Unicorns: A Critical Reassessment

So I’m going to try to write new blog entries based on the feedback I got on my last post in the order it was received.  I’m disallowing all suggestions for the Karl Rove thing due to the political sensitivity of the topic, but barring that, the first comment was this:

Roxie said

Everything except hot Karl Rove sounds boring. Write more about unicorns!

The sacred beauty of the unicorn.

The sacred beauty of the unicorn.

What a terrible idea.

(I don’t know where this is is going exactly, but I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to link to this post on Facebook.)

Well, let’s try to sketch out an assessment of the cultural importance of the unicorn.  First of all, unicorns are not cool.  I don’t know why this is exactly, they seem to be hopelessly linked with ridiculous things like Lisa Frank and — to a lesser extent — the movie Legend.  Most noticeably in our era, they are common subjects for internet snarkery, from the  unicorn meat gag to this stupid video from whenever.  Unicorns are somehow seen as inherently trivial or even –dare I say — unrealistic in a way that other mythological creatures are not.  Are they too ernest and optimistic?  Too symbolic of overly sunny expectations about the world?

When a man is killed by a unicorn in the excellent movie “The Cabin in the Woods,”  — and similarly in this comic — it’s automatically a gag without requiring an explanation.  We don’t expect unicorns to kill people, we expect them to gambol about merrily in the woods and chase rainbows, or something like that.

Basically, unicorns are not impressive, they are jokes.

And I’m going to tentatively argue that this isn’t quite fair.  I don’t think unicorns deserve this automatic trivialization.  I would push for a revised mythological oeuvre which offers more pride of place to the unicorn, in a way more similar to the way they were originally conceived.  In Medieval times, unicorns were a pretty clear analogy to the Christ figure, which offers its own complications, but at least we can take from that they were seen as important creatures.  Maybe in our revised conception, the unicorn can be divorced from its religious associations, but still defined as “the king of the forest,” a protector and lord of his domain.  The Forest Spirit in the film Princess Mononoke seems to fill a similar role; so does the  white stag in this years “Snow White and the Huntsman.”  Could these be unicorn stand-ins?

In the film and movie, “The Last Unicorn,” unicorns already fill something like this role, though the title unicorn does also have a chronic naiveté that at least approaches the jokey way the creature is defined currently.

Something that also should be examined: the weird sexual politics of the unicorn. In Medieval representations, unicorns all seem to be explicitly male, attracted to human female virgins and linked to Christ.  The maleness of the unicorn has to also stem from the obvious phallic symbol which is the unicorn’s defining characteristic.  Yet part of the “joke” of the current conception of the unicorn is placing it in the female sphere. Little girls like unicorns.  Or, fascinatingly, unicorns are “gay.”  What does this mean?  Are unicorns gay because they are feminine? Or are they gay because they have erect penises on their heads?

(I’m just throwing out ideas at this stage. More rigorous academic investigations will likely be precipitated by the impact of this blog, so I want to provide a lot of grist for the mill.)

How about the physical appearance of the unicorn? I think it’s interesting that our modern “jokey” conception of the unicorn usually is a reasonable facsimile of a horse with the single addition of the horn. Yet if you look at older representations, unicorns aren’t all that horsey at all.  They’re built like a deer, with a goat-like face and beard, plus cloven hooves and a long tail. Part of it must be the impact of film.  Unicorns are easy to portray in movies and television if you simply attach a horn to a horse.  Portraying the more unique form of unicorn from older illustrations would be tricky.  But does the visual simplification of the unicorn trivialize its role?  I think it might.  If the only difference between a unicorn and a horse is the horn, the very concept of what a unicorn is becomes a little silly.  The addition of a single feature rarely necessitates a whole new category of creature.

I don’t know how to end this, but if I’ve led a single reader to reassess their conception of unicorns for at least a minute or two, I’ll take that as a small victory.


* “The Last Unicorn” — by Peter Beagle

* “The Unicorn in the Garden” — by James Thurber

* As a stand-in for Disraeli in “Through the Looking Glass,” at least via the Tenniel illustrations

I can’t think of any more at the moment, any suggestions?

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