In almost every fantasy book or film, the major protagonist is represented as a hero who must struggle to overcome life-threatening obstacles and potential defeat. Peter Beagles novel The Last Unicorn published in 1968, and J. K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone published in 1997 are two vastly different stories, yet they share a copious amount of similarities regarding heroism. Harry Potter and The Last Unicorn share a similar ideology of what is a hero, in the sense that a hero is portrayed as a single entity. It is common nature to read a fantasy novel and depict the major protagonist as the hero; however, when looking at Harry Potter and The Last Unicorn, the supporting characters show far more heroic qualities than the major protagonists themselves. Harry Potter and the Unicorn are the major heroes of the novels, yet it is the supporting characters who aid in giving them their sense of heroism, which subsequently leads the supporting characters to becoming heroic themselves.
When comparing both Rowling and Beagles novels, it is obvious that there is a major protagonist — that being Harry and the Unicorn, or Lady Amalthea — and other supporting characters, such as Ron, Hermione, Schmendrick, and Molly. However, the protagonists are not the only heroes present in the novel. If heroism is based on ones nobility and courage, Lady Amalthea may not even be considered a hero at all. Upon being turned into a human, Lady Amalthea loses her sense of heroism and becomes merely a damsel in distress struggling with her love interest, Prince Lir. She only restores her sense of heroism once she returns as a unicorn and defeats King Haggard and the Red Bull. Before Schmendrick turned Lady Amalthea back into a unicorn, she was contemplating remaining as a human in order to stay with Prince Lir, and evidently leaving all of the other unicorns in captive by King Haggard. Schmendrick and Molly had to persuade Lady Amalthea to make the righteous decision to leave Prince Lir and save the other unicorns. Without the encouragement and aid from Schmendrick and Molly, the unicorns would be left in captive of King Haggard, and Lady Amalthea would have remained a damsel in distress. There may only be one sole protagonist, but there is not one sole hero in these novels. Harry Potter and the Unicorn both are the central focus of the two novels, yet the supporting characters serve to advance the plot by keeping both Harry, and the Unicorn prevailing against Voldemort and King Haggard.
In The Last Unicorn, Schmendrick’s definition of a hero is that, “[t]he hero has to make a prophecy come true, and the villain is the one who has to stop him.” Schmendrick further claims, “a hero has to be in trouble from the moment of his birth, or he’s not a real hero” (Beagle, 127-128). Schmendrick’s definition of a hero identifies with the Unicorn, but strikingly with Harry Potter as well. By definition, Harry and the Unicorn are heroes. Their names being the titles of both novels represents Harry and the Unicorn as the sole heroes, prior to even reading the stories. The reader is set up knowing who the focus of the narrative is about, and is thereby only analyzing and critiquing the major protagonists, while failing to look further at the other supporting characters. The supporting characters do not have the same opportunities to be considered heroic due to a lack of attention, and a stringent definition of what it means to be a hero. By Schmendrick’s definition, it is clear that he does not consider himself a hero. His decision to help the Unicorn was not because he thinks of himself as a hero, or as her ‘knight in shining armour,’ but because he simply wants to help the unicorns. Schmendrick considers himself an amateur magician, but still uses what little magic he has to help save her. Schmendrick’s ignorance of his own heroic qualities further highlights his humbleness and goodheartedness as a character.
Harry Potter and the Unicorn are heroes, however they do not become heroes by defeating King Haggard or Voldemort on their own. The two villains in the novels — King Haggard and Voldemort — only target the Unicorn and Harry. King Haggard sought to capture the last Unicorn, just as Voldemort’s only vengeance was against Harry Potter. In spite of this, the supporting characters still made the choice to join forces with the protagonists, risking their lives to support a friend who they have only met for a short period of time. In Harry Potter, Voldemort targets Harry because he is the only one that he is unable to defeat. Voldemort without any difficulty would be able to kill Ron and Hermione, as they are not a threat to him by any means. Ron and Hermione prove themselves to be heroes, because despite the terror and anxiety that surrounds Voldemort’s name, they made the decision to fight alongside Harry and use whatever magic they could to help him kill Voldemort. When Harry was planning to search for the Philosopher’s Stone alone at night, Ron and Hermione reacted by saying,“… you don’t think we’d let you go alone?… Of course not. How do you think you’d get the stone without us? I’d better go and look through my books, there might be something useful” (Rowling, 291). Ron and Hermione show their loyalty to Harry unceasingly despite their own fears and insecurities. Their friendship with Harry was short, however, as soon as the threat of Voldemort’s return became a reality, Ron and Hermione — despite their freshman level of magic — did not let Harry go through anything on his own.
Just as Voldemort only targets Harry Potter, King Haggard only targets and preys on unicorns. King Haggard and the Red Bull’s terror has no impact on Molly and Schmendrick, yet they jeopardize their own safety in order to help the Unicorn find others of her kind. Molly and Schmendrick even degrade themselves by working as the King Haggard’s clown and kitchenmaid, allowing Lady Amalthea to secretly search for the captive unicorns. Unlike Schmendrick, Molly has no magical powers or abilities of any kind, which puts herself further in danger, however; as a woman, she is able to see the Unicorn for what it truly is. On account of Molly’s infatuation with unicorns, she begs Schmendrick to allow her to come along on their journey to King Haggard’s castle. She argues with Schmendrick, “[s]he’s letting you travel with her, though I can’t think why, but she has no need of you. She doesn’t need me either, heaven knows, but she’ll take me too” (Beagle, 99). Molly and Schmendrick are aware of what little influence and capability they have against King Haggard, but their passion and nobility surpasses their strength.
