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Myths/Legends > Unicorns

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments Pondering the nominations of unicorn books for our read. . . .

Dragons and unicorns are the iconic fantasy tropes, but really, unicorns get a lot less play than many other creatures. They feature in fewer books, and they play smaller roles in them, than a lot of other creatures.

I blame the hooves. Their roles are strictly limited because they can't hold things.


message 2: by Wolf (new)

Wolf Ostheeren (hazelwolf) | 70 comments Nope. I don't think it's the hooves.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59oJ3...

(I was actually looking for one with the horse catching the frisbee, but I can't find it atm.


message 3: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments When you can defeat the Dark Lord by throwing a Frisbee, then, you're all set with unicorns.


message 4: by Wolf (new)

Wolf Ostheeren (hazelwolf) | 70 comments If there are actually fewer unicorn books (I'm not sure, I was pleasantly surprised how many titles we came up with) I think it is rather the kitsch factor. Unicorns have somehow become a thing for little girls in their "I can't wear anything that's not pink" phase. I don't know if that's an international phenomenon or a German thing, but 90% of the search for unicorns in the catalogue of my local library offers me titles like this: First-Class Friends
First-Class Friends (Unicorn School, #1) by Linda Chapman

Well, and obviously it is not a German thing since the author is British...


message 5: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments There are some awfully kitschy dragons out there. . .


message 6: by Melanti (new)

Melanti | 2125 comments Mod
Maybe because in most stories the unicorns don't really do anything other than stand around and be pure?

They're not (generally speaking) vicious beasts to be hunted or something you tame and keep...

They usually briefly enter a story, declare by their presence that someone is pure and holy, then quietly exit again.

It's kind of hard to center a whole book around something like that.


message 7: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
And just to throw another idea out there--they're also typically associated with female stories: female purity, virginity, and even in today's pop culture, with little girls. (Anyone remember Lisa Frank trapper keepers? So many unicorns!) They've been marked as distinctly 'feminine.'

Dragons, however, have not been 'feminized'. They are powerful, something to be fought, or on the attack. An image of violence or possible violence. Even the dragons that aren't violent are interesting because of that juxtaposition--they should be violent, yet they're sweet. It's perfectly acceptable for boys to have dragons on their trapper-keepers, but not unicorns.

Historically, things associated with the feminine have been demoted, or looked down upon, in ways things associated with masculine attributes have not. I'm wondering if part of the lack of engagement with the unicorn, particularly in adult stories, is a hold over of the negative view of feminine objects, which I think still exists today.

Interestingly, I've read several (3 that I can think of) fairly recent short stories with unicorns. As a twist, the unicorns are violent. In differing ways, but what makes the story interesting is that they're turned into killers, as opposed to peaceful creatures. So in returning to the unicorn, they're making the unicorn more monstrous, more violent, more of a masculine stereotype.


message 8: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments Unicorns are also violent. Or can be. The classic fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor" has the tailor catch a unicorn by standing in front of a tree and dodge when it charges. It hits with such force that it can't pull free.

And of course, the reason why a virgin's ability to tame it is significant is that it's highly dangerous if not tamed.


message 9: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments When I was a child I had a rather serious book about unicorns, and it was all about virginity... I don't think I would have given my kid that book. Virginity is not a thing, and urgently needs demythologising

In contrast, the horse is a symbol of female freedom, especially sexual freedom. I like to think of the unicorn as an extra awesome horse - I have a mug with a unicorn that says 'believe in yourself' and I think it's the cutest, and makes me smile, but really I have to be wilful to do this - I think the symbolism and mythology is really problematic. If anyone can recommend subversive unicorn literature I will be very interested. Otherwise, I'll have to write it myself...


message 10: by Jalilah (new)

Jalilah | 4353 comments Mod
Mary wrote: "Unicorns are also violent. Or can be. The classic fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor" has the tailor catch a unicorn by standing in front of a tree and dodge when it charges. It hits with such for..."

That reminds me, for the next group read. we are short on original tales with Unicorns. I was trying to remember if there were any, but couldn't think of any.
Maybe we should add The Brave Little Taylor?
If you or any one else can think of any other original tales with unicorns, please let me know! Thanks in advance!


message 11: by Jalilah (last edited Mar 06, 2016 06:59AM) (new)

Jalilah | 4353 comments Mod
Zanna wrote: " If anyone can recommend subversive unicorn literature I will be very interested. Otherwise, I'll have to write it myself... /i>


Oh Zanna, please write a book about subversive unicorns! I'll be sure to read it!



message 12: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
Yes, absolutely write that book! I agree, the idea of virginity needs to be abolished. I think I (and many of us) talked about that with our group read of Impossible this month.

Hmm, I guess I didn't realize unicorns could be violent! I still feel like unicorns are culturally deemed 'girl' versus dragons, and girly things are not as popular as boyish things--because girls are culturally allowed to enjoy boy things so girls can like dragons too, whereas boys are not culturally allowed to like girl things so would be picked on if they liked unicorns. I'm speaking of American culture, I should add.

