Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Genre: Children’s Nature Mockumentary, Horse Book

Age: 8-98

For anyone who has read guides to pony care, horseback riding, and equine breeds, this is the book for you! If you know an eight-year-old girl who loves horses, you should get this for her NOW!

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This image doesn’t quite capture the shiny silver! Wheee!

Seraphini and Robin successfully use the conventions of children’s non-fiction nature books to create a convincing (if tongue in cheek) guide to unicorns. The book provides a biological overview (evolution, horn physiology, magical properties, life cycle), an overview of unicorns in legend, and, most inventively, a history of famous (and diverse!) unicornologists.

The illustrations are a delightful blend of cartoon and scientific diagram. My favourite section has to be the double spreads devoted to species, ranging from the Icelandic Volcanic Unicorn (ridged horn, eats pine resin) to the Nepalese Mountain Unicorn whose hair-infused soup helps hermits live 600 years. But who wouldn’t love to pore over the illustration of different horn-types, whether pearlescent or smooth?

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This page nicely demonstrates the balance of whimsical illustration and “serious” scientific description. 

Though The Secret Lives of Unicorns touches on the history of unicorn legends, from Odin’s messenger Sleipnir and the Qilin of Ancient China, the book wears this heritage lightly.

In style, it’s reminiscent of Graeme Base’s lovely The Discovery of Dragons (1996) and to a lesser extent, Dugald Steer’s entertaining Dragonology (2003) and Wizardology (2005). Lovers of mythological creatures and those eager to suspend their disbelief will heartily enjoy The Secret Lives of Unicorns.

Buy this amazing book here.

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Another reason why I love this book…each page has tiny, detailed illustrations which celebrate unicorn love!

Trigger warning: This book has awful depictions of emotional and sexual abuse.  Also, probably don’t read this post until you’re possibly fifteen or older.

Genre: Postmodernism, apocalyptic fiction, Biblical adaptation, Southern Ontario Gothic

Age Range: 15+

Synopsis: A disorienting, brutal retelling of the Bible story about Noah’s Ark. Doctor Noah Noyes is happily terrorizing his wife, sons, and wives’ sons, when he receives a surprise visit from his old friend, Yahweh. A party trick gives Yahweh the idea of obliterating Creation with a flood. Although Noah obeys eagerly, Mrs. Noyes and her cat Mottyl must scramble to find a way to survive. A dainty, peaceful unicorn is brutally hurt in Noah’s attempt to dominate his wife and progeny…one incident in a string of violence and an ambivalent ending. The one uplifting thing is possibly the surprise appearance of Lucifer in female guise. (Yeah, that’s scraping the barrel…)

I wonder whether the intense power of this novel is limited to “patriarchy – BAD. VERY BAD.” Does it offer any hope? At the very least, this book makes me realize how our society really has evolved in its representation of gender since 1984.

Still interested? Find the book here.

Analysis: Coming off the last two weeks’ posts about unicorns and desire and unicorns and seduction, Not Wanted on the Voyage focuses on the dark side of the maiden-unicorn narrative. In this iteration, the unicorn – a benign, shy animal with its own life and consciousness – is brutally reduced to a symbol of forceful masculinity.

The Unicorn appears only a few times, but he is crucial to the confrontation between Noah and Mrs. Noyes. Noah and Mrs. Noyes’s conflict is channeled through their young, dangerously naïve son, Japeth, and Japeth’s even younger, unwilling wife Emma. Yet, before the Unicorn becomes an object of human violence, Findley portrays the Unicorn through the eyes of other animals.

The Unicorn first appears in an encounter with one of the novel’s main focalizers, Mrs. Noyes’s cat, Mottyl. Findley masterfully portrays a cat’s-eye view of the Flood, wherein Mottyl’s instinctual “whispers” battle with learned, conscious knowledge about the world. Mottyl’s encounter with the Unicorn subconsciously creates an opposition between this mythic animal and Noah as a legendary man.

