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The Natural History of Unicorns

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  317 ratings  ·  66 reviews
Where did the unicorn come from, and how was it accepted as a part of the animal kingdom for so long? The author follows the beast's trail to the plateaus of India and into the jungles of Africa to unearth the flesh and blood ancestors of our iconic unicorn, finding traces of it in a hotchpotch of existing species.
Hardcover, 280 pages
Published January 5th 2009 by Granta Books (first published 2009)
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3.45  · 
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 ·  317 ratings  ·  66 reviews


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Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont
The Natural History of Unicorns is a real treat! Chris Lavers, a writer on science subjects, embarks on an open-minded quest to discover the unicorn; to discover the origins and ‘natural history’ of this fabulous creature, which flits in and out of fact and legend in a tantalisingly elusive way, always just beyond the next horizon, always just at the limits of sight.

The author does not assume anything, does not work backwards from a pre-determined conclusion, but treats his quest in a scholarly
...more
Holly (The Grimdragon)
If your unicorn shifts disconcertingly between a goat, a horse, a rhinoceros, a marine mammal from the North Atlantic, assorted Tibetan ungulates and a six-eyed ass whose ears will terrify, the work of this book is almost done.

I love nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction. Microhistories aren't usually my jam, because I tend to get bored easily. I prefer a broad scope of history, rather than focus on one subject matter. Unless it is the brain. I could read about the brain all day! I spotted
...more
Melanie
What would you think of someone who read a book about unicorns? That’s what I wondered as the guy sitting next to me on the metro took a glance at my book, then a second glance, and then one more quick glance at my face. I admit, I too would think someone reading a book on unicorns was probably either a spacey New Age mystic or someone stuck in little girl fantasy land. I, however, have been reading a book on the natural history of unicorns. That’s totally different.

Every girl alive in the 80s p
...more
Claire
Aug 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book was a lot of fun. Part natural-history, part cultural-history, it traces the history of the unicorn myth from the writings of Ctesias and Pliny in the classical period to the heraldic-Christian symbolism of the medieval period and finally to the quest to discover a real unicorn in the age of European exploration, before diving back to the mythologies of ancient Mesopotamia, Persia and India in search of the unicorn myth's shadowy origins.

Though I got a little lost in the khutu chapter,
...more
La La - Everyone's Crazy Aunt
This book has no illustrations (at least the ebook doesn't). They are sorely needed because the writing is extremely dry and text book like.
Richard Conlin
Mar 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who wants to be enlightened and entertained!
This is a fun book! And not a fantasy, but an essay grounded in anthropology, literature, and biology. The author asks why the idea of unicorns emerged, and what might have been the basis for it? And takes us on a journey through biblical history, medieval romances, and biological reality. I had always accepted the idea that the narwhal was the source of the unicorn legend -- but, as the author notes, it is a long ways from the narwhal to a deer-like animal with a single horn. And the real histo ...more
Yvan
Jan 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Loved it. For those wondering, it's about the development of the unicorn myth and is presented much like a history text. It examines how several different factors affected how unicorns were created, including economics, mistranslations of several texts (religious and otherwise), and story embellishments. It also has plenty of fascinating asides that only vaguely relate to unicorns, and relevant texts from older scholars about their ideas on unicorns. And there are plenty of citations to check ou ...more
·Karen·
Feb 11, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm glad I borrowed this rather than paying out money for it: not that there's anything inherently wrong with Lavers' accessible and entertaining examination of the unicorn. But it was only the first four chapters that held my attention. There he examines the sources of the mythology and interprets the judaeo-christian icon and those famous tapestries of Verteuil. But after that it becomes a hunt for the true source of all the alicorn that was washing round medieval Europe, and various explorers ...more
Deborah
Nov 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: subway-2010
Pretty interesting stuff. I thought it was a bit too meandering at first, but I actually really enjoyed it by the end. It all started because we went to the Cloisters and saw all of the amazing Unicorn tapestries...and this book had some totally fascinating analyses of those very tapestries.

It misses out on 5 stars because of cheap shots taken in various irrelevant places aimed at free enterprise, Western civilization in general, and religion. Academic reads are not the place to vent personal f
...more
Turi
Sep 17, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: microhistory
I'm a sucker for what I call "microhistories," books exploring a single thing. The Natural History of Unicorns is a fine example of the genre, being extremely thorough while maintaining readability. Chris Lavers traces the myths that may have brought unicorns to us, the mistranslations and prevarications that have confused, and the scientific basis and searches for unicorns over the years. The main thing I'm taking from this is to take a huge grain of salt with anything promising "ancient wisdom ...more
Violet
A little discombobulated, and sometimes repetitive. Overall, an interesting look at the building of a mythical creature, which has grown and developed throughout the written historical record.
Sarah -  All The Book Blog Names Are Taken
Who knew it was so easy to make unicorns so boring??
Rhiannon
Jan 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book gives me more information about unicorns than I care to have.
Mawson Bear
Mar 04, 2014 rated it liked it
This is one to read and mull over a chapter or two at a time. There's no rush - unicorns have been around a long time and their prescence will be desired longer yet, I think.

Here is natural history at its rich and entertaining best, not just about the science of it but the myth making. And what a rich tapestry of thought, art, commerce, exploration and natural science unicorns have allowed us to weave - always staying just ahead of the hunt, of course.

