Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

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, 

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…


Portable Benedictine Psalter., opening, Folio #: fol. 213v-214r. Ghent. 1320.Bodleian Library, University of Oxford,

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.


Lancelot Cycle, Branch 3., Folio #: fol. 017v. 14th century, beginning. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford,

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,

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.


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.


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:

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,

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,

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,

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.

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.

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.

Ideal Age Range: Primary…and anyone who enjoys the absurd!

Genre: Early Reader, Graphic Novel, Humor

Consisting of three short, silly, and satisfying episodes, Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea introduces readers to two new friends: imaginative, enthusiastic Narwhal and skeptical Jelly (a jellyfish).

While Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is aimed at beginner readers, like the best of early reader books (like Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad or Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie), older readers can find a lot to enjoy.

Each story considers the nature of reality and possibility. In the first adventure, Narwhal and Jelly contemplate the possibility of each other’s existence, and whether they can prove that the other isn’t simply a figment of the imagination. (Potentially imaginary friends are still better than none!) In the second, Narwhal realizes he lacks other narwhal peers and must construct a pod for himself (the first new member is a shark…). Because none of the other pod members are biologically narwhals, he must redefine membership. Lastly, Jelly discovers that Narwhal’s favorite book is entirely blank – all the better to imagine new stories together! Simple, engaging illustrations convey Narwal’s joy and Jelly’s reluctance, and Clanton strategically uses blank pages and photographs to push the boundaries of the friends’ reality. 

In terms of unicorn content, Narwhal is simple, happy, idealistic, and – most significantly – unhampered by the tethers of reality. Between the first and second adventures, Clanton includes one page each of fun facts about narwhals. I would have liked to learn more, but at the same time, I feel like facts are beside the point for this narwhal!

Also, there is now a series, so you can keep the hilarity going for a while…

You can buy Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea here:

Ideal Age Range: Kindergarten, Primary

Genre: Picture Book

If Narwhal of Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is confident in his identity (and metaphysical status), Kelp, the equine protagonist of Jessie Sima’s Not Quite Narwhal provides a different take on what it means to be a unicorn in the sea. Not Quite Narwhal can be read as story of self-discovery in a myriad of ways. As an adoption story or coming-out story, it’s far gentler and affirming riff on “The Ugly Duckling.”

Kelp is born inherently different from his narwhal family (inside a clamshell, clearly not a whale), and the differences in taste, size, and aquatic ability grow over time. Despite their shared horned status, Kelp cannot keep up with his narwhal friends and family. Yet Kelp and his friends decide that difference doesn’t matter…until, of course, Kelp discovers that he his size, shape, and tastes are not unique, simply out of place. Leaving the story here would leave Kelp in ugly duckling territory (“I’m a swan now – so long lame ducks!”). However, Sima goes one step further. For Kelp, identity isn’t an either/or proposition. Whereas the narwhals and unicorns seem happy with their discrete species forms, Kelp gets to belong to both communities.

What I enjoyed about this book is the way in which difference (between unicorns and narwhals) exists in concrete and definable ways but is not an impediment to friendship.

Unicorns do exist – after all, Kelp is a unicorn even before he or his narwhal friends can clearly define his difference. The absence of unicorns around him does not negate his difference. As a unicorn, he is first unique among the narwhals only because he is isolated and later, he is unique only because his unicorn-ness is inflected by his narwhal upbringing. He isn’t good at swimming, but neither is being a land-creature instinctive. Once on land, he needs to learn how to walk and how to appreciate “unicorn delicacies,” not to mention “all sorts of new things about his tusk.” Thus, among the unicorns, Kelp finds that he cannot shake his narwhal-ness. But this mixture of loyalty enriches him.

Ultimately, narwhals don’t become equine unicorns or vice versa … cohabitation and mutual appreciation are not predicated on erasing the ways narwhals and unicorns diverge, but on making the environmental barrier (land vs sea) between them more permeable. The last spread shows narwhals and unicorns playing on the shoreline. Given the perils of the beach to narwhals, the unicorns have taken the extra step in wading into the water to meet their aquatic counterparts. The flyleaf suggests that the work of rethinking unicorn-ness is not done –a rhinoceros confidently announces “I’m a UNICORN!” to which Kelp can respond only with a skeptical “Um…”

Alongside the story of opening up communities, Not Quite Narwhal is lovely to look at. The pastel palette seems just right for both the soft curves of the narwhals and their undersea environment and for the rainbow-flecked land of the unicorns. The illustrative style mixes traditional spreads with panels and speech bubbles. The structure is soothingly palindromic; mirrored sequences of Kelp swimming to and from his narwhal and unicorn communities bracket Kelp’s sense of displacement, his discovery of like creatures, and his blending of his two families.

Both playful and pretty to look at, Not Quite Narwhal is endearing story of self-discovery.