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The Natural History of Unicorns

3.43  ·  Rating details ·  256 Ratings  ·  57 Reviews
“Lavers keeps his intellectual detective story passionate and suspenseful.”
— Washington Post Book World


From Biblical stories about virgins to adventures with Harry Potter, unicorns have enchanted people for millennia. In the endlessly fascinating The Natural History of Unicorns, author Chris Lavers ingeniously traces the legend of this mysterious creature to the real peop
Hardcover, 258 pages
Published August 11th 2009 by William Morrow (first published 2009)
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(showing 1-30)
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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
Holly the Infinite Book Dragon
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
Nov 21, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
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,
La La
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 12, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 17, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mawson Bear
Mar 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 28, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
sounded great but found it really hard to read so skipped most of it!
Jan 14, 2015 rated it liked it
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 Thompson
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
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
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.
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
Oct 23, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Almost a year ago I began my 2012 reading challenge with unicorns, and with this very neat book I end it just as captivated by my favourite mythological beasts.

A comprehensive overview over the, well, natural history of unicorns!

Lots of ancient sources and black and white photographies and illustrations help tracing back the phenomenon that lead to the world-wide spread myth of hooved, one-horned animals. Starting thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and Persia, it leads up to
Adam Stevenson
Mar 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
This is the sort of book a reader will either find utterly fascinating or ridiculously trivial. Lavers asks the question: “Where did the unicorn come from, and how was it accepted as a part of the animal kingdom for so long?” and then answers it. He explains how the ancient Greeks (most likely) constructed the unicorn from garbled reports of actual animals living on the Tibetan Plain. And …. The author includes photographs of actual animals to help prove his points to the gentle reader. (!) That ...more
Jan 10, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You know, I had never really thought much about unicorns one way or another before reading this, and now I know more about them than I ever would have expected. The Natural History of Unicorns traces the ancient origins and subsequent evolution of the enduring unicorn myth. For example, I had been unaware of the unicorn's connections with early Christianity, as well as of the widely-accepted medieval notions of unicorns' medicinal properties.

The natural-history bits of the story were in my opin
Feb 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For millions of people, over thousands of years, unicorns were real. Even after their fellow mythical creatures were consigned to fantasy and fairy stories, even into the 19th century, there were some who still believed that a population of real, live unicorns (or perhaps evidence of extinct ones) might be discovered in some remote wilderness. And why wouldn't they? Unicorns are even mentioned in some versions of the Bible.

So I learned from this interesting little book. It traces the many cultur
Calypso Kenney
Aug 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this at the Cloisters in New York. It was really strange but also kind of interesting. I now know too much about unicorn mythology and history I bet. The best part was about how Christianity incorporated unicorns into their iconography because I'd never quite understood that part before. This wasn't a silly book but a serious treatment about how up to one hundred years ago, many people thought unicorns were real, and how this came about as a valid viewpoint over the last three millennia ...more
Jenny T
Jan 20, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a neat book! It discusses the potential natural origins of the unicorn myth, from the ancient Indian "one-horned ass," to aquatic creatures like the narwhal and walrus, to the Medieval view of unicorns, and the hunt for unicorns in Africa in the 1800s. This book covers a lot of ground, and it rambles something fierce, but on the whole I was hooked and learned quite a bit about one of my favorite creatures.
Lillian Carl
Unicorns is a small book devote to exploring the history of the myth of the unicorn and

considering which real animals contributed to the myth. It's less whimsical than I assumed

when I picked it up off a remainder table. Lavers loses me in quotes from ancient texts

and subtleties of symbolism a time or two---I enjoyed the bits about the real animals

better. But it was informative, entertaining, and short.
Lavers' nonfiction book traces the mention of one-horned creatures through ancient literature, speculating on possible animals which might have given rise to the myth, but not concluding any one animal caused the myth. He traces the myth through 2000 years of history, showing how one author's translation of another added new elements into the unicorn as we imagine it. Informative, scholarly, well-written.
Definitely enjoyable, not quite as memorable as I would have liked, but a perfect example of having fun with a novel approach to natural history and mythology. I learned a lot, I was entertained, the only thing keeping this from a solid 4/5 is the occasional dryness of the text (sometimes I couldn't quite tell if it was trying to be a serious work of historical analysis or a tongue-in-cheek pop-history book).
Oct 23, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The Economist book recs rarely are a total let down but this fits the bill. Or maybe I was an idiot and put it on my list when I shouldn't have. Either way, it's a science/natural history book tracing the history of unicorn references in different cultures across time. The author commits the sin of quoting at incredible length original texts which caused me to start skim reading. The book's order stopped making sense and his "detective" narratives to eliminate potential suspects got old.
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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.
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“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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