I recently just reread Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and I strongly recommend that if you haven't already, you read this. You aren't allowed to call yourself a fantasy-lover if you haven't read this.
This story is very self-aware, meaning it's a story that knows it's a story. Despite what you may be thinking, this is not at all annoying or distracting. The characters willingly (or at least, reluctantly) take on their prescribed roles as dictated by the standard fairy-tale formula. You have the hero, the lady, the magician, the less-pretty lady, and the witch and her curse. Prince Lir even points out that "'The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story'" (180). Though these roles are archetypes, Peter S. Beagle manages to create a magical story which immerses the reader. Even the side characters are amazing: Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard being prime examples of greed and hunger, finding happiness in trickery, capturing real magical creatures and containing them, finding joy only in their control of these magical beings.
Prince Lir is a self-made hero, but he only becomes a hero to impress Lady Amalthea (who the unicorn becomes when Schmendrick "saves" her from the Red Bull). He tells Molly Grue that "'For her sake, I have become a hero--I sleepy Lir, my father's sport and shame--but I might just as well have remained the dull fool I was" (129). Lir has become a hero--in this case, a masculine archetype that goes around slaying dragons for his lady. The lady has transformed him through no effort. She does not acknowledge him; she just exists beautifully, and her beauty has inspired him to become heroic.
Lir is an excellent character to examine because of his transformation. He was a prince with no accomplishments before the Lady Amalthea appeared at his father's castle, and once he became a hero he (forgive this next comment) found his balls. However, that distanced him from the female species:
It was not [Lady Amalthea's] dream that chilled him, but that she did not weep as she told it. As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying--generally you killed something--her her calm terror confused and unmanned him, while the shape of her face crumbled the distant dignity he had been so pleased at maintaining.He became a man for her sake, yet when she behaves in ways that confuse him (in what he perceives to be unladylike behavior) she "unmans" him. Ladies are supposed to be hysterical sobbing creatures, waiting for a hero to swoop in and kill something to make them happy again. The reason I cannot be upset with Peter Beagle for Lir's misconception is because of two reasons: one, the rest of the characters follow fairy-tale law as well, becoming the characters they're supposed to be because that's what the story says they're supposed to be; and two, the Lady Amalthea is not a swooning prescribed "lady." However, this is due to her being a unicorn turned woman--she is a higher, purer form of woman because she's a magical perfect being encased in woman flesh. She is beyond lady, which unsaddles Lir and his limited understanding of the female creature.
This should upset me as well, but once again Peter Beagle saves himself toward the end of the story with Molly Grue. When we first meet Molly, we come to understand that she's not perfection, she's not particularly beautiful (though I am always finding the beauty in the ugly simply by the words used to describe said thing):
"I don't know what he is maself," Jack Jingly rumbled. He began to tell the story of the Mayor and the hat, but he had hardly reached the roaring descent upon the town when he was interrupted by a thing thorn of a woman who came pushing through the ring of men to shrill, "I'll not have it, Cully, th soup's no thicker than sweat as it is!" She had a pale, bony face with fierce, tawny eyes, and hair the color of dead grass (69).She is a shrill-voiced woman, cooking for a band of dirty men, but also is described almost as a shrew. She is the antithesis of the lady the unicorn becomes: "Dress and dirty hair tattered alike, bare feet bleeding and beslimed, she gave him a bat's grin" (69). She dirty and scrawny; she's not even wearing shoes. To further her distinction between Molly and the unicorn, I would like to point out this passage:
But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. "Where have you been?" Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn's old dark eyes that looked down.The unicorn represents purity in her white beauty, whereas Molly Grue is dirty, spoiled and aged.
"I am here now," she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. "And what good is it to me that you're here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?" With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. "I wish you had never come. Why do you come now?"[...]
The unicorn made no reply, and Schmendrick said, "She is the last. She is the last unicorn in the world."
"She would be." Molly sniffed. "It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue" (71).
Now, the part where Beagle saves it: "But Molly Grue only laughed and shook her head till her hair came down, and she was more beautiful than the Lady Amalthea" (209). Despite all her "flaws" she still manages to surpass a unicorn trapped as a woman in beauty--but I feel that this is because Molly Grue's depth surpasses Lady Amalthea, who is just the semblance of a woman.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: ROC, 1991.