While two entirely different novels with substantially different meaning and background on the surface, not to mention the more than a half-century long difference in release year, The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle are in fact not so incomparable on a deeper level, both novels introducing major reforms of the genre of fantasy literature – this in spite of The Last Unicorn’s relatively small appreciation in the large audience compared to the works of Tolkien, Pratchett, Jordan, Rowling and others. As a matter of fact, of all the research I have done on the novel, I have yet to find a mainstream group seeing it as anything but a children’s story, or (even more usual, it seems), the novel that would be the foundation for the now classical animated feature of the same name, a feature which at least to my eyes is especially formed for a children audience, skipping many of the darker themes of eternal life and plague-like curses.
While Morris founded the modern fantasy literature with The Wood Beyond the World in 1895, Beagle rehashed and reawakened it with The Last Unicorn in 1968, in the same sense that Tolkien rehashed it in the mid-1950’s with The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Beagle’s doing so achieved much less attention than Tolkien’s, and while the foundations of fantasy literature stay extremely simplistic, the works by especially Tolkien has lead to the forming of multiple fantasy cliches, many of which both The Wood Beyond the World and The Last Unicorn avoid. Both of these novels can be seen as pretty usual for any reader of the 21st century, not capable of gripping quite how radical they were for the fantasy scene at their time (or, in the case of The Wood Beyond the World, to the literary scene altogether), but when it comes to the fantasy literature as a whole, they both succeed in a place where many other novels fail – to form a scenery close enough to our own so we are capable of relating, and meanwhile making it fantastic and exciting enough to make us want to enter it. All too many fantasy novels, especially from the 1980’s and onward, have made the mistake of forcing themselves into cliches formed especially by the works of Tolkien, and thus digging themselves into a hole, in two senses: one, by decreasing the areas of stories greatly by having already decided characters and sceneries; and two, by forcing the reader to first understand fantasy as a whole and only on a second basis understand the novel. A truly great novel should fit all kinds, and all are to be able to relate, without having to assume the stereotypical behavior of dragons, knights and wizards.
When I say that the foundations of fantasy are simplistic, I do mean extremely simplistic. Fantasy is, in the words of fantasy author and critic Lin Carter, “[a] tale of quest, adventure or war set in an invented age and worldscape of the author’s own imagination” . While this extremely basic foundation opens up large vistas of possible story lines, it also forms a difficulty in forming the genre in itself. It is not only fantasy literature which has a story of an “adventure” – in fact almost all stories do, albeit the adventure of climbing down a cave, committing a bank robbery, getting into a new relationship or so on – and not only fantasy includes an imaginary age and worldscape. While many stories could realistically happen in our age  and world, all stories that are not word by word true do in fact take place in some kind of different world, albeit extremely close to our. It may seem obvious to assume that only worlds which are substantially different to our belongs to fantasy, but this mustn’t be a fact – many novels that are clearly seen as fantasy, The Last Unicorn included, take place in worlds practically the same as ours, while others, most significantly the aforementioned The Lord of the Rings takes place in a completely different world, with new geography, language, mythology, creatures, beverages and physical laws (for example magic and the idea of an afterlife). Meanwhile, many novels not generally seen as fantasy takes place in worlds that cannot possibly be our own, either when it comes to physical laws (as previously stated for example magic or an afterlife) or when it comes to changes in society, minor or major. A major contender to fantasy on this subject is science-fiction, and the only real difference between the two is generally that while fantasy can play entirely by its own rules, science-fiction must follow what is currently accepted as science as its foundation, and it is generally set in the future of our world, or in the present or past in our world but not on our planet.
Consider the difference between our world and the one in The Wood Beyond the World. For the first few chapters, the worlds could practically be the same, but as the plot advances and Walter finally ends up on the land that will be revealed to hold the wood which has given the novel its title, we realise that his world is quite substantially different to ours . Not only does this world hold fantastical beasts and magic, but it is also clear that Walter is not shocked to find this out. An often used method in fantasy is using our world to begin with and revealing “the big secret” about it, a hidden part of our world which might actually realistically be there – the most well known example of this is probably C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1949 – 1954), in which a group of children discover a closet leading them into another world (or rather another world within our world). Morris could well have used this in his novel (i. e. if Walter had been shocked to find the creatures and features of the Wood), but it is important to point out that he did not, as I would like to posit that Peter S. Beagle does in The Last Unicorn.
