The Limits of Courtly Love in The Last Unicorn

Grace Lapointe
5 min readFeb 11, 2024

Note: spoilers for the novel The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I recently read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a fantasy novel first published by Viking Press in 1968. Because I read it for the first time as an adult, the themes jumped out at me. I think the novel holds up well overall. The best novels for children often have clear, memorable stories and characters, with subtle themes that may resonate with kids and adults on different levels. Through Prince Lír’s doomed infatuation with Lady Amalthea (the unicorn’s human form), The Last Unicorn exposes the ironies and illusions of courtly love.

Google provides the following definition for courtly love, via Oxford Languages: “a highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated.” The story of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is one of the most famous examples of courtly love, but not every version of the story fits the definition of courtly love. I wrote about King Arthur here in 2021.

In a 2020 episode of their Mythillogical podcast, Charles Snart and his cohost, Crofty, mention the ironies of Lancelot’s courtly love for Guinevere. The early Arthurian romances exemplified courtly love: Lancelot’s adoration of Guinevere from afar, which is never consummated, and his willingness to die for her. However, in many modern versions of the story, like T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and the musical Camelot based on it, Lancelot and Guinevere have a passionate sexual and romantic affair that threatens and corrupts Arthur’s kingdom. Over time, the story changed into the opposite of courtly love.

I’m aromantic, and LGBTQIA people have always existed. However, I think the literary convention of courtly love has little to do with aromantic or asexual relationships. Romantic and sexual love aren’t superior or inferior to non-sexual or non-romantic love. Nor is a nonsexual relationship purer or “nobler” than a sexual one.

Furthermore, celibacy and chastity do not equate to asexual or aromantic identities or relationships. The medieval concept of courtly love is old-fashioned and sexist, which makes it necessarily heteronormative. In courtly love, men, who are all assumed to be alloromantic and cis het, sublimate their sexual and romantic attraction into the “higher” ideal of adoring a beloved woman from a distance. It’s a form of self-discipline or self-sacrifice, not an absence of sexual or romantic attraction.

In the novel The Last Unicorn, the villain, King Haggard, commands his Red Bull to capture all the unicorns for him. To save the titular Unicorn from Haggard and the Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician transforms her into a human, whom he calls Lady Amalthea. Earlier, he told a similar story of his mentor transforming a unicorn to save her. At first, Lady Amalthea would have rather died than become a human. Amalthea expresses another of the book’s major themes, mortality, when she says, “I can feel this body dying all around me.”

When Haggard’s son, Prince Lír, meets Amalthea, he becomes infatuated with her, thinking she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Lír is handsome, brave, creative, and fits several stereotypes of heroes in courtly romance. He demonstrates and satirizes courtly love by pining for Amalthea and composing poetry for her, testing rhymes on Molly Grue. Lír thinks he is in love with Amalthea, which is a problem, because Amalthea does not really exist. She’s merely an illusion, or a human disguise for the Unicorn. Later, Amalthea begins to lose her identity, forgetting that she was ever a unicorn.

Although she eventually begins to reciprocate his feelings, Amalthea is initially frightened and baffled by Lír’s attraction. She says, “No, he does not want my thoughts […] He wants me, as much as the Red Bull did, and with no more understanding.” Lír’s possessiveness may seem more benign and subtle than that of Haggard and the Red Bull, but Amalthea views both forms of desire as constraining and misunderstanding her.

King Haggard is greedy and conflates love and joy with possession. He recalls his “joy” at first seeing unicorns, which he immediately expressed as a desire to own all the unicorns: “I said to the Red Bull, ‘I must have that. I must have all of it, all there is, for my need is very great.’ So, the Bull caught them.”

Love is accepting people as they are, not an idealized image of them. Yes, I’m including the character of the Unicorn as a person here. In the book, she even refers to the other unicorns (who have never been turned into humans) as “my people.” Courtly love places the beloved on a pedestal. When applied to humans, this is dangerous, depicting women as superhuman and flattening them from complex, flawed people. The traditional object of courtly love is a married woman, but the obstacles to Lír’s love for Amalthea are far more insurmountable.

Because Schmendrick and Molly first met the Unicorn in her true form, they love her as she is. This is not possible for Lír, who prefers the illusion, even after the Unicorn has transformed back into her true form: “He saw the unicorn, and she shone in him as in a glass, but it was to the other that he called — to the castaway, to the Lady Amalthea. His voice was the end of her: she vanished when he cried her name, as though he had crowed for day.” Lír did not create Amalthea, but he clings to the illusion as long as possible. Lír’s romantic longing prevents him from ever knowing the Unicorn’s true self. She later appears to Schmendrick and Molly, but not to Lír, in dreams.

Lír vows to follow the unicorn forever and be satisfied with merely a glimpse of her. Yet he still prefers her human form, Lady Amalthea. Molly Grue points out that he has already gotten more from the unicorn than most people ever have. Lír’s feelings at the end of the book are sympathetic, but they also expose the shallowness and insincerity of courtly love. While courtly love elevates adoration from a distance over sexual and romantic relationships, Lír would have preferred a romance with Lady Amalthea.

Schmendrick suggests Lír’s suffering can make him more heroic. “‘Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.’ But his voice was a little doubtful.” These words seem to depict Lír as the hero of a courtly romance, but even Schmendrick is unsure of his own interpretation or trying to put a positive spin on it.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a fairy tale with themes of mortality and the bittersweet nature of being human. It implies love is acceptance, not possession. Prince Lír’s infatuation with Lady Amalthea initially fits the conventions of courtly love. Traditionally, courtly love is impossible and can never be consummated. Because Lady Amalthea’s true form is a unicorn, the novel satirizes courtly love, taking its impossibility to absurd extremes. Courtly love elevates yearning for an idealized beloved as superior, purer, or more spiritual than sexual or romantic relationships. The novel exposes these pretensions as insincere and damaging to the unknowable object of affection.

Image: Prince Lír holds Lady Amalthea’s hand in the 1982 Rankin and Bass movie The Last Unicorn.
Image: Prince Lír holds Lady Amalthea’s hand in the 1982 Rankin and Bass movie.

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