Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

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.

ARTSTOR_103_41822001613494

“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?   

Check out the cool cut-outs on the cover!

Genre: Young Adult fantasy, zombie apocalypse, teen romance, short story anthology

Age Range: 12+

Synopsis:

In Zombies vs. Unicorns, Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier bring together some of the biggest YA authors (both popular and critically acclaimed) to pick sides and write about their favourite creatures.

The impressive roster includes Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik, and Garth Nix…and the stylistic and narrative breadth of the collection shows.

This collection is fun, fresh, imaginative…and filled with zombies and unicorns.

Buy Zombies vs. Unicorns here.

Some thoughts:

There are a lot of stories here, so I’ll just highlight a few of my favourites (in order of appearance):

Garth Nix’s “The Highest Justice” considers the extent to which a unicorn’s healing power can go in service of justice. I’ve been a big fan of Garth Nix since Sabriel, and this one is in the same vein. It features a unicorn, but also an undead queen and a stalwart heroine. It’s brief and flirts with twee unicorny culture (Queen Jessibelle?), but Nix is great at describing the relationship between the living and the dead.  The unicorn’s visibility or invisibility depending on the viewer’s virginal status leads to some comedy as Princess Jess seems to talk to herself while pursuing vengeance.

By contrast, Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” taps into the disturbing sexual undercurrent of virgin/unicorn imagery. If you’ve never read any Margo Lanagan, this story is a shock. If you have read any of her other stuff (like Tender Morsels, which won the 2009 World Fantasy Award) you will have carefully shielded your heart before you start reading. Because her writing is beautiful and brutal. (Trigger warnings for sexual violence and traumatic pregnancies apply.) The story is told from three perspectives, the hapless, goodhearted, doomed Manny Foyer, a shocked nameless midwife’s apprentice, and the shrewd midwife, Joan. Manny finds what he assumes is a raped girl and his attempts to help her go terribly awry. The apprentice and Joan deal with the aftermath, tending to a girl trapped in a castle. A tragically short-lived, mysteriously pearly baby features. The unicorn is central, but its role makes sense only through reading.

Kathleen Duey’s “The Third Virgin” features a unicorn who is a suicidal serial killer! An immortal unicorn becomes addicted to taking life in exchange for its healing powers. This story contemplates the toll of immortality and the unicorn’s destructive fascination with human fragility. In the present day, the unicorn eventually meets his match in a clever virgin with whom it strikes a deal. There’s also an interesting underlying narrative about the colonization of North America as the unicorn tries to evade an ever-more populated planet. (Duey’s most known for her middle-grade American Diaries and Survivors series, so the story is also a great opportunity to see an author’s breadth in skill.)

Reviewing my favourites, I sense my own bias towards fantasy that takes itself seriously. The other unicorn stories, Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test,” Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants” and Diana Peterfreund’s “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn” are all tongue-and-cheek send-ups of sparkly unicorn culture. (Steven R. Boyett’s wise-cracking unicorn Ariel would be at home with Novik’s Belcazar.) These stories are fun (and I very much like other books by these authors), but they trade on our superficial fascination with sparkly things. My favourites push past the rainbow fart stuff.

Amazing cover design by Sonia Chaghatzbanian!

Are unicorns for “virgins”? How does the idea of “virginity” get reassessed in each story? If there is an attraction between young women and these animals, what is the nature of that attraction? (For Duey it is spiritual. For Lanagan, the sexual attraction between beast and girl compensates for misogynist human culture.) If unicorns are immortal, how does immortality warp their perception of the humans who are so fascinated by them? With one exception, the unicorns in Zombies vs. Unicorns don’t solve problems for humans – in fact, they often bring trouble with them. But those who witness unicorns have an opportunity to reflect on what is possible in their world.

It’s been almost ten years since the publication of Zombies vs. Unicorns, and I’m struck by how well most of them have aged. Harry Potter and Twitter references made me realize how long certain cultural norms have been around. There are several gay characters and the characters have a mix of cultural backgrounds. The only story that seems dated is Cabot’s, wherein the now-outdated cellphone technology means that an inappropriate photo can be destroyed alongside the phone that took it. (Also, Cabot’s story isn’t up to her usual standard, this coming from a long-time Cabot fan.).

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL…

Because there’s also lots and lots of zombies in this collection. (My favourites are Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Carrie Ryan’s “Bougainvillea.” Ryan’s is narratively interesting, with two timelines that lull readers into underestimating the romance-novel reading Iza.)

Black and Larbalestier provide a short editorial dialogue in front of each story, something that I find really interesting. It clarifies to teen readers that stories exist and grow powerful in conversation with each other. That being said, I wish that the conversation didn’t have a combative premise (who “wins”: Team Zombie or Team Unicorn) and that Black had offered a more robust defense of “Team Unicorn” to balance out Larbalestier’s spirited assertion of the narrative superiority of zombies and her horror whenever the unicorn stories go into new territory (which they do!).

The juxtaposition of unicorns and zombies gives readers an opportunity to think about different frameworks for fantasy.

Of six unicorn stories, only two are medievalist fantasy (and of high quality); the others situate their unicorns in contemporary life. Lanagan’s medievalist fantasy nonetheless speaks powerfully to a culture of misogyny recognizable in our own moment. In the contemporary stories, protagonists struggle with the fact that their perception of reality differs immensely from that of the everyday individual. Seeing unicorns (and defending them) means protagonists must develop the strengths of character needed to live in a society while being different. By contrast, only one zombie story (Cassandra Clare’s “Cold Hands”) doesn’t start the zombie apocalypse in a reality recognizable from our own.  

In her editorial commentary, Larbalestier argues successfully that zombies are more “democratic” and less tied to European aristocratic narratives about female purity. Sure!

But zombies come with their own narrative limitations.

