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In Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, I find the character of Molly Grue is something of a cipher. She seems to serve as a councilor and all-around wisewoman, but never seems to take an active role in the course of events. And there are a few points where the book seems to go out of its way to add some mysterious elements to her.

One such element is when Molly sings the song of Elli - associated earlier by Mama Fortuna with Old Age, death and decay. Schmendrick's reaction seems to make it clear that her knowledge of this song is surprising and significant (chapter 6):

Schmendrick peered over the unicorn's back into Molly's territory. "Where did you hear that song?" he demanded. It was the first he had spoken to her since the dawn when she joined the journey. Molly shook her head.

"I don't remember. I've known it a long time."

Another intriguing point is when, at the book's closing, Molly refuses to tell the others the unicorn's parting words to her - vehemently swearing she will never tell as long as she lives.

"I'll never tell," she said, a little frightened, but flushing oddly. "I remember, but I'll never tell anyone, if I die for it - not even you, my lord." She was not looking at him as she spoke, but at Schmendrick.

While this is entirely plausible whatever the particulars of the character, I feel an absence of connection to the rest of the book. I don't see anywhere in the book that Molly is facing issues that would provoke such a reaction from her; so, this seems to address a side of Molly that is not revealed in the book.

In conclusion, I feel there's a lot more to Molly than we see in The Last Unicorn. I get the sense that either (A) Molly has a backstory that we're not privy to, and/or (B) Molly serves a symbolic or thematic purpose in The Last Unicorn, rather than being directly crucial to the plot.

Can anybody shed light on Molly's character, in either of these directions or in both? Who is Molly, and why is she so important to the book?

I'd be happy to hear answers drawing on any combination of:

  • Any reference Beagle himself has made to the issue
  • "The Last Unicorn: The Lost Version," or any other related fiction by Beagle (or, indeed, the film, which I haven't seen)
  • A thematic analysis of the book
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There is more to Molly, to Schmendrick, to Haggard, to Lír, to the butterfly, even to the unicorn than what we see in The Last Unicorn. I don't think this has much to do with her choice not to reveal what the unicorn told her.

When asked what the unicorn told him, Schmendrick evades and lies (mostly lies). Molly flatly refuses to tell. I think this matches the characters' personalities very well. Schmendrick is conflicted, a good person because he chooses to be on the side of good. His reaction is a political one — don't tell a king what he doesn't need to know — as well as a matter of pride — he is reluctant to reveal his uncertainties. Molly is honest, and perhaps more than the others, under the charm of the unicorn. Their conversation may have touched on the unicorn's time as Almathea and her feelings for Lír, or on what Molly may have become if the unicorn had been there for her earlier, or I may be wildly off the mark, but whatever the subject was, it is something between them, and I too will let the matter lie.

As to who Molly is, more generally, she is, of course, a bit of the straight man character around which the remarkable people revolve. Or, in the words of Doug M.: “Molly was one of those characters who seemed to make the characters around her more interesting.” She is also an unassuming, unschooled, but wise woman, past her prime or perhaps on just reaching it. But primarily, she, like all of Beagle's characters, is a human being. (Well, except for his non-human characters, such as the unicorn.)

The Lost Version does not feature Schmendrick or Molly Grue. They are, on the other hand, major supporting characters in “Two Hearts”, which is available online and in several collections. Peter Beagle has stated that he was planning to return to this universe once again, with a “real full-novel sequel to The Last Unicorn”. He hasn't said when.

  • 1
    I like your observation regarding the differences between Molly and Schmendrick. Not sure if I agree - I feel Schmendrick would be willing to share with Molly, just not with Lir. OTOH, Molly may also take the same general situation much more personally. She serves as a straight man, yes - but with an aura of mystery and secrecy; that's unusual for the straight man, and why Molly's piqued my interest. – Standback Aug 28 '11 at 22:00
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I always thought of Molly as a foil to both Schmendrick and the Unicorn. When the Unicorn first appears in the forest among Cully's men, Molly's response - she recognizes the unicorn is neither awe (most people, including Schmendrick, to some degree) nor lust (Haggard). She is angry. She literally says "why now?" Unicorns are supposed to be drawn to young, pure, innocent maidens. Molly is well past her prime- she's sad, she's seen things, she's probably had her heart broken, and she has resigned herself to a life without unicorns. Schmendrick knows there are unicorns, but proof denies faith. He is in reality what Molly appears to be- tired and broken, but he hides it with his magic and his jokes. The unicorn (and, by extension, Amalthea) is naive and a little haughty. Molly is rather wise and down-to-earth, but sometimes very much a child, while the unicorn is very, very old, and Amalthea very, very new. I guess Molly anchors everyone, and teaches us that appearances can be deceiving (which is kind of what the book is all about), that our prejudices are nearly always wrong, and that there is magic for everyone, if they need it enough.

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Molly is quite possibly the most important character in the book because she is the sounding pole by which we measure our own personal growth.
When we read the book or see the movie when we are young, we tend to at first judge her by her appearance and manner. We wonder what is wrong with her, yelling at the unicorn like that. We certainly don't understand her.
When we read it again as a teen or young adult, we get an idea of how she feels conceptually but still don't fully understand her. She is merely a plot device. A bit mysterious, an interesting character - but that is all. Now fast forward to reading it again at the edge of 40, looking back from a perspective of a life that maybe didn't go the way the dreamy youngster who first read that book had hoped. You've seen and done things that maybe you aren't proud of. Now suddenly you ARE Molly. It is a powerful moment that can blindside you. Everything about her snaps into place, and so does the meaning of the entire book. Molly is the catalyst that gets you to fully absorb the story.

  • Interesting analysis! So are you saying that Molly is intended to offer a perspective of how a mature adult with regrets and so forth would see the events of the story? – Adamant Aug 27 '16 at 4:03
  • Exactly. It is something I only just realized after my most recent rereading. – Kirsten Showers Aug 28 '16 at 5:15
  • By the way, welcome to Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange, and congratulations on a good first answer. – Adamant Aug 28 '16 at 6:42
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Molly is the young untouched hoped for future that is seldom acheived. She had a natural understanding, and wisdom about the world and herself within it that she honors. Even though her personal dreams never materialized. In her first meeting with the unicorn both understood. Both resigned to the timing as it was presented. I see Molly as the stable core aroundwhich the action occurs. She has an unrevealed backstory and a possible unforseen important future.

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