The Last Unicorn – An Activist’s Handbook

This week I’m sharing some thoughts on one of my all-time favorite books along with a watercolor illustration of the unicorn.

This is by no means a literary analysis, and this book is so much more dense, meaningful and poetic than I’m aspiring to capture here. But to me, the unicorn will always represent nature & myth, the two things my heart belongs to. And that’s why I think that this book equals a basic handbook for our inner activist.

I’m not sure if this list makes sense to you if you haven’t read the book … but I’d like to imagine it does. As for spoilers, yes, get ready for them … or stop reading right here. I think that many are familiar with the story and its outcome though (if not from the book, then from the children’s movie) and the true value of the story really doesn’t lie in its suspense & surprise.

1. Magic & beauty are the underlying, eternal driving forces of nature.

They are valuable and worth fighting for. They are not childish concepts, that need to be overcome in order to “be an adult”. If you visit a beautiful place in nature you might know its value by scientific standards: An intact ecosystem, the habitat of a rare species, the importance of trees in binding CO2 and producing oxygen for you to breathe and so on. But this knowledge is not what touches your heart, it is not what nourishes your mind and soul. You are not in communion with the facts and benefits of this place, but with the underlying creative force that brings forth and maintains all those wonderful things. Why? Because you are made of it, too. When you watch a sunset or see new life being born, when you enjoy birdsong or tune in with the flowers on a field, you recognise the imminent magic of the world. THIS is the unicorn, that is about to be lost forever.

The world was once full of those unicorns – meaning full of abundant nature and myth – and now we have but one last left. People stopped seeing and valuing nature. This is expressed when Beagle writes, that the people (except a few) don’t recognise the unicorn anymore, but merely see a horse. The unicorn itself is shocked and appalled by this loss of understanding. “Me, a horse?!”, she says. I think that nature herself (if you believe she has consciousness of her own) might feel the same way about humankind falling out of the magical web that kept our collective existence intact – we don’t remember, and thus have lost our natural awe in face of the wonder that unfolds in front of our eyes every day.

2. If you forget who you are, everything is lost

The humans in the book have forgotten what the unicorn really is. They have succumbed to their greed and selfishness, and thus forgot about the magic of the world they live in. As a result, the unicorns (and other magical beings), that were once abundant, are slipping out of existence, without people even noticing. This is a painful reminder of all the species, all the diversity we are losing right now in this age of the anthropocene. Most of us don’t even know their names, we don’t notice that they’re gone, because their existence is mostly not really relevant to us. We are so entangled in the obligations and values of the modern world – making money, being successful, being somebody, looking great … and for the less “lucky” of us, it is simply surviving that eats up all our attention– that the crumbling of the very base of our existence just seems to happen as a subplot in our human-centric lives.

In this crisis, the last unicorn has to go into hiding and as a result, even she herself is starting to forget who she really is. Enchanted by the emotions of being human, that she once was so indifferent towards, she cannot remember that she is an eternal being. If this happens, everything is lost.

3. If you succumb to fear, you are defeated

On multiple occasions, and especially when facing the red bull, the characters in the book are facing their fears. I love how Beagle describes the challenge of not losing oneself, one’s purpose and determination when confronted with one’s biggest fear. They say love makes you blind, but fear is far worse. The natural reflex when being afraid is to try to get away, to shut it out. This avoidance is making an entire village succumb to Haggard’s reign of terror.

4. The weak and seemingly incapable are key.

The fate of the unicorn ultimately depends on the untalented magician Schmendrick. Of course the success in fighting Haggard and his red bull is made possible by group effort: Friendship, loyalty, sacrifice and believing in each other are as well key to the story. But what stood out to me, is that it is the magic of the weak and clumsy Schmendrick, that turns the tables. Low in self-esteem, he wanders through life not sure what his strengths are and what his purpose is. He sure is not meant to be a hero. Similar to the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, this character reminds us that it’s the small people who make all the difference. This is such a great reminder to step into my responsibility as a “small” citizen. When you feel like your existence doesn’t make a difference in the world, think of Schmendrick (and Merry & Pippin).

What are your most important lessons from a book?

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