Re: The Last Unicorn - Chapters 4 - 6
Chapter 5: The magic knows what it wants to do
Jack takes Schmendrick to the wood where Cully and his band of outlaws live. Cully, and his presumable mistress Molly Grue, greet him in opposite fashion. Cully sees the potential for Schmendrick spreading his reputation as courageous, fair-handed outlaw avenger, but Molly sees him as another mouth sharing soup already "thin as sweat."
There follows a bizarre and intriguing sequence about ballads and folk heroes. The minstrel Willie Gentle plays a ballad celebrating Cully's courage with old words and themes mixed into a somewhat modern sensibility and skeptical wordplay like
'I am nae scabbit, whatever that means,' and Cully asks Schmendrick if he is Child, the one collecting ballads for posterity. This refers to Francis James Child, whose collection is apparently famous (though I had never heard of it):https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_Ballads
An amusing interchange about Cully's desire to be immortalized follows (I'll not spoil everything, but it captures the essence of the late 60s sensibility of the book), in which Cully persists in calling Schmendrick "Child" and the outlaws begin to rumble with discontent at the gap between legend and reality. In truth they are poor, bedraggled, and given to robbing the poor at the behest of the rich.
As a diversion, Schmendrick offers to perform some magic, and Cully lets himself be persuaded to allow it, though he is much more concerned with ballads being recorded. But the crowd is not much impressed - polite applause. "Offering no true magic," the author concludes, "he drew no magic back from them." This is a light paraphrase from some of the standard advice given to authors: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. It refers to the need to go into the subconscious when writing, to tap into emotions about what matters.
The result is a scene which, I am guessing, is a key to following the bizarre twists and turns of the book, in which symbolism is ever-present and it is never clear what is being symbolized. Schmendrick "let go all his hated skills, and closed his eyes. 'Do as you will,' he whispered to the magic." Something moves through him, and out of the forest come Robin Hood and his merry men, not omitting Maid Marian, of course. But Cully "debunks them" ("Robin Hood is a myth" he says) while his men follow them into the darkness anyway.
Sitting alone, Cully and Jack Jingly discuss this disappointing turn of events. Jack identifies Schmendrick as Lir, the son of Haggard, and asserts that the men will return from their vain quest to catch up with the legends. The second comes true, but the first is left hanging as a possibility, a Schrodinger's cat of sorts.