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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

#AtoZ Challenge: U is for Unicorn!

Today’s theme is unicorns. They have appeared visually and in writing for centuries. 

Public Domain . By Maerten de Vos 1532-1603


Did you know unicorns were mentioned in the Bible? Well, the King James Version, anyway. The translators who translated from Hebrew to Greek thought the word should be “monoceros” and the Latin word for that was “unicornis” and... Never mind. And never mind that the creature concerned was probably a single-horned now extinct wild ox or maybe even a rhinoceros. 

Apparently, they are all over the place, including the ancient Indus Valley. 

So, what do we know about them? They really should have cloven hooves and a goat’s beard and tail. Calling someone unicorn bait means they are virgins, as unicorns were supposed to calm down when a virgin came along, so they were used to trap the unicorn. What would you do with the animal? One legend is that the horn purified your drink so you wouldn’t be poisoned. There were quite a few of those horns around in the Middle Ages, probably taken from narwhals, which are known as the unicorn of the sea. 

Let’s check out unicorn appearances in some fiction.


Admiral Kirilli and Maggie the unicorn by Robert Jan


They appear in Harry Potter, of course, twice. The Potterverse unicorns are the traditionally beautiful white creatures, innocent and glowing. Drinking silvery unicorn blood will save your life, but the side effects are not pleasant.  In The Philosopher’s Stone Voldemort gets Professor Quirrel to drink it for him. In The Goblet Of Fire, the replacement teacher, Professor Grubbly-Plank, teaches the class about unicorns in Care Of Magical Creatures, while Hagrid is hiding out in embarrassment. After studying Blast-Ended Skrewts, the unicorn is a relief. 

The Once And Future King has a unicorn hunt, by the Orkney princes, who get a peasant girl to come along as their virgin. They kill it, cut its head off and... regret it. 

Unicorns are not always shown as pleasant creatures in fiction. In Terry Pratchett’s Lords And Ladies, the unicorn is the pet of the thoroughly nasty Queen of Faerie. It’s insane and when it comes out into the human world, it runs around menacing and killing. But a virgin can still tame it. And one does. She is able to bring it into the village using a single hair from her head, and has the blacksmith give it silver shoes. It is just an animal, she says, and not responsible for what it has done. 

Another scary unicorn appears in Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. Peter Grant is a policeman and a wizard in training. In the course of the novel Foxglove Summer, our hero encounters the fairy otherworld and a terrifying unicorn that can and will kill you. It’s connected with a couple of little girls who think it’s something out of My Little Pony. 

Then again, there are unicorns which are not vicious, but not pretty either. In Gillian Polack’s The Wizardry Of Jewish Women, a mother and daughter perform a spell that brings a Shetland pony sized  unicorn into their garden. 

The first place I ever saw a Shetland unicorn was on Lost In Space, where daughter Penny Robinson finds one on another planet. It sounds a bit silly, but I got the idea from this episode and used it in my own fiction - first in Star Trek fan fiction, then in my YA novel Wolfborn

In Wolfborn, a mediaeval werewolf novel, a young man called Armand has been bragging about his many girls. However, when he is stuck in Faerie with his mountain pony, Dapple, he discovers to his horror that Dapple is a disguised unicorn - it’s a self defence thing, to make them less attractive to hunters. In Faerie, they appear as they really are. Armand’s best friend, Etienne(the novel’s hero) falls about laughing. Armand is not impressed. 


There are plenty more references to unicorns in fiction, but these are a few I have read(or written!). What about you? 

16 comments:

AJ Blythe said...

Did you see the news article recently about the "unicorn". It was a sheep with deformed horns so instead of two it had one in the centre of its forehead and the other tucked backwards over its head (so it's very hard to see). He was on his way to be slaughtered when a farmer bought him for 2 cases of beer (in South Australia). You can read the story here: Unicorn Sheep

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, AJ, I hadn’t heard of this, thanks fo4 sharing! And so glad to hear the poor sheep has survived.

miki said...

i liked the way suzanne johnson used unicorn in her last sentinel of new orleans book^^
but when i hear "unicorn" i immediately think about " the last unicorn" animated film ( i cry just at the first note of the music) it's from a book but i never read it ( never found it here)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi mike! I do have a copy of The Last Unicorn somewhere on my shelves, but never got around to reading it. I really must - it’s called a classic.

Melanie said...

You know I was never a great unicorn lover like some of my friends growing up. But the more I learnt about them from a mythological perspective the more they fascinated me. Particularly as they appear on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Always makes me giggle given that of the two animals which appear one isn't native to the UK at all and the other isn't real.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Melanie! Well, they are heraldic animals, after all, not meant to be real. The Lion if England and the Unicorn of Scotland. I shou,d have thought of the scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, in which the poem “The Lion and the Unicorn” was acted out.

Stuart Nager said...

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is still a favorite book. I was fascinated with unicorns ever since my dad took me to the Cloisters in The Bronx, NY. The tapestries were what stayed with me from that first visit.

I started "collecting" Unicorn ceramics and blown glass models. Couple of other things came my way.

In NYC, on the edge of Greenwich Village, there was a shop called Unicorn City. It's long gone now, which is a shame.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Stuart! Yes, The Last Unicorn is a very famous book. I just haven’t read it, though I have a copy... somewhere. I got it as a gift. I take it you are referring to copies of the mediaeval tapestries? Lovely things! A collector of unicorns, eh? I used to collect them too, until I ran out of space; they’re now decorating my book shelves, along with space ships, another thing I collected.

Melanie Atherton Allen said...

Ooh, yay Lords and Ladies! I love Pratchett. :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

So do I, Melanie!

Brian Joseph said...

Unicorns are such interesting mythological creatures. As you know, I have recently read The Harry Potter series so those references to unicorns are fresh in my mind. It has been a long time since I have even thought about The Lost in Space Unicorn! That may have actually been my earliest memory of one :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! Who would have thought that Shetland unicorn would be your first? Wow!

T.S. Valmond said...

I love unicorns, I'm going to need a way to work these beautiful beasts into one of my stories :) - Dragons & Spaceships

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hope you find a way to work them in! There are so many different ways people have used them in fiction...

Roland Clarke said...

Unicorns always add a stately and ethereal element for me, but then I've yet to encounter an evil one. The first unicorn that came to mind as I read this was - in the film 'Legend' where the last surviving ones are killed for evil to triumph.

I also think of the unicorn in the Witcher novels by Polish author Andrzek Sapkowski - just don't ask me to explain how it fits in.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, I don’t know, Roland, that one in the painting looks pretty scary to me! As I recall, the mediaeval unicorn was a horny beast in more ways than one! And I recall one novel, but not the title, in which the reason for the maiden thing was that unicorns are jealous - you get a unicorn in your life, you’d better not get a boyfriend!