In contrast to Noah, the Unicorn provides possibly the only positive representation of masculinity in the whole book. Where Noah shouts, the unicorn speaks in “a mere, hoarse whisper” (52). Noah is big, the unicorn is “not more than fifteen inches” in length, with his horn making up “a good six inches” (52). He’s the size of a small dog, while Noah takes up more than his fair share of space. Whereas Noah walls off the orchard as his own special place and makes sure that no one but himself has privacy, the Unicorn shuffles quietly through the undergrowth of a forest teeming with life, listening and advising Mottyl the cat when he is “feeling most unsafe.” Whereas Noah commands his family to obey and crushes any self-doubt, the unicorn has a “nervous habit of talking to himself” (52). Unlike Noah (and Yahweh), the arch-patriarchs, the Unicorn serves his Lady and seems to have a quiet, loving relationship. Whereas Noah demands that Mrs. Noyes (and his daughters in law) serve his increasingly gross appetites, the unicorn saves the choicest flowers for his mate. She, in turn, pines away without him. IMG_20190521_110920992.jpg

Indeed, whereas Noah grasps at recreating Yahweh’s punitive authority, the Unicorn and the Lady’s behaviour in the forest seems to mimic that of a benign god and goddess amongst the animals. Some creatures believe that “the Unicorn and The Lady were only an idea,” yet the creatures are merely reclusive and observant (53). Because of the Unicorn’s peaceable nature and rarity, places it likes to feed have the “atmosphere almost of holy places” or “sanctuaries” (54). Unlike the combative humans, the forest animals seem to develop a consensus about protecting and venerating a pair of vulnerable creatures.

Unfortunately for the Unicorn, much of Not Wanted on the Journey is about Dr. Noyes’s ambition to subjugate humans, animals, and nature to his will.  Continue reading

I have high hopes for Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe,” a rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, and the language in a New York Times feature gives me an excuse to mention it on this blog. The author of the article, Devin Gordon, uses the word “unicorn” twice…an unusual and self-conscious act of repetition.

Gordon notes that the film, featuring “a pair of Asian-American stars, an Iranian-American female director — make it something of a unicorn in Hollywood.” Later on, Gordon mentions that “Park’s character, Marcus, is another kind of movie unicorn: the stay-at-home stoner” who, though “a really good guy” is “just stuck.” (Again, I think the unicorn-ness refers specifically to race…there’s a plethora of white stoner dudes populating Hollywood films. This leads to my own grumbles about the hapless stoner dude being Hollywood culture’s milquetoast attempt to reimagine masculinity. Why can’t we be more creative in providing men with role models who are caring and strong? But I digress…)IMG_20190605_090516927

The use of the word unicorn gives room for pause. If a unicorn is “fabulous and legendary” (according to the OED) and rare to the point of possible near-existence, then in an ideal world, “Always Be My Maybe” shouldn’t be a unicorn at all. It should be a horse or a pony prized for its exceptional horse-ness or pony-like qualities.

I’ve often hungered for more narratives that engage positively with people’s ethnic/racial/cultural identities without catastrophizing or subtly hollowing out divergences from an implicitly WASP-y cultural norm…though we seem to be at a turning point, momentum must be maintained. The article’s reference to “the era of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before'” is telling. Two films don’t make an era. Without further momentum and other films in their wake, CRA and TAtBILB risk becoming anomalies. (Did the article leave out John Cho in “Searching” because it wasn’t a rom com?) “Always Be My Maybe” is a step further to making movies — and rom coms specifically — reflect their culturally varied and rich viewership.

img_20190605_090544668.jpgAlso…were those kids eating Pocky Sticks in the trailer? That’s what the cool kids ate at my highschool!

And now I think I’ll watch “Always Be My Maybe,” followed by some “Kim’s Convenience.” That’s also one heck of a unicorn!

Read the article here:

Genre: Historical fiction, medieval fiction

Age Range: 15+ … if you are below 12, you will definitely not enjoy this book or this review.

