Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved Jesus and unicorns–not necessarily in that order.
The other night, I treated myself to a bottle of $7 wine and one of my favorite animated films from my childhood–The Last Unicorn. I have a deep love of 80’s fantasy films, but I think The Last Unicorn is my favorite, which is saying something, since I’m madly in love with the Goblin King. The Last Unicorn, like a lot of children’s films from the 80’s, had some pretty intense themes that I’m a little surprised didn’t traumatize me. Loss of innocence, the price of immortality, really, really scary giant birds. But there’s a scene that has struck me ever since I was a child, a scene I understand more and more the older I get. I did a mini-Twitter thread about it, but I’d like to spend some more time discussing the scene.
So, if you don’t know the plot of The Last Unicorn, you should absolutely rent it ASAP or read the book, which is fabulous and is probably superior to the film, but I can’t judge that fairly since the film was so intrinsically tied to my childhood. Basically, a unicorn learns that she is the last of her kind and wonders where her kindred went. She leaves her forest and goes on a journey to find them, where she realizes that men no longer believe in unicorns and therefore cannot see what she truly is (most take her for a horse).
There are a few who can. The witch Mommy Fortuna recognizes her for what she is and captures her, alongside a harpy (which gave me nightmares as a child). The magician Schmendrick also realizes what she is and helps her escape.
But the most heartbreaking moment is when the unicorn meets Molly Grue. Molly Grue is a middle-aged woman that lives in the middle of the forest with a group of bandits. She’s tired, sarcastic, and world-weary. And when she meets the unicorn, her reaction is devastating.
She screams, “Where have you been? Where have you been? Damn you! Where have you been?”
The unicorn replies hesitantly, “I am here now.”
Molly laughs bitterly, and says to her, “And where were you twenty years ago?! Ten years ago?! Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to. How dare you…how dare you come to me now! When I am this.”
Even writing this makes me tear up. And as an Exvangelical, it strikes even harder.
Evangelical purity culture used a lot of fairy tale imagery in its marketing. (Which is ironic, when you’ve studied fairy tales academically, but that’s another post.) How many books and devotionals do you remember that had twirling princesses, castles, and crowns on the cover?
I can think of two Evangelical rock songs off the top of my head that cite fairytales to promote purity culture. “What if your prince comes riding in, while you’re kissing a frog, what’s he gonna think then?” (Superchick, “Princes and Frogs”), “Chasing after boys is not my thing, see I’m waiting for a wedding ring, No more dating, I’m just waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, my prince will come for me, he’ll come for me…” (BarlowGirl, “Average Girl”)
(Full disclosure, even as an Exvangelical, I still kinda love Superchick and BarlowGirl, they had some bops despite some of the toxic messages, moving on.)
A surface level reading of fairytales fits neatly into the Evangelical purity culture. Submissive, patient princesses who remain “pure”. Active princes and knights that need to rescue them. Big bad wolves and dragons that neatly fill a satanic slot, everything tidily categorized into good and evil. Evangelical culture thrives on these boxes, they abhor shades of gray. (BarlowGirl has another song about precisely this topic...”Grey’s my favorite color, Black and white has never been my thing, I’ll take my drink lukewarm now, Hot and cold is not the thing for me…Absolutes are hidden, I’ve buried my convictions…“, I sure hope they eventually learned that despite their aversion to gray, life is simply not that simple.)
But the truth is, Christianity is not simple. And fairy tales are not simple. There are fairy tales about good kings and evil kings and kings in-between. There are princesses patiently waiting in their towers and there are girls in the forest that get shit done. Peter Beagle’s masterpiece The Last Unicorn is not so much a subversion of fairy tales, but rather a resurrection of what fairy tales truly are. Dark. Twisted. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. Sorrowful.
So when I see Molly Grue screaming her betrayal at the unicorn, I see myself screaming at the lies Evangelicalism told me about sexual purity, about Jesus, about everything.
ClaritySabbath on Twitter reminded me of something marvelous–how “The Last Unicorn” is a symbol of the Incarnation. I can’t stop thinking about that. A divine creature who notices there’s something wrong in the world. She becomes human, experiences love, regret, heartbreak. And she sets the world right. She brings unicorns back into the world again as Christ redeems the world.
I have to connect that to Molly. The unicorn did not appear to Molly when she was “pure”, when she was virginal. She appeared to her when she was broken and bitter, alone in the forest in a dead-end relationship. Christ did not appear to those who were “pure”. He appeared to those who needed him the most–the sick, the possessed, the starving, the ones in dead-end relationships and the ones who despaired. He found us in the wilderness, not in clean-kept towers.
Christ does not require us to fulfill the Evangelical formula to meet Him. He comes to us as we are.
“There are no happy endings. Because nothing ends.“–Schmendrick the Magician