While The Wood Beyond the World is apparently set entirely in a fictitious world (or is set in our world but with a Narnia-ish world within the world and an extremely stupid protagonist), The Last Unicorn is much more fuzzy on the subject, and this is one of the reason why I see the novel as a rehash of the fantasy literature. While previous fantasy novels used an entirely fictitious world (the Narnia type being an exception of sorts), The Last Unicorn never clarifies what world it takes place in. Throughout the novel, the villages seem like any European villages before the industrial revolution, and while several non-major characters seem to believe both in unicorns and other fantastical beasts as well as magic, others do not. The characters overall clearly reflect the humans of the pre-industrialisation rustic society, with superstition that was normal for that time .
Much like Narnia, The Last Unicorn offers what very well could be our own world, but with “a big secret” behind the curtains, namely that there really exist both magic and fantastical beasts, such as unicorns and the Red Bull. What differs is the way Beagle takes a starting point in folklore and creates a story around it, instead of, like Lewis, form a completely made-up world within world as an obvious reference to children wanting an escape to a sanctuary-like world of solitude. While the latter may have a deeper subject (or may not, simply because of its banality) it is also much more obvious fantasy literature. What makes The Last Unicorn jump out and throw the genre around is the way it forms around our own world and assume a truth that as far as we know is just myth. This is supported by Beagle’s dedication of the book: “To the memory of Dr. Olfert Dapper, who saw a wild unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673, and for Robert Nathan, who has seen one or two in Los Angeles”. This dedication suggests yet again that Beagle meant for the novel to take place in our world, mentioning the existence of unicorns in Maine and Los Angeles as obvious facts .
The Last Unicorn can in fact be seen as directly violating the unspoken rules laid into the genre upon its creation with The Wood Beyond the World. The novel in itself could actually be seen as reminiscent from many previous stories, including Homer’s Iliad, the Icelandic sagas and the medieval stories about King Arthur. The difference between these tales and Morris’ novel, however, is that they in majority were based on reality. The Iliad, the sagas and the tales of King Arthur were all myth and not fiction, as the storyteller at least to some part assumed that the story was true. Morris was really the first to form a consciously fictitious world, instead of setting his tale in a world he believed was ours. Lin Carter sums it up: “this kind of ‘fantasy’ did not directly contravene known laws of the times. It was imaginative fiction, an extrapolation on a grand scale of what was believed to be reality” .
This opens up an interesting discussion – does the genre branding of fantasy literature depend on the author’s understanding of reality? If Homer’s misunderstanding of gods and fantastic creatures make the Iliad less fantasy, does that mean that Beagle’s eventual belief in unicorns make The Last Unicorn less fantasy? And this in turn open up the discussion of the aforementioned related genre of science-fiction: if the only difference between the genres is that sci-fi is based on hard facts, does that mean that what is branded as sci-fi change with our perception of science? If we are to find out, for example, that magic can exist scientifically, does that make The Wood Beyond the World science-fiction?
Footnotes in the text are signified by [n] (meaning footnote n).
- 1. Carter, Lin: “About the Wood Beyond the World and William Morris” (foreword to the 1969 edition of “The Wood Beyond the World” by William Morris, published by Ballantine Books)
- 2. With “our age” I do not mean our time as in the year 2011, but the timeline – a novel with a robot in the year 1564 is not realistic to our age as robots did not exist in 1564.
- 3. The first clue of the novel not taking place in our world could be in the fifth chapter, “Now they come to a New Land”, in which the Bear Folk are first mentioned.
- 4. And which still exists but is extremely comprised due to globalisation and secularisation.
- 5. Though having searched for Beagle’s personal thoughts about the existence of unicorns, I have failed to find any. I have no idea whether Beagle trust these mentioned sightings as truths, or if they are included in the novel for the mere purpose of making its subject believable.
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Out of this World: A Comparison between William Morris’ “The Wood Beyond the World” and Peter S. Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn” by Anton Nordenfur is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.