Synopsis: This novel imagines the creation of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries of the Parisian Musée de Moyen Age (formerly the Cluny Museum).

When lusty painter Nicholas des Innocents receives a commission to design a tapestry for the icy Jean Le Viste, he thinks he’s going to create a battle scene. But an encounter with Le Viste’s vivacious daughter, Claude, and sad wife, Genevieve, convinces Nicholas to change the design – to the seduction of the unicorn instead. The unicorn is both a story Nicholas habitually uses to woo girls like Claude…but the unicorn also comes to represent Genevieve’s desire to withdraw from the world. In the years Nicholas dedicates to the creation of the tapestries, he has occasion to consider and reconsider women’s desires – spiritual, vocational, romantic – and makes longing central to the tapestries, uniting them through the phrase “À mon seul desir.” Following the process of creating intricate medieval artwork, The Lady and the Unicorn is woven out of the voices and perspectives of characters from Paris to Brussels, from palaces to workshops to convents and ale-houses. Like a tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn can be appreciated as a whole or in its small, intricate set-pieces. Chevalier shows great attention to detail, reviving the art of tapestries for modern readers and giving texture to medieval life. That being said, if you are looking for characters that you will like and identify with, this is probably not the book for you. There are straightforwardly sympathetic characters later in the book, but Chevalier intentionally makes the deep flaws of the main figures, Nicholas, Genevieve, and Claude, central to the plot. If you don’t like the main characters, Chevalier nevertheless asks you to consider when and whether they deserve sympathy.

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“Taste,” from The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. Flemish. 1490-1500. Tapestry. Musee National de Moyen Age.

A strong historical novel and an interesting look into medieval craftsmanship.

You can buy The Lady and the Unicorn here

Read More Analysis here Continue reading

WARNING: If you are under twelve, maybe even under fifteen, you should probably skip this post. You might not be able to look at your sparkly unicorn stuff the same way ever again.

Bestiary., whole page, Folio/Page #: fol. 070r. c. 13th century, middle. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

The current craze for sparkly rainbow-pooping unicorns assumes that unicorns are for kids. Female kids, specifically. (Where are the unicorns for boys??? This point will get more striking as we dig deeper into this issue.) The unicorns are coded as either female, and therefore the same-sex pets, friends, or mentors of the girls who love them or as non-sexual males. (I may have to venture into My Little Pony Land to see if this gets complicated, but I’m on pretty firm ground in terms of general unicorn iconography.)

But, at the same time, if anyone knows anything about traditional Western unicorn narratives, it’s that there’s a maiden/virgin and a unicorn. Making unicorns for pre-teens, or even pre-tweens, erases the history of unicorn iconography that relies on thinking and rethinking the roles and identities assigned to young women. Young women – not little girls.

This is disturbing for two main reasons:

  1. There’s a squicky implication that anyone over the target age of consumerist unicorn culture is somehow engaged in a sexualized popular culture. And given the target demographic for unicorn stuff is usually pretty young, this points to some uncomfortable territory.  
  2. If the infantilization of unicorn culture suggests that “virginity” is a simple and outdated concept, popular cultural content around unicorns avoids respecting people live beyond the bounds of sexualized pop culture. More importantly, it avoids rethinking what “virginity” might mean or how young women’s integrity gets refigured through time and history.

The flip side of kiddie unicorn culture is the sarcastic use of the word “unicorn” to describe parts of current sexual practice.

Jost Amman, “Woman on a Unicorn.” German woodcut. c.1539-1591. The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol 20. pt. 2, German Masters of the Sixteenth Century.

Urban Dictionary lists among the meanings of unicorn “that girl that you can’t catch” but more commonly, a person “who is willing to join an existing couple, often with the presumption that this person will date and become sexually involved with both members of that couple, and not demand anything or do anything which might cause problems or inconvenience to that couple.”