In fantasy, there is substantial importance placed upon magic and becoming a superb wizard, or magician. In Schmendrick’s case, his struggle with becoming a good magician started when he was unable to free the Unicorn from Mommy Fortuna’s cage. Despite his constant struggle, Schmendrick was always able to use his magic in dire straits in order to save Lady Amalthea and the unicorns. When Schmendrick was put to the test and had to use his magic to make wine out of water, the skeleton exclaimed “ah that was the real stuff, that was wine! You’re more of a magician than I took you for” (Beagle, 237). Initially reading this novel, Schmendrick would not be considered a hero due to the fact that his magic tricks often fail, and he is not taken seriously as a magician. In spite of Schmendrick’s magic being inconsistent, he is continuously needed by the Unicorn throughout the novel, and is always able to prevail.
In Hermione’s case — although all wizards at Hogwarts place an importance upon magic — is especially keen on her studies and becoming a stronger, more powerful wizard. Hermione studies for months prior to her exams in order to be the best, however, being a hero does not simply mean that one demonstrates impressive magical abilities. Hermione is not a hero for coming in at the top of her class, but for her aid in defeating Voldemort and saving Harry. Schmendrick is a failing magician that struggles to perfect his magic tricks, and Hermione is a first-year student at Hogwarts just beginning her studies as a wizard. Schmendrick and Hermione are not heroic for what they are capable of, but for the ways in which they use their magic to save the major protagonists from defeat. Although the supporting characters do not have as much power as Harry and the Unicorn, with their help they are powerful enough to defeat King Haggard and Voldemort. This struggle and perseverance is what the genre of fantasy captures as being heroic.
Harry and the Unicorn are born heroic prophecies, but it is the supporting characters who help them discover their full potential. Harry was dumbfounded when he began receiving letters addressed to “Mr H. Potter: The Cupboard under the Stairs,” and was even more perplexed upon discovering that he is a famous wizard (Rowling, 36). When Harry went to Hogwarts and the Potter name was quickly circulated, Hermione asks him, “are you really?… I know all about you, of course — I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History, and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts, and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century” (Rowling, 113). Likewise, in The Last Unicorn, the Unicorn overhears hunters discussing the extent to which unicorns were becoming extinct. In a moment of distress and confusion, she claims “all I want to know is that there are other unicorns somewhere in the world. Butterfly, tell me that there are still others like me” (Beagle, 15). Both Harry and the Unicorn share a similar humble and heroic virtue, and are unaware of the magnitude of their powers. Harry and the Unicorn discover their heroic qualities and potential to their full extent because of the encouragement and constant reassurance from the supporting characters.
Harry Potter and the Unicorn were born as prophecies; however, their popularity plays an incremental role in their reputation as heroes. The Potter name was known by everyone at Hogwarts prior to Harry’s arrival, which resulted in Harry being treated similar to a celebrity by both students and faculty. His fight against Voldemort as an infant which lead to the death of his parents, and the lightning scar across his forehead, made history in the world of magic. Correspondingly, in The Last Unicorn, the Unicorn was given similar treatment as a result of her magic, beauty, and horn. She was sought after to be a part of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival, for her beauty was seen as lucrative. Even under the male gaze, she was still considered to be a “pretty little mare” (Beagle, 9). Popularity and heroism are not interchangeable, yet it can be misconstrued that Harry and the Unicorn are looked up to as prestigious because of who they are, rather than what they have accomplished. Defeating King Haggard and Voldemort is heroic; however, their defeat cannot be accredited to only Harry and the Unicorn. The supporting characters in the novel are indisputably the cause of both heroic defeats due to their endless support, encouragement, and aid in magical abilities.
Supporting characters tend to be over looked in fantasy because they are often not considered important enough to have a specific title or role aside from the ‘side kick.’ As a result of the supporting characters rarely becoming the central focus of the novel, they often tend to fly under the radar, and are only turned to when the major protagonist is in trouble, or needs support. Nevertheless, in both The Last Unicorn and Harry Potter the supporting characters prove themselves to be more heroic than the major protagonists. In Beagle and Rowling’s novels, Ron, Hermione, Schmendrick, and Molly help the major protagonist throughout their journey to become a hero, which subsequently results in the supporting characters becoming heroes themselves. Despite all of the danger and peril that the supporting characters endure in attempt to save the major protagonist, they do not get any acknowledgment or reward for their actions. Harry Potter and the Unicorn outshine the supporting characters throughout the entire novels, even though they were responsible in contributing to the overall success. Harry and the Unicorn have no choice but to be heroic in the event of their potential defeat, but Ron, Hermione, Schmendrick, and Molly choose to be heroic by fulfilling the supporting role. In fantasy, the hero is traditionally depicted as a singular entity; however it is rare that a hero stands alone. Harry Potter and the Unicorn may be heroes by definition, but if the preconceived notion and definition of a ‘hero’ is ignored, it is clear that the supporting characters — being Ron, Hermione, Schmendrick, and Molly — show a far greater sense of heroism than the major protagonists in terms of courage, strength, and bravery.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. A Roc Book. 1968
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter. Bloomsbury. 2014