The Last Unicorn: Schmendrick’s Ego vs. Empathy

In The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, the magician Schmendrick suffers under an interesting curse. He is supremely inept at magic, and must remain immortal until he finds his power. However, it is his extreme desire to become a great magician that keeps him from becoming one. Until he is able to let go of that wish, he is unable to perform any useful magic at will.  Schmendrick is able to break his curse only by sacrificing his own ego, after witnessing Prince Lir’s sacrifice for the Lady Almathea.  

Schmendrick’s inability to perform magic is strongly influenced by his own perceptions of himself, as reflected in the characters of those around him. In placing Schmendrick’s curse, his teacher, Nikos, tells him, “My son, your ineptitude is so vast, your incompetence so profound, that I am certain you are inhabited by greater power than I have ever known. Unfortunately, it seems to be working backward at the moment, and even I can find no way to set it right.” (150) This curse not only wounds Schmendrick’s ego but in so doing inspires him to become something greater.

Mommy Fortuna provides a foil for Schmendrick’s character, as it is clear that she is no greater magician than he is. Yet Schmendrick is her servant. He resents the fact that Mommy Fortuna’s magic is based solely on illusion, when he struggles with performing illusion himself. Schmendrick and Mommy Fortuna both seek to contain what they cannot control. Mommy Fortuna physically controls the honestly magical creatures she encounters by locking them in cages, while Schmendrick believes that the source of his power must be contained somewhere within himself in order for him to control it. This is demonstrated by the fact that he blames his errors on using the wrong tone of voice, or the incorrect words or hand gestures.

The similarities between Schmendrick and Mommy Fortuna are not lost on him. She can also see that Schmendrick is able to recognize the Unicorn, and mocks him for his lack of ability. Schmendrick’s relationship with Mommy Fortuna influences his self-perception and egotistical desire to be a greater magician. And again, it is this desire that keeps him from actually becoming a greater magician.

Molly Grue is another sort of foil to Schmendrick’s character. Due to his curse, he often informs people, “I am older than I look.” (69) This illustrates his sensitivity about his perceived immaturity. Yet, Schmendrick treats Molly like a child, scolding her when she first meets the Unicorn, saying, “Don’t talk like that. Don’t you know how to behave, woman? You don’t curtsey, either.” Schmendrick resents Molly’s innocence, which allows her to have a closer relationship with the Unicorn than he is able to have. Molly, like Mommy Fortuna, is also able to see that Schmendrick has some talent and mocks him for the ineptitude resulting from his wounded pride.

Schmendrick hinders himself by dismissing his own abilities. Assuming that he will fail at trying to release the Unicorn from her cage through magical means, he brings along a set of keys. When Molly begs him to save the Unicorn from the Red Bull, Schmendrick replies, “What can I do? What can I do, with my magic? Hat tricks, penny tricks, or the one where I scramble stones to make an omelet? Would that entertain the Red Bull, do you think, or shall I try the trick with the singing oranges? I’ll try whatever you suggest, for I would certainly be happy to be of some practical use.” (138) Here, again, Schmendrick reveals that his wish to perform magic springs from another egotistical desire, to be perceived as being of practical use.

Schmendrick’s reliance on showmanship to support himself, by becoming an entertainer, also demonstrates that he is more interested in appearing powerful than actually becoming powerful. When we first meet him, Schmendrick is performing at Mommy Fortuna’s carnival. In nearly every other significant scene, Schmendrick again entertains a crowd. He earns shelter along the way by telling stories and doing magic. He entertains for a village council when he is kidnapped by Captain Cully’s band. At their camp, he again entertains. Finally, he spends his time at Haggard’s castle entertaining the king. Despite his reliance on showmanship, Schmendrick hates the fact that he must do so, regularly wounding his pride.

This reliance on ego for motivation causes Schmendrick to fail to recognize how his magic truly works. He believes at once that the magic both belongs to him and that he is simply its vessel. In either case, he feels it means he’s special. After changing the Unicorn into a woman, Schmendrick gloats that he has done it through his own true magic. (144) By the very next page, he is boasting that, “I am a bearer. I am a dwelling. I am a messenger.” No matter where he thinks the magic comes from or how it works, clearly he is proud that it has something to do with him.

However, it is his empathy with Prince Lir’s sacrifice that finally allows Schmendrick to become a true magician. The magic begins to fill him when “Wonder and love and great sorrow shook Schmendrick the Magician then.” (258) In that moment, he recognizes his greed. Schmendrick’s motivation becomes something other than his own desire, and inspires his magic for the rest of his life. “Years later, when Schmendrick’s name had become a greater name than Nikos’s…he was never able to work the smallest magic without seeing Prince Lir before him….” (259) This fact illustrates that Schmendrick’s focus on himself and his own egotistical desires held him back from becoming a true magician.

It could be argued that because he was under a curse, Schmendrick’s ego had nothing to do with his inability to perform magic. The story is a fairytale, and as was discussed in the book, the curse would be broken when it was time. However, the curse implies that Schmendrick must find his power to break the curse. If he was unable to do so, it would never be the right time. It could also be argued, as Schmendrick does, that sacrifice is required of heroes. Therefore, being a magician, Schmendrick should not need not sacrifice his ego to gain magic. However, Schemdrick’s inability resulted from a personal flaw, rather than a requirement of his role as a magician.

Lir’s sacrifice of his own life to save Lady Amalthea finally enabled Schmendrick to think of someone other than himself. Empathy moved him to action without thought of the consequences and inspired his magic to flow. Once he was able to abandon his ego and his desire to become great, Schmendrick was able to attain the fame that he sought.

Work Cited:

Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.


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5 thoughts on “The Last Unicorn: Schmendrick’s Ego vs. Empathy”

  1. I always read deeper with Schmendrick. Like you detail, he puts on an appearance of arrogance but it hardly suits his broader motivations, his departure and becoming part of the journeying party and his sensitivity to the hardships of other characters.
    His reduced magical ability suggested to me he feels inept, stripped of something that should define him. He wants to be more than he is, not realising he is already enough in other ways. Magic is a prop, something he can perform/could perform, it is not him.
    It’s something I like about his character. So many wizards are written as wizards, the magic defines them. Schmendrick’s character is beautifully rounded, quietly humbled, outwardly proud. He has an interesting inner world we feel tempted to connect with, so few wizards are afforded such tender biography.
    Enjoyed reading your post and contemplating this, thank you 🙂

    1. Thanks for your insights. Do you mind if I ask how you found this post? Nearly all of my traffic comes for this. Is it linked somewhere?

    1. Thanks, that’s pretty cool! It’s surprising to me so many are searching Schmendrick. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

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