And anyone who’s gone to a university campus has probably seen t-shirts of unicorns in awkward positions, or with…um…unusual horns. Or you’ve seen some idiot dude wearing one of those unusual horns at a Hallowe’en party and thinking he’s invented something frightfully clever. If you haven’t seen this stuff, and you can’t imagine what I’m talking about, count yourself lucky.  

Of course, these frightfully clever people are engaged in quite simple subversions of the kiddie-rainbow-unicorn images. There’s nothing complex about what they’re doing. It’s usually a teenage reaction against the childhood they feel they’ve just recently freed themselves from. These very same people would be shocked and horrified to know that unicorns in their historical narrative form often do have a sexual component. And that – like anything to do with desire – it’s complicated.

Chris Lavers, in The Natural History of Unicorns ()2009 tracks the maiden-and-unicorn story to the Syriac translation of Physiologus, a book from the late second century so popular it flavoured Western European unicorn iconography for nearly two thousand years. In the translation Lavers uses, we find the unicorn approach a “young virgin” and

conduct himself familiarly with her. Then the girl, while sitting quietly, reaches forth her hand and grasps the horn on the animal’s brow, and at this point the huntsmen come up and take the beast and go away with him to the king.

Likewise the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy , immaculate, inviolate. (Shepard qutd in Lavers 71)

Oooookay….Are you feeling uncomfortable, too?

As Lavers mildly puts it, we find “an echo of an ancient non-Christian tale about a wild creature, symbolizing the younger, carefree, wilder side of maleness, and its life-changing interaction with the female sex” (73). What’s interesting to me in both the Physiologus and Lavers’s interpretation is the power the young woman has. Taking the unicorn by the…uh…horn not only tames him but civilizes him and brings him into the company of men. Of course, the power the young woman has is sexual power, so that’s a downside. I mean, it is 200 AD…Where’s the loathly lady from The Wife of Bath’s tale when you need her?

The tension between the secular and the sacred interpretations of the virgin-and-unicorn story that have made the two Unicorn Tapestry sets famous. The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have a fairly straightforward narrative that accords with Christ’s persecution, death, and resurrection. BUT the lady in this set looks sneaky in comparison to the Virgin Marys in more clearly Christian allegorical tapestries (granted, this is a bit of the tapestry that is badly damaged).


“The Lady and the Unicorn” from The Unicorn Tapestries. South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris (formerly the Cluny Museum), the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries feature the titular characters without any obvious Christian narrative. They are sensuous, focusing on taste, touch, sound, smell, and sight…the last one announces “Mon Seul Desire”…my only desire. I don’t think it’s heavenly? Thus, Tracy Chevalier’s 2004 novel The Lady and the Unicorn, which imagines the creation of the Cluny tapestries, has a seduction scene that relies mainly on the protagonist, Nicholas, explaining the metaphor to a young girl.

I’ve found a couple of similarly odd images of lovers and unicorns. Are the unicorns supposed to be testaments to the lovers’ purity? Or to the potency of their desire?

“Pair of Lovers with Unicorn.” Swiss Tapestry. c.1475-1500. Basel. Getty Images.

Does the slaughter of the unicorn next to Tristan and Isolde foretell the fate of their tragic but faultless romance?

“Tristan and Isolde, Capture of the Unicorn.” Casket. 1375-1400. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

In our current moment, a surprising number of unicorn stories feature desire that is romantic and/or sexual. I remember being disappointed that Chevalier’s novel didn’t feature any real unicorns and feeling shocked at the seduction scene. But, in retrospect, it prepared me…

Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn (1968) draws a great deal of its emotional power from the fraught relationship between the female unicorn and Prince Lír. After the unicorn is forced into human form, she struggles with Lír’s attraction to her. (The unicorn’s disassociation from her human body could be interpreted as a metaphor about the trauma of female puberty.) The unicorn eventually regains her bodily integrity, but her relationship with Lír has permanently alienated her from other unicorns untroubled by human (romantic) desire.

Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel (1983) devotes a great deal of page space flirting with – but not consummating – the love between the titular female unicorn and the protagonist, Pete. Ariel wishes she were a woman, but all her magic cannot make her one. Pete ends up rejecting his love for Ariel and redirecting his desire towards human women. In this story, Pete’s literal virginity is a huge embarrassment for him…and he must counterbalance his sexual inexperience with a great deal of anger towards women and aggression towards men.

Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (1983)arranges the unicorn and young Emma as unwilling participants in a ceremony that shatters them both. The unicorn and Emma are both victims of patriarchal power.

Similarly, Margo Lanagan’s excellent short story “A Thousand Flowers” in Zombies vs. Unicorns (2010) takes the metaphor of maiden-and-unicorn and makes it real…then forces readers to think through the implications. Weirdly enough, in the violent human world that Lanagan portrays, a princess’s visceral love for a unicorn seems the only viable compassionate, mutual relationship. The resulting baby represents a stillborn future, a path not taken by nobility committed to protecting their privilege through murdering the defenseless.

I haven’t found any narratives about queering unicorn desire yet. But they are probably out there. If you know of one, tell me!

In briefly reviewing the narratives that address unicorns and desire, I find the unicorn working as a lens that refracts patriarchal power and offers authors to think through the violence of prizing purity and literal virginity over compassion and care.

Random tidbits:

Okay, and the Oxford English Dictionary does list one meaning of unicorn as a “figurative or allusive” way of referring to a cuckold.  

Example: 1607   T. Dekker & J. Webster North-ward Hoe iv. sig. Fv   Fetherstone..it seemes makes her husband a vnicorne.

Awkward. Anyways, the OED hasn’t updated its definition of unicorn since 1924. Those guys are going to be in for a shock!

ALSO – Kathleen Duey’s story “The Third Virgin” does a good job rethinking “virginity.” Check out my review of the collection it’s in, Zombies vs. Unicorns here.

Ideal Age Range: Kindergarten, Primary.

Genre: Board Book, Picture Book, Humour

Synopsis: Dissatisfied with her timid and lazy hamster, the bespectacled protagonist of If I Had a Gryphon imagines more exciting alternatives. Despite the gryphon of the title, a unicorn is her first choice.

Awww…look at that drooling manticore! I also love the tentacle coming in on the right!

Thoughts: Okay, a board book seems out of place considering some of the other posts on this blog, but I like tongue-and-cheek humour when it’s well done.

The unicorn is silky, silvery, tinkly, prancing, essentially, the incarnation of the present glittery unicorn phenomenon. Endearingly, the narrator informs us that despite the unicorn’s flashiness, she is “very shy” and suspicious of grade-school unicorn fanatics. (There are also subtle hints of other possibilities, like nerdy professorial unicorns.) With each following creature (hippogriff, Sasquatch, Chupacabra…) the narrator reduces mythological powers to the domestic hazards of house pets.  Ultimately, the hamster seems safest, though (surprise!) even it has a secret.

The book is notable for reaching beyond Western mythological beings, and distinguishes between the unicorn and the kirin, a sometimes-similar mythological creature known to Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean cultures. (Unlike the shy unicorn, the Kirin is a proud creature who asserts its demands for ample fodder.)

A playful consideration of pet ownership, mythological or otherwise, If I Had a Gryphon is a treat for readers young and young-at-heart.

Buy If I Had a Gryphon here.

The Tech Unicorn…Where does this fascinating beast come from?

Illustration from The Economist, April 20th-26th, 2019, page 13.

The term was coined by seed investor and Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee in 2013 in her article  for TechCrunch, “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups.”

Her definition of a unicorn is “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” This definition has now been streamlined into “privately held startups worth more than $1bn.” (Famous unicorns include Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest and Lyft.)

At the time of writing, Lee counted 39 such companies that belonged to the “Unicorn Club,” a mere .07% of startups. (By 2019, this number is 156, according to The Economist.) Lee was obviously searching for a term that connoted rarity, desirability.  She takes the metaphor and runs with it…and finance writers have delighted in it for the past six years.

