So, it’s probably impossible for me to explain to strangers why I love Molly Grue so much. And by strangers I mean anyone who doesn’t pay rent inside my head. My first introduction to The Last Unicorn was the animated movie. I’m probably 8 or 9 years old and my encounters with fantasy are mostly reading mythology, the animated Hobbit, and D&D.
And here on my screen is this bedraggled, grumpy, woman who thought she was going to be Maid Marion and instead she’s squatting in the woods making rat soup for a bunch of equally delusional/dejected bandit types. She was sarcastic and angry and still just a little bit romantic…
That was it. She was now my favorite character. I might not have known it at that exact moment. But yep, Molly Grue and me were gonna be best friends. Of course, I was an 8 year old boy so I was a little in love with the Unicorn. And Lir was the best… “That is exactly what heroes are for.” Still messes me up every time I hear him say it.
But then there’s Molly. She broke my heart.
Oh yeah… and Molly is still a bit of a romantic. You get to see it just a peek when she interacts with Cully and he speaks of her good heart. You get to see it when she runs off after Robin Hood even though she almost certainly knows it is an illusion. But she’s been chasing that illusion her whole life so, what’s one more time?
Molly has a kind of self-awareness that most of the other characters in this story don’t have. I think that’s what stuck out to me the most at that young age. Molly Grue knows who she is. Good, bad, and ugly… Molly Grue is very aware of herself. And that awareness is her gift, her shield, and her most valuable asset. It’s her magic.
I can’t, to this day, watch the moment she meets the Unicorn without just weeping. She breaks your heart. She’s so angry. So broken-hearted herself. And so resigned.
And the Unicorn just takes it. Schmendrick can’t understand. He’s mad at Molly for yelling at the Unicorn. He’s mad because he doesn’t understand. Even though he actually does. He just doesn’t know it yet. But Molly can say things to the Unicorn that no one else can. And the Unicorn’s reaction to her is strange too. She lets Molly touch her – and she even seems to seek to comfort Molly in some way. But we know the Unicorn doesn’t feel the same way humans do. It’s a recurring theme that the Unicorn isn’t human and can’t care the way a human does. But she reacts to Molly.
It’s easy to write that off at the time as just the reaction of a Unicorn to a maiden – even though Molly no longer lays personal claim to that status. But it’s more than that.
I don’t know if I can say who the heart of the group is in The Last Unicorn. My gut tells me it’s Lir but maybe the group doesn’t have one. I mention this because it’s important to realize that Molly isn’t the heart of the team. She’s something else. She’s the voice of the team. She tells the truth. Molly sees things and says things that no one else can get away with.
Imagine any other character talking shit to King Haggard? Roll that thought around for a minute. Molly gets in his face. Tells him he’s not happy. Dares him to tell her she’s wrong. Schmendrick is freaking out thinking she’s going to get them killed. But she doesn’t. She gets them in.
King Haggard isn’t afraid of the wrath of a master magician but Molly Grue sees through him and speaks truth he can’t deny. That’s her magic. She sees – and speaks – the truth. Not like a prophet; like a person who is just a little too honest about the world around her to give – or take – anything else. She doesn’t even know it’s special. It’s just who she is.
That ability to speak the truth is why Molly got the reaction she did out of the Unicorn when they first met. She does it with Lir, she does it with Schmendrick, and she even does it with Amalthea. Everyone needs her ability to see and speak the truth or they would have failed in their quest. And at the end… when everything is on the line… she falters. For just a minute. Because remember that I said she’s still a bit of a romantic? Well for just a minute, at the end, she lets herself want the lie to win and she wants Schmendrick to just let Amalthea and Lir be together and be happy.
I say she falters but I don’t mean it to be a criticism. But why shouldn’t they get what they want, just this once in the awful world they live in? I mean… “men don’t always know when they’re happy.” For just a moment, neither did Molly. Maybe. I mean, she chased the illusion of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, right? So maybe she did know.
But in a fantasy cartoon that I watched as an 8 or 9 year old child, I was confronted with complex, difficult characters who all felt so very human. And despite magic or heroes or immortality; what I realized that I wanted was to be a little romantic – and to always be able to see – and speak – the truth.
The Last Unicorn is full to overflowing with complicated messages (for such a small story). It looks at happiness, regret, longing (so much longing), immortality, imprisonment, strong emotions, heroism, and more that I’m not able to get at right now.
So, there I was – a 9 year old boy – and this angry, bedraggled, middle-aged woman who cooks the rat soup made me cry like a baby over a pain I couldn’t even understand yet. And she taught me something about honesty. And she made me want to be a better person. She made me want to understand her. And she was so amazing that now, at 46 years old I still want to understand her. And she is still my favorite character, period, of all the characters I have ever encountered.
There is something truly special about Molly Grue. I will always be grateful to Mr. Beagle for bringing her into my life.