Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

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

Oh, look…a unicorn. Wait! Where?

Psalter., opening, Folio  fol. 191v-192r.jpg

Portable Benedictine Psalter., opening, Folio #: fol. 191v-192r. Ghent. 1320. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/. 

Oh…there you are, top left.

Psalter., opening, Folio fol. 191v-192r-DETAIL

There’s so much going on! How were we supposed to spot him when there’s also a monkey-man playing the bagpipe and a goatfish filling up some space between the lines. The artist continues his doodling on another page…

BODLEIAN_10310766476

Portable Benedictine Psalter., opening, Folio #: fol. 213v-214r. Ghent. 1320.Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

How are we supposed to notice? Maybe we aren’t, in particular. What I like about these unicorns is that they aren’t exceptional.

Rather, these unicorns are so part of the mythical landscape of a culture that they just wander through the pages of manuscripts. They’re used as space fillers competing with deer and legless trumpeters for your readerly attention. (Because, somewhere, in all this busyness, you are supposed to collect your thoughts and pray, harhar.)

Grumblers will say that the marginal unicorn below (from an Arthurian text) is at least on-theme. But it’s fun to think of unicorns seamlessly lurking in the fourteenth-century person’s imagination.

BODLEIAN_10310771584

Lancelot Cycle, Branch 3., Folio #: fol. 017v. 14th century, beginning. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

If you’ve done any reading on unicorns, you will see references to the unicorn of the bible. No…we are not talking about the allegorical works of art that portray Jesus as a unicorn. We’re talking about very literal mentions of unicorns in the Bible. 

Like this illustration of Job 39:9-12 (the brown unicorn is in the bottom of the circle):

Bible moralisée, part I. Farming Unicorn

Bible moralisée, part I., Folio #: fol. 223v. Paris. c.1235-45. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

What’s going on? If you need backstory… Continue reading

If you like time-traveling unicorns, this is the book for you!

Age Range: 8+

Genre: children’s literature, time-travel

This is the original cover. The geometric design is interesting, though Gaudior is a bit too cute.

Synopsis: When the Murry family meets on a stormy Thanksgiving evening, none of them expect the world end. It’s up to fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and his unicorn companion, Gaudior, to stop the nuclear threat posed by the South American dictator of Vespugia, Madog Branzillo, who seeks to “punish” the “Western world” for its arrogance (12). Guided only by the cryptic song of a madwoman the boy and his unicorn must travel back in time to discover the roots of Branzillo’s madness. With Gaudior’s help, Charles Wallace finds himself inhabiting the minds of four different boys throughout the history of his small New England town…and finding that the future of mankind is safe only through uncovering forgotten links of blood and spirit.

Although I dutifully reread A Wrinkle in Time to prepare for the movie version, my rereading of A Swiftly Tilting Planet was much more rewarding. Possibly this is because I am more of a fantasy person and a historical fiction buff than a sci-fi person. This book reminded me of Edward Rutherford’s London (and his other place-based sagas)and Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, but with higher ethical stakes and oodles of suspense.

Analysis:

Although Gaudior is an important character because he provides Charles Wallace the means to travel through time, he’s ultimately pretty static. So I will say a few words about him and then move onto the more interesting parts of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, namely its structure and the way it illustrates some of the problems with white people doing time-travel in North America.

Gaudior: The Time Travelling Unicorn!

Gaudior appears in a “flash of radiance” and possesses a “silver horn which contained the residue of the light” (44). He is “utter and absolute perfection,” of course. He also comes across a bit like Spock in Star Trek. He’s rather humourless and uninterested in indulging Charles’s human curiosity about how unicorns exist.  There’s a bit of a call-back to Alice’s unicorn in Through the Looking-Glass when Charles Wallace asks “What are you, really?” and Gaudior counters “What are you, really?” (45). When Gaudior asserts that he is “not real” but also “the only reality,” he is compelling Charles to look past scientific certainties.

Gaudior’s snarkiness is the most interesting thing about him. He isn’t particularly pleased to be helping Charles in the beginning, because going to Earth is “considered a hardship assignment” (46). We never find out if Gaudior has done anything to deserve going to Earth as a reprimand, only that he slowly comes to be fond of Charles Wallace.

As if to appease unicorn buffs, there’s a random side journey when the two go to heal and regenerate in Gaudior’s home planet. There, we learn that many unicorns are hatched out of eggs and survive by eating moonlight and drinking starlight (164). The egg image explains two things, namely how/if unicorns are born with horns (a foal uses its horn to hatch out of an egg), and why some unicorns like Gaudior have wings. But this scene is brief, and we learn nothing about how Gaudior relates to the rest of his people. Gaudior’s last ride is also pretty awesome, as he becomes “as large as a constellation” and in doing so, allows Charles Wallace to be all moments of time at once, “part of the harmony, part of the joy” (270). (But…does Gaudior get promoted from hardship assignments when he gets back? Why can’t we find out?)

