifespan - were all but lost, the dead beneath them slumbering as their identities gradually faded into illegible indentations. Most indeed were unreadable now, and she hoped a parish book of some sort remained, some more permanent token of these lives now long over. The fear of forgetfulness had been with her for many years, prompted perhaps by the absences pasted across her own family tree. Her parents, both only children, had shared a dislike of their own parentage, and hadn't minded that they knew little of whence they'd come. As she had grown, disjointed in their shadow, she had craved some kind of familial foothold, something memorial with which to position her surname as a connection to those whose genes were her ontological legacy. Perhaps, she thought bitterly, she'd hoped to find someone she could regard as family who she might actually like. But there was nothing, just the barely recalled names of her grandparents, and the suggestion that many of her maternal ancestors had been killed in the first and second world wars.

Only the flora seemed alive and present in this patch of the contemporary world, only they seemed to belong to the here and now as more than a memory. And then, on a patch of grass a metre or so from a church wall, there, something that made her pause, that caught her attention as though a passing breeze that stirred an otherwise balmy day. A pair of wings. A pair of neatly severed pigeon wings, parted, torso-less, fresh.

The wings were of a carcass not long dead, and free from infestation. As she leaned closer she could smell hyacinth, surprisingly strong though no such flower grew nearby. There was a clot of wine coloured blood near the tops of the wings, neat, accurate, as though painted there by a professional whose pallet was almost dry. A sudden burst of music pinched the air: organ, decadent, baroque. It drew her to the church, and to notice that the oak door with its rusty iron hinges was slightly ajar: a reluctant invitation. She accepted, stepping carefully inside, and as she did so the music stopped.
The church smelt as other churches did: like old books in antiquarian libraries when you press you nose up close to the yellowing pages. It was not particularly large, and not overly ornamental save for the odd memorial plaque in marble or grey stone pinned to the walls, and a smattering of Christ images and crosses. At the front of the church was an altar, on top of which lay a red blanket and simple bronze cross. She stood before it, tempted to reach out and touch it, to make contact, but conscious of some imprinted aversion from trespassing with fingers when it came to sacred things.
Standing near the altar, her eyes were drawn to a near hidden group of statures positioned near the back of the church. They were of angels, their faces raised toward the sky as though in agony or ecstasy or a moment of complete surprise. In the middle stood a figure that appeared human at first glance, kneeling with its head in its hands. She moved closer, curious, and saw that the figure was not intended to be human: on its back were two rough stubs, one each positioned high on either side of the back: in places where one would expect the wings of angels to begin. This time she could not restrain her desire for touch, and reached out tentatively to stroke the edges of those peculiar abrasions. They were not part of the original design, she could tell, for their spines bore the sandpaper grooves that suggest a break. She could smell hyacinth again, hyacinth arising from the places she had touched.
The mobile phone's sudden beep broke her reverie, and she skimmed the message that called her back. Turning on her heels she alighted smoothly, suddenly eager for the secular comfort of her boyfriend's flat. The wings on the grass made her pause, and then the cooing of pigeons drew her eyes to the neglected cottage, upon which waited a legion of such birds. They eyed her seriously, she thought, and without understanding why she bowed her head in solemn greeting.
As she neared the village where her boyfriend lived, she drew out the map to survey her journey's landscape. There was no mention of a church, or a cottage, and she was sure she had not walked the full three miles it suggested the corpse road ran. Disconcerted, she by chance stopped a man she recognised from the local pub as her feet touched the dirt track that led into the village.
"What's the name of the church, about a mile or so north of here?"
"Excuse me?"
"A church, you can see it when you go over the hill."
He paused, his face scrunched up by the wear of remembering something mentioned a long time ago. In a moment, it came to him. 
"Oh, sorry, but its such a bare ruin I forget that it was once a church. There was some violence there, a couple of centuries back, and the local priest was killed in the ruckus so it was abandoned. I'm surprised you could tell it was a church actually, although I'm not so into my history as most I suppose. There was a village around it, well, more a hamlet really. But that all came down after the priest's death, and those that didn't go to the city went north." 
She dreamt that night, of a flock of pigeons migrating, chased away by some terrible thing that had destroyed and violated the sanctity of their home. Their flight was haphazard, as if these creatures knew how to fly but were unaccustomed to the limits of their bodies. She could smell fox, and dog, and things raising hungry faces, growling to be feared as their wet snouts caught the scent of flesh. In the midst of it all she felt a sudden stab of grief, a falling, a wrenching of skin, and muscle, and bone. Falling feathers, and with them, falling grace. A wingless white shadow drifted beneath the anxious kit. It whispered, softly: "these birds, these fragile mortal things, what strange avatars for the divine they are." 
Unknown artist
Inspired by the chance discovery of a pair of pigeon wings the lay in the graveyard of a church in Newcastle.