May we always seek unicorns, and not quite
...more
Caleb
Oct 16, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The title describes the contents about as straightforwardly as I could. Lavers writes about the history of the idea of the unicorn, paying special attention to where the stories and reports of the creatures might have come from (essentially reverse-engineering them and looking for the components among existing animals). It's a fun, accessible read that offers a great deal of interesting information in its relatively short page-count, dipping into Bible scholarship, 19th century exploration of Af ...more
Hayley
Sep 28, 2015 rated it did not like it
sounded great but found it really hard to read so skipped most of it!
Karli
Jan 14, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: brit-lit
I mistakenly thought that this would be slightly more whimsical. Now it's clear to me that there is a lot riding on the unicorn that has nothing to do with My Little Pony.
Emma
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
The natural history of unicorns is a summation of work tracing the origins of the animals described in ancient texts which later became unicorns.

The book is accessable for a lay reader and a quick read. If you're interested in the minutea of how ancient texts came to have such inaccuracies as the existence of unicorns in them, this book will no doubt be fascinating for you. The work is pretty exhaustive and explores a wide range of options for which creatures might have been the original origin
...more
Dark-Draco
Jan 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unicorns
Of course, we all know that Unicorns are real! An off shoot of the equine family that evolved a single horn in the centre of their forehead - after, all, how else can they defend themselves against dragons!

But this book attempts to follow the history of the legend behind our most favourite of mythical creatures, from it's very first mentions in ancient texts, through the birth of Islam and Christianity, through to the enlightenments of the Victorian era. Along the way, the author attempts to fin
...more
Rebecca
Aug 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book looking at the many iterations of Unicorn lore in our world. It follows mainly the natural history as the title implies looking more at the actual animals that may have inspired or been confused for Unicorns over the centuries. Lavers does also cover some of the lore and symbolism of Unicorns from many different cultures. If you want more of that aspect, find a book that is dedicated simply to looking at the folk tales, lore, art, and mythology surrounding unicorns. I ...more
Janhavi Giribhattanavar
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was such a pleasant book to read. Relatively short, clearly well researched, and engaged with its topic. I just picked it off the shelf at my library because the title looked interesting. Some of it can be a little dry and may seem to veer off course, but Lavers ties it together pretty well. The physical copy has a lot of art and pictures which were very helpful. I would have loved a chapter on unicorns in modern pop culture but maybe that is for another book. A quote from the book I enjoye ...more
Kathryn
May 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
I went into this book with high hopes.

It isn't that the book is badly written. It is not! It is insightful, filled with quotations, and neatly travels the various routes that the Unicorn myth has taken over the millennia.

It's just that SOMETHING about the writing is fucking BORING. I honestly, HONESTLY, used it to put me to bed at one point.
Mel
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a really good look at the history of unicorns. The unicorn in ancient writings and pictures, ancient myths, and garbled travelers' tale were all very convincingly presented, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly.
Ryan Watkins
Jan 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is an incredibly detailed and well researched look into the myth of the unicorn. My only complaint is the author’s lack of understanding of Christian typology and overemphasis of the impact of Physiologus on Christian theology.
Laura
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Not at all what I was expecting. It looked to be a whimsical read, but I was disappointed. Although there was some interesting information in it, the book was hard to follow and pretty much just boring.
M.L. Bennett
Jan 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
An excellent resource for uncovering the history of such a modern icon. Lavers is meticulous and thorough, including even some of the most bizarre theories of the unicorn’s origin.
Alz
Jun 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
So this book is written like a research paper or thesis, meaning it is factual, cites its sources, and is largely, dully, gruesomely boring. Informationally interesting, and some of the coincidences/complexities of potential unicorn-myth-starters are interesting, but presented so dryly that this book ought to be used as dessicant.

The best parts were undoubtedly some of the quotes and citations from other sources that were more interesting, like the tale of Castor the Beaver and its Christian-bas
...more
John
Oct 23, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a strange book. Obviously it's not a natural history in the accepted sense of the term; rather, it purports to be a history of our relationship over the centuries to the unicorn legend, as well as a detection to see if the real-life animals that gave rise to it can be identified. In the latter objective, the natural-history element, the book largely succeeds -- although there's a very long and quite extraordinarily dull chapter about the possible origin of khutu horn, a tangential topic. ...more
Adam Stevenson
Mar 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I loved this book.

What makes it fascinating is that it is not really a history of the unicorn, it is the history of knowledge and its creation, dissemination and manipulation through the centuries - and the unicorn as representative of all brand of knowledge. It’s like a full-length expansion of TH White’s wonderful final chapter in his Book of Beasts.

There is a cast of liars, fabulists, genuine knowledge-gatherers and single-minded allegory hunters - each different place and person touching th
...more
Jane
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was ok
This was quite a. . .uh. . .unique read. It combines elements of mythology, biology, history, philosophy and anthropology.

Natural historian, Chris Lavers, traces the myth of the unicorn from about 398 B.C and discusses the many incarnations the unicorn has undergone since its beginnings. It has been a Himalayan ass, a symbolic representation for Jesus, an animal widely sought for the alleged medicinal properties of its horn (can cure leprosy, epilesy, poison amongst other things), amongst other
...more
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Dr. Chris Lavers is a senior lecturer in natural history in the School of Geography, University of Nottingham. He has written for The Spectator, New statesman, New Scientist, and The Ecologist, and has reviewed many popular science and history books for The Guardian. His first book, Why Elephants Have Big Ears, has been translated into five languages.
“When the alicorn bubble was fully expanded a complete horn was worth twenty times its weight in gold.” 0 likes
“If your unicorn shifts disconcertingly between a goat, a horse, a rhinoceros, a marine mammal from the North Atlantic, assorted Tibetan ungulates and a six-eyed ass whose ears will terrify, the work of this book is almost done.” 0 likes
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