Ultimately, A Swiftly Tilting Planet has little interest in Gaudior for his own sake. He and Charles Wallace ride the wind together, and Gaudior helps Charles Wallace recognize and avoid the Echthroi. He is the portal through/with which Charles Wallace travels through time. That is all.

BUT THE TIME TRAVEL IS AWESOME!

The Structure of A Swiftly Tilting Planet: The Poetry of Time Travel

L’Engle’s novelistic structure should remind readers that young people’s literature, though exciting and engaging, are seldom “simple.” Indeed, there are three ideas that structure A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

First, and most explicitly, Charles Wallace’s journey through time follows the Rune of St. Patrick, a prayer that calls upon the glory of natural phenomenon to ward off evil:

In this fateful hour,
All Heaven with its power,
The sun with its brightness,
The snow with its whiteness,
The fire with all the strength it hath,
The lightning with its rapid wrath,
The wind with all their swiftness,
The sea with its deepness,
The rocks with their steepness,
The Earth with its starkness 
All these I place

Between myself and the powers of darkness

(Here is a version of the poem set to song:https://www.youtube.com/watch?

Each chapter title is a line of the hymn and thematically dwells on the contents of that line (sun, snow, fire, lighting…). Charles Wallace and Gaudior are rooted to the “Where” of the Murry family home in the Northeastern United States; thus, travelling through time, they witness the evolution of the landscape. Travelling in time from the Bronze Era to the mid twentieth century, Charles Wallace bears witness to the the changing topography and human cultures. The pace of change may be different (slow climate and geological differences vs radical changes in human relations), but L’Engle directs our attention towards the shrinking of a lake and the wearing-down of rocks. We cannot take the physical markers of our world for granted any more than we can assume our attitudes towards gender, race, science, and belief are universal or unchanging.  

Second, L’Engle engages with the masterplot of Cain and Abel, or brother vs. brother. The novel is undergirded by the horror of “Cain and Abel all over again” and again and again (243). Madoc and Gwyndyr conflict becomes Bran and Maddok’s inability to remain friends across the lines of race which becomes Bran and Matthew’s broken kinship after the Civil War, which becomes Beezie and Chuck’s alienation after the latter’s mental injury. But ultimately it’s not the reconciliation of the two brothers but Cain’s premature self-destruction that ensures the safety of mankind’s future. While this ending is dramatically satisfying, it’s not as morally coherent. Although the twins Matthew and Bran Maddox reconcile as do two strands of Madoc’s line through Bran’s marriage to Zillah, the unified Matt and Bran defeat the single son of Gwydyr. Taking a step back, the seemingly random element of Meg kything with Charles Wallace as he kythes with Madoc, Bran, Matthew, and Chuck is itself a reparation of the Cain/Abel conflict. Meg offers Charles Wallace spiritual strength and the siblings’ mutual support in turn rehabilitates the young men in whom Charles Wallace dwells.

Third, Charles Wallace’s journey is also structured through the other Murry children’s curiosity and search for a lost novel written by one of the characters, Matthew Maddox. The Horn of Joy contains the essential information they need to know; therefore it has been stolen from their midst by the evil Echthroi There’s a teasing ambiguity as to whether the novel is missing because it exactly recounts Charles Wallace’s journey through time.

L’Engle also uses kything to play with the trope of time-travel. Whereas a simpler author would have Charles Wallace popping in and out of people’s heads in a linear fashion from past to present, L’Engle disrupts the passage of time in the last two consciousnesses that Charles Wallace visits. Charles Wallace enters Matthew Maddox; he also enters Chuck Maddox, whose imaginative play and later mental incapacitation allows him to re-enter Matthew Maddox in ways previously unavailable to Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace’s communion with Chuck also allows him to radically reevaluate Mrs. O’Keefe, whom most other characters consider to be mad, mean, and narrow-minded. All the while, Charles Wallace’s bond with Meg means that each epiphany he has in the past is simultaneously experienced in the present. By the time Charles Wallace returns to his own moment in history, every expectation he has held is turned inside out.

Well, almost every expectation.

Some thoughts about the problems of settler time-travel in North American fiction Continue reading

Prepare for the unexpected…

Awww, yeah! Chillin’ with my unicorn pal!