I’m fascinated by the language that Lee uses to make the tech unicorn language catch. Lee’s phrasing in her pronouncement that “San Francisco (not the Valley) now reigns as the home of unicorns” trades in stereotypes about fantasy-worlds. There’s a magical land you can go to, where you can spot the beast of your dreams! (Can a city reign? Eh, whatever…) When Lee writes that “four unicorns were born per year,” she’s giving these companies animal life, and infusing the moment of birth a suddenness that goes against her later, more sober observation that “inexperienced, twentysomething founders were an outlier. Companies with well-educated, thirtysomething co-founders who have history together have built the most successes”. The narrative of unicorn “birth” also goes against her more sober analysis that unicorns are gradually formed over an average seven year of hard work to achieve liquidity by co-founders with “who had previously founded a company.” This is a nice way of saying that a lot of ponies or still-born unicorn babies have to be born before the live unicorn comes around.

Baby Unicorn! So CUTE! The fact that it took 7 years to gestate is irrelevant, right?

ANYWAYS, unicorns being born sounds better.

Once the unicorn is born, there’s a “Unicorn Club”! But wait…There is no club. How could there be? Unicorns, as creatures, can hang out. Unicorn companies cannot hang out, because companies are made of individuals. Therefore, the company gets implicitly associated with a founder or leader. (Indeed, in The Economist’s April 2019 article, “charismatic bosses” are key to unicorn recognizability…the unicorn is the boss as much as the company.)

Then there are the “super-unicorns” (worth more than $100 billion e.g. Facebook/Google/Amazon).

All this linguistic excess unites together eight-year-old girls and adult businesspeople in mutual glee. The currency of the term “unicorn” in discussions about tech companies and investment proves that grownup, as much as children, can’t get enough of a good story.

A downside…in the ways that unicorns in popular culture bear no trace of their Indian and Mesopatamian origins, tech unicorns are also painted white. Lee notes that “There is very little diversity among founders in the Unicorn Club.” Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, was hailed as a female unicorn-wrangler, which led to headlines like “The Blood Unicorn Theranos was Just a Fairy Tale: Founder Elizabeth Holmes spun a beautiful fantasy for investors, not so much for patients” and “Can Elizabeth Holmes Save Her Unicorn: Theranos wants to convince the world it’s for real.”

Well, Theranos turned out to be a fantasy and so are a lot of unicorns.

The Economist‘s cover image, April 20-26th, 2019. Cute ponies, though!

More recently, The Economist’s April 20th-26th 2019 edition featured a cover image of five ponies wearing dunce caps as horns as they graze in the moneyed fields outside of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. One in the background has been spooked and runs off…losing its horn and its magical aura.

The leader article accompanying the image contends that “mere ponies are being presented as unicorns” and observes that “a dozen unicorns” will post “combined losses of $14 bn” (13).

The author speaks of “Today’s unicorn-breeding industry” run amok and the main briefing, “Unicorns going to market: Herd instincts” tries to account for the “population boom.” The main article features unicorns behaving very much like lemmings. “The design and manufacture of unicorns has become industrialised” and therefore the current generation of new unicorns don’t look or act like they did before.

Finally, “Herd instincts” ends by noting “a growing concern that the innovation produced by some unicorns does not leave society better off.” (Specifically, the way the gig economy powered by Uber etc. covers for the precariousness of workers’ lives.) This is a curious ethical turn, considering that investment and profit is only rarely assumed to correlate with goodness. But the unicorn metaphor provides a way to turn from the sparkle-and-rainbows excitement about innovation into thinking about the effect of technology on society at large. Unicorns aren’t just icons of rarity and value – they’re also symbols of healing and goodness. Adding this element to the tech unicorn is something to get excited about.

Random stuff:

The Economist has amazing wordplay, such as “Alphabet (née Google)” – née – neigh – get it?