Zombie narratives usually focus on survivors, which creates an artificial bias towards people who have survived by accident OR invites teen readers to believe that survivors are “special” because their skills makes them “better” than the average victim.

Zombies vs. Unicorns actually skirts this trap somewhat. Three zombie stories involve protagonists who are infected (Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Maureen Johnson’s “The Children of the Revolution” and Scott Westerfeld’s “Inoculata”)…a decision that has great potential to recast the zombie narrative. While Grayson in Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” becomes a fugitive to hide his zombie condition (and his embarrassing habit of eating people), his desire (and appetite) for Jack makes readers feel for a protagonist who is no longer human and straining to exist. By contrast, in “Inoculata,” the infected children join the dominant zombie population…as their evolutionary successors.

In the zombie stories in the collection, adults are either absent or irrelevant or villainous. This has the effect of letting teens have more power and decision-making skills than usual. But then what future is imaginable for these young people? This is a problem with YA sci-fi in general…and can be seen in a lot of children’s lit, too. Like the people who idealize Peter Pan, rather than realizing that his eternal childhood makes him tragically limited. If being a teen is the moment of greatest power, then where is there room for growth? Libba Bray’s moody “Prom Night” imagines the protagonist Tahmina’s grinding responsibilities as a teen cop very well…but with the zombies coming, what hope is there for her?

Maybe she needs a unicorn.

Have you ever noticed the unicorn on the U.S. cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

sorcerer's stone.png

Look again…

sorcerer's stone unicorn

The presence of unicorns matter in signaling the quality of Rowling’s worldbuilding but the unicorns themselves don’t matter so much. BUT WHY?

One of the best things about J.K. Rowling’s fantastical universe is her attention to detail. If you ended up in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade or Hogwarts, you would probably know exactly where you are going to go, who you are going to talk to, what you are going to eat. Moreover, you feel the atmosphere of the places, you can hear the accents, you can taste and smell the food. But more than simply participating in a wizard-based consumer culture, you know that the nature of the wizarding world is different. The plants and animals all have weird, distinctive names, characters, qualities.

Well, except for the unicorns.

I suspect the marginality of Rowling’s unicorns have to do with their unalloyed goodness in the series. Rowling is at her best when she deftly layers the qualities of characters and creatures. For example, Hagrid is a good friend and a bad teacher, a loose-lipped tippler and a man of integrity. Hagrid loves dragons, though dragons seem incapable of loving him back. Who can forget Hagrid indulgently cooing “Norbert! Where’s Mummy?” at a hissing, fanged, fire-breathing infant dragon (PS 253)? Oh, Norbert!

In fact, Rowling’s dragons form a good point of comparison to her unicorns.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the book), we discover a whole swathe of dragon types that vary according to climate and geography. The dragons, like the candy at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes or the students of Hogwarts, are complicated even as they cleave to general cultural ideas of breathing fire and being carnivorous. Beyond what Newt Scamander tells us in Fantastic Beasts, we also know that there are dragon sanctuaries where the animals are protected, a necessary precaution when their flesh, blood, and heartstrings are obviously in demand. (How many wands can one dragon heartstring power? I hope many – otherwise, are we looking at a farmed dragon vs wild dragon industry problem?) Anyways…

By comparison, there’s only one paragraph on unicorns:

The unicorn is a beautiful beast found throughout the forests of northern Europe. It is a pure white, horned horse when fully grown, though the foals are initially golden and turn silver before achieving maturity. The unicorn’s horn, blood and hair all have highly magical properties. It generally avoids human contact, is more likely to allow a witch to approach it than a wizard and is so fleet of foot that it is very difficult to capture.

fantastic-beasts-inner-cover-1.png

Check out how marginal this unicorn is, in the inner cover of the new (gorgeously illustrated) Fantastic Beasts.

Unlike the information about dragons, which expands beyond what we learn about them in Philosopher’s Stone and Goblet of Fire, everything here toggles efficiently to information we know from the books without providing more. I think the adjective “beautiful” says it all. Perfect beauty is not interesting. Perfect beauty is passive, an object of admiration. Therefore, unlike the dragons who can clearly defend themselves, unicorns seem total defenseless in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly white on the dead leaves” (PS 275).

This description could as easily be of a dead blonde at the beginning of a police procedural or a true-crime story. The real interest isn’t in the victim (who need only be pretty enough to be snag our attention) but the murderer, whose evil fascinates and captivates. This unicorn is a total victim – possibly of werewolves, definitely of Voldemort – but also, probably, of wizard culture. I mean, if they’re so difficult to capture, how are all the unicorn-hair wands being sourced?

The only other time unicorns feature in the books is in Goblet of Fire, when they become the object of what constitutes a “proper” Care of Magical Creatures curriculum as opposed to the “monsters” the students are used to dealing with (383). It seems like part of the issue is the strongly feminine association with unicorns. Parvati and Lavender’s reactions are recorded as emblematic of girly unicorn love (379, 383), going into “transports of delight” (420). Because they “prefer the woman’s touch,” Grubbly-Plank and the girls do all the hands-on learning, “leaving the boys standing near the paddock fence, watching” and getting into arguments (380). Harry, as a boy, can’t bond with the unicorns, so we can’t either.

Unicorns seem to have a squee-factor that Rowling dislikes. For example, unicorn foals are so adorable that “even Pansy Parkinson had to work hard to conceal how much she liked them” (420). I just want to pause here and go on a tangent.

Pansy Parkinson loves unicorns – or at least she likes them so much that we see her social mask crumble for a moment. Her complicated enjoyment of unicorns is possibly the only nice thing we know about Pansy. Otherwise, she’s Draco Malfoy’s maybe-girlfriend and notoriously unattractive and a vulgar bully. (Tangent: Continue reading