In order to appreciate this image, we need a recap on what the wild woman and unicorn are not. They are not normal representations of virgin and unicorn. You know, Sweet and kind of banal…

Giorgione. “Woman with Unicorn/Saint Justine/Personification of Chastity.” ca. 1510. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

And also a gory betrayal of innocence…

Some men want to catch a unicorn, so they convince a girl to go out into the forest. The unicorn comes to hang out with its new girl-pal and WHAM! The unicorn meets its end. Sometimes, you can clearly tell the maiden is in cahoots with the men. See below:  

Unknown. A Unicorn with its Head in the Lap of a Maiden. fourth quarter of 13th century (after 1277). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 85v.

Despite the adoring face on this unicorn, the maiden is giving it mad side-eye. She seems to be pleased at what’s happening inches away from her blue robe.

Occasionally, though, you get the sense that the maiden is not very happy with her role in slaughtering an innocent beast:


Bestiary, whole page, Folio/Page #: fol. 014r. 13th century, second quarter. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

In the picture above, the maiden seems to be giving the shocked unicorn a belated warning, as in “I told you so!” In the image below, the maiden seems to be raising her hand in protest, as if saying, “Dude, this is not the deal!” I especially enjoy that the unicorn looks like a weird pig-wolf with a horn – a reminder how fluid the unicorn’s form was through most of history!

Bestiary., Folio #: fol. 018r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

According to Christian iconography, the unicorn, maiden, and hunters represent the coming of Christ to the Virgin and Christ’s subsequent self-sacrifice. However, if you’ve been reading the captions, though, you’ll notice that these images are from bestiaries, rather than psalters or specifically religious texts. Of course, medieval Christian bestiaries were influenced by Christian theology, but there are occasional exceptions.

The next image takes a decidedly secular approach, because the maiden is nekkid.

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

This woman is not wild, but neither is she a maiden. In The Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers notes that the influential bestiary Physiologus has, in its Syriac translation, a more earthy version of the encounter between girl and beast, which includes nudity and, er, close physical contact. Lavers summarizes the climax of the scene: “the girl reaches out and grasps the unicorn’s horn, after which his wild and carefree days appear to be over” (72).

But this scene still ends with the unicorn being wounded, killed, or captured by men who have engaged the girl’s services. Either she’s complicit in the violence, or she’s also a victim.

Not fair! Don’t you wish there was an alternative?

Which brings us to these two unusual, seemingly related images.

Israhel van Meckenem. “The Unicorn” from a small deck of cards. 15th century. The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 8, Early German Artists.
Tapestry. “Wild Woman with a Unicorn.” 16th Century, German. Historisches Museum Basel.

Note the similarities between the two images. Long, abundant hair unrestrained by veils or braids. No clothing except for more hair. Breasts out and proud. The women and their unicorns are positioned identically, facing left, with the woman sitting on a rock and the unicorn’s right leg raised  to the woman’s knee. (Though I initially thought the woodcut showed the woman holding a human hand…cannibalism was too much to hope for.)  While the woodcut seems to place woman and unicorn in a rather craggy and inhospitable location, the tapestry has them in a lush garden full of flowers, even with a fountain.

I like the idea that there are wild women who exist beyond the conventions of the mandated (and man-led) unicorn hunt. I like it that they have hair all over their bodies

In these images there are no hunters, no sign of imminent danger or betrayal or death.

Just some ladies chilling with their unicorn pals…

The Jesus-unicorn is a cornerstone of classic medieval and renaissance unicorn iconography. Today we’re going to get to some delightful, slightly wacky versions.

“Jesus-unicorn?” you may say with bewilderment. “How does Jesus fit into the unicorn story of virgins tempting wild beasts into their laps, only to be slaughtered by hunters?”

It’s pretty simple if you think about it like a medieval person, where the natural world is structured to reinforce theological concepts.

Essentially: the unicorn, representing purity, healing, the supernatural, can only be called into contact with the profane world of humanity through the spiritual integrity of a virgin is the same as Jesus (healer of mankind and son of God) being born of the faultless virgin Mary. While the unicorn’s virgin and Mary are both guiltless themselves, they live in a morally compromised world, one that is hostile to the unicorn/Jesus. Whereas the virgin is aligned with the Jesus-unicorn’s healing, male hunters are violent and deadly.

In the image below from the Ormesby Psalter, for example, we can see the virgin raising her hand in distress.


Ormesby Psalter: ms. Douce 366, fol. 55v: det.: border: Unicorn and hunter. c.1310-25. Bodleian Library.

