Growing Into Molly Grue

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Photo: Allie Caulfield, Creative Commons License

Growing up, one of my favorite movies and books was Peter S. Beagle‘s The Last Unicorn. The movie came on HBO when I was about 6 and I was glued to it, absorbing every word. It was a cartoon, so my mom basically ignored my watching it, until she heard those infamous words of Molly Grue’s: “Where have you been? Damn you, where have you been?” Mom said, “Well, that doesn’t sound like a very nice movie,” and went to change the channel. I hissed at her, and she backed away. Slowly.

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Image: Roc/Penguin Group

I’ve read The Last Unicorn countless times since my childhood. I practically know it by heart, but I love finding new little things in it, things make me chuckle when they didn’t before, or when I see something in a different way. Last year, something really odd happened. Reading along, I came to the part where Molly meets the unicorn for the first time, and… Well, there was this suspicious moisture in my eyes. All of a sudden, it hit me like a brick. I couldn’t put it into words, I couldn’t explain WHY, but suddenly, I knew Molly Grue. I knew her pain, I knew why she was angry. This spring, I read the book again, and it solidified a bit more. I even got why, when I was little, I didn’t get her: I wasn’t supposed to, exactly. I BELIEVED. Even though I knew there were no such things as unicorns, in my heart of hearts, I still believed, or I hoped.

A couple years ago, I went through a weird sort of crisis, where suddenly I realized that I was a grown up, and that time was passing by. I realized I could never have my younger years again. And I realized the unicorns weren’t coming.

In the scene where we first meet Molly Grue, there is a part where Dick Fancy (a member of Captain Cully’s crew) basically tells Schmedrick how lame the group is. But then Molly recollects:

“‘I sent a tapestry to the judging once,’ Molly remembered. ‘It came in fourth. Fifth. A knight at vigil-everyone was doing vigils that year.’ Suddenly she was scrubbing her eyes with horny knuckles. ‘Damn you, Cully.'”

I understand now. Molly was grieving for the life she could have had. Perhaps not a realistic life, but still, she was grieving for the life she had hoped for. She got fifth place in the judging. She might have done even better. She dreamed about knights and Robin Hood, and instead she was stuck with Captain Cully and his band of lame idiots who didn’t appreciate her for who she wanted to be. She missed the days of unicorns. Cully might have taken her virginity, and therefore took her chances of having a unicorn come and lay his head on her lap. Now she makes rat stew and listens to the complaints of men who could do no better. She also chillingly sings the song of Elli, Mommy Fortuna’s portrayal of old age and death.

I grieve with Molly Grue. I don’t regret the life I have now, but I acknowledge that I have lost something with my maturity. Suddenly, Molly Grue is a kindred spirit. And in my last reading of The Last Unicorn, I saw that really, she is a kick-ass character. She was someone I can definitely identify with, more so than Lady Amalthea, who might be a beautiful princess part, but who really is not the heroine I want to be.

Molly Grue, I think, more than Schmedrick, is the one who gave the unicorn her first sense of mortality: namely, shame. At their first meeting, when she asked, “How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” the unicorn doesn’t just see her as just any other woman or girl, a foolish mortal of which she has seen a thousand. Instead,

“…this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eyes that looked down.”

Molly is the only one who dared to speak her mind to King Haggard, showing she has more balls than Schmedrick. Because of her blunt words, and not Schmendrick’s flattery, Haggard fires the wizard Mabruk and they get their “in” to Haggard’s castle. Without her, they would have been tossed out on their ears or worse.

Molly is the only one who has no ambition, no agenda. She only wants to be with the unicorn and help her with her mission. She obviously likes a good romance (she’s the first to say to Amalthea, “You are cruel to him,” referring to Prince Lir), but has no time for it. When Amalthea and Lir start getting mushy in the Red Bull’s cave (“I would have come back…”), she yells, “Never mind that! Where’s Schmendrick?” She’s practical and on task. Without her, I honestly think things would have failed; she contributed in so many small ways that formed a frame of the whole mission.

I understand Molly Grue now in a way I never did before. And I can honestly say, thank you, Peter S. Beagle, for making Molly a character, one of the few I’ve found, that I can truly admire, empathize with, and really see myself in. I think he wrote the unicorn and Amalthea for the young, the innocent, and maybe for everyone to give them hope and wonder. But Molly Grue…

Molly Grue was written for me.

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8 thoughts on “Growing Into Molly Grue

  1. Peter admits his favorite character in the book is Molly Grue — he calls her “his gift from the universe,” because he was in his mid-20s when he wrote her and he really shouldn’t have understood her pain and purpose, yet there she was.

    Lovey essay, Melanie. Thanks for writing and sharing it. I will make sure Peter sees it.

    And I’d like to invite you to be our guest at one of THE LAST UNICORN Screening Tour shows, if we are ever near you. (Details: http://www.lastunicorntour.com) Just email me (connor@conlanpress.com) and I will make sure you get a pass.

    — Connor Cochran (Peter’s business manager)

  2. Dear Melanie:

    Thank you!

    You couldn’t have made me happier, writing as sensitively and understandingly about Molly as you did. I marvel at her to this day – wondering how I could possibly have had the gall, at my age, to write about her life and soul. I was far too young to understand her; that’s only come as I grow older. I’m prouder of her than, perhaps, of any other character I’ve created…except that I never feel that I created her. I think of her as my gift from the universe, when I was having such a hard time finding out what I was doing with that bloody book. I really do believe that the universe took pity on me, and gave me Molly Grue.

    No Molly – no book.

    And, quite possibly – no Molly, no me.

    Readers fall in love with the unicorn, which is fine with me. But whether they know it or not, in the deepest way it’s Molly Grue’s story. I didn’t know that myself, at the time. Thank you for understanding, and for letting me know that you understood. I’m grateful.

    Sincerely yours,

    Peter S. Beagle

  3. A lovely piece.

    Bit of nitpicking: It’s Molly who gets Mabruk fired in the movie, but it’s Schmendrick in the book.

  4. Everyone should read/watch The Last Unicorn as a child, then sort of forget about it for, oh, ten years? Twenty years? … Then return to it and feel that solid punch to the stomach when Molly and the unicorn meet, because that’s how you know you’ve grown up.

  5. I’m sitting here watching the Last Unicorn for the first time in thirty years, and I looked up Molly Grue because her portrayal touched me in ways I couldn’t put into words.

    What a beautiful, insightful observation you’ve written. Thank you for writing it.

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