Things never go well for the unicorn. In the famous fifteenth-century Unicorn Tapestries, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the unicorn is brutally killed and taken to the castle. He even has his horn – the source of magical healing – cut off. Allegorically, the hunters, like the persecutors of Jesus, prioritize the wrong thing. They kill the healer and consider themselves triumphant, bearing his body to the site of secular power.

“The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle” from The Unicorn Tapestries. South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/467641?searchField=All&ft=unicorn&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=5

In the last and most famous tapestry of the series, the unicorn is magically alive again (parallel to the resurrection of Jesus). Though he still bears the wounds of his attack, the unicorn resides peacefully in a garden that resembles paradise. Essentially, the message is that you can’t really kill the unicorn or Jesus; both are more powerful than mankind’s ability to hurt.

“The Unicorn in Captivity,” from The Unicorn Tapestries.
South Netherlandish. 1495-1505. Tapestry. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/467642

So far, this is “Unicorn 101” stuff. Which is why we’re going to look at some quirky alternatives to the elegance of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries.

The next three images are a more obvious use of allegory in presenting the Jesus-unicorn…and are therefore more confusing. Perhaps this has to do with the way the weavers approach time. In the Ormesby Psalter illustration the entire story of Jesus is compressed into one moment of time: his arrival on earth (being in Mary’s lap) and his death (the attack by soldiers) happens at the same time. In the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the story is segmented and linear.

In the images below, we have – like in the Ormesby Psalter – a compression of time, with the Jesus-unicorn caught between a soldier and a virgin. But the composition is a little kooky. Can you see why?


Unknown. Archangel Gabriel chases unicorn towards Virgin Mary, Hunt of unicorn, Allegory of Incarnation. Getty Images. Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Instead of having the virgin as an inherent attraction or reason to approach mankind, with actual men as the aggressors, here we have the Archangel Gabriel as the hunter. What? Yes…Gabriel is dressed up in hunting gear, with dogs, a trumpet, and (in two of the images) a spear. And he’s chasing the unicorn. As a result, the unicorn is running, full throttle, with his horn down, at Mary.

In the first image, we can only imagine the family dynamics in Heaven which have led to this situation. “You…will…join…humankind!!!” we hear Gabriel shrieking between toots of his trumpet. “Your dad…told…you…so!!!” The Jesus-unicorn is so unwilling it takes some scary dogs to convince him to finish his chores.  

Mary’s expression is the real delight. Here, Mary has her hand raised in a futile attempt to ward off her oncoming animal friend. Her hair is flying back at the force of the impact. Her eyes are wide open and her mouth is round in hopeless anxiety. Gabriel is supposed to be announcing soothing Mary’s fears by saying something along the lines of “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God…Surprise, thou art pregnant” (that’s a loose paraphrase of Luke 1:30-31). But whatever Gabriel’s saying, Mary doesn’t seem the least soothed.

In this next tapestry, both Gabriel and Mary are much calmer.


Altar Frontal: Capture of the Unicorn. German. 16th century tapestry. Artstor.
Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Possibly this is because Gabriel’s long robes aren’t quite right for hunting so he’s not that much in a hurry. Mary has obviously had enough time to plan her reaction, because she seems to be deploying some judo or tae-kwon-do. With one hand on the unicorn’s horn and the other on his foreleg, she’s going to bring him up short and maybe flip him into a docile pose. Perhaps her move will even turn him into a baby. Anyways, this Mary is a pro. Her look of resignation is that of a practiced unicorn-flipper.

Lastly, we have a true return to form in the woodcut below.


Anonymous Artists. The Virgin with the Unicorn. 15th century woodcut. Nuremberg. Artstor. Web. 15 Aug 2018.

Again, Gabriel, the dogs, and the unicorn are going at full throttle. The unicorn has his horn aimed right at Mary’s womb, as if he’s planning to transfigure himself into a fetus in a moment or two. As if to remind us what’s happening, full-grown man-Jesus is looking down at the proceedings from above and giving it his blessing. Mary has her arms up in what is now the international sign for choking but was then a sign of prayerful acceptance. At least she’s ready for it?

After all of these high-energy, anxiety-provoking representations of the Jesus-unicorn, let’s end with a more calming portrait Madonna and Child:

“Virgin and Unicorn” from Defensorium Inviolatae Virginitatis Beatae Mariae/Defense of the Inviolability of the Blessed Virgin Mary. German Woodcut. 1490.

This unicorn’s horn is pointed down, and out of any danger. His hoofs are in her lap, her arm is around his neck. He and the virgin gaze at each other in a moment of calm. The hunter hasn’t found them yet.