I will definitely read The Brave Little Taylor. I must've read it before, because I've read all the Grimm's several times, but it slipped my mind!

I can't think of any original tales. I remember as a child my uncle gave me a book about hunting for unicorns. It came with a map and a necklace with a crystal in it, and the book seemed written for adults. It had a purple velvet cover, and I had to look up many words as I went. It was a 'diary' of someone in the middle ages or renaissance who was trying to find unicorns, and traveling the world. He becomes increasingly obsessive as he travels, and then 'mysteriously' the diary ends. The map is supposed to correlate with his travels, and the crystal necklace help attract the unicorn. read it dozens of times trying to puzzle it out--I couldn't tell if it was fiction or real. I wonder if my mom still has that book?!

Here's one of the short stories I mentioned above, about a gladiatorial unicorn. It's a lot of fun: Heads Will Roll by Lish McBride, can be read for free http://www.tor.com/2012/11/28/heads-w...


message 13: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments Unicorns are a trope that appears in fairy tales rarely. Legends are more reliable.


message 14: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments Thanks for the encouragement, Jalilah and Margaret! I am currently doing a project with my mum - she gave me a word every day for nearly two months and I have to write something, however short, in response to each word. I've ground to a halt at the moment, but I will get back to it when I can - one of the words is unicorn. Most of what I've been writing is personal stories but I am working on a short story for the word 'April' - maybe I could attempt a fantasy piece for 'Unicorn' haha

Maybe I should have read Impossible - I'll have a look at the discussion ; )


message 15: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
You should have lots of inspiration for unicorn, given our soon-to-be theme!


message 16: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments I am not sure I will read anything for the theme, it depends on the selections


message 17: by Wolf (new)

Wolf Ostheeren (hazelwolf) | 70 comments Oh dear, I want to say so much, I don't know where to start and will probably forget half of it...

First of all, I think nearly all of the titles suggested are subversive in one way or another. Most can't focus on female virginity because the protagonists are male (which is, of course, problematic for other reasons). Unicorn Mountain (and probably Ariel which I haven't read yet) approach the virginity thing critically by putting it in the context of AIDS, which was at the time still considered to be nearly exclusively a problem of homosexuals (Unicorn Mountain; I remember being a little let down by exactly how that turned out even though I don't remember why) or making it about male virginity (Ariel). Even The Last Unicorn (at least, that's how I see it) finally treats the "contamination" of this "purity" with human feelings as a good thing. And I love the scene where Molly confronts the Unicorn about approaching her "now", when she is "this" and the Unicorn is so stoic about it. I'd actually dare you to find ONE modern Unicorn book that still subscribes to the virginity trope uncritically. That you will rather find in the vampire genre.

As to our finding not many original tales, I think this is due to the unicorn being more of a scientific myth than a legendary one. Most of unicorn lore seems to go back to descriptions of rhinos and Oryx antelopes that people got wrong (I think the rhino is also responsible for those passages in the Bible where people prayed to be delivered from lions and unicorns) and from findings of narwhale-teeth and the animal invented to go with them.

I usually deny that horses are all about sex. I actually was ridiculed in a course once for saying out loud that horses are sometimes just horses. But I still think they are. Real horsepeople are usually much to tired by working for their equine partners to see any innuendo there. And I hate prefabricated symbolic interpretations anyway, it's like those cheap handbooks on dream symbolism where you can look the meaning of things up regardless of context. So IF horses are about sex... I doubt that they are about female sexual freedom. Maybe they could be in postmodern feminist texts (and I'd be forever thankful to everyone who can point me towards them! The few feminist approaches to horses I know usually deal with the shared role of victim to male dominance)- but for most of (literary) history, only man is made more potent by the horse, I think. Just look at palfreys... I'd never thought about it this way before and fell for the "ladies like to travel comfortably"- but there's just NO WAY to get an orgasm on a nearly vibration-free mount, is there? Especially riding sidesaddle... Sexual repression by choice of mount. Tsk.

Another thought: How weird is it, that a traditional (if absurd) symbol for sexuality is turned into one for virginity by putting a phallic symbol on top and adding attributes of the mighty lion (tail) and the so-not-chaste satyr/god Pan (goat's feed and beard)?? Never saw that before either.

So, please read with us, Zanna! You inspire me. (Oh yeah, right. The muse thing s of course terribly sexist, too. --- There's also no way to be a male feminist. Whatever you do is wrong.)

To end on an easier note, "Unicorns are for girls" made me think of J.D.'s unicorns in Scrubs (especially his talking diary) and the violent unicorns of one episode of Supernatural, "So- unicorns are evil now??"


message 18: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments The sidesaddle thing is the whole point I think - the idea that a woman riding like a man is *posh voice* indecent. Of course, sometimes a horse is just a horse. In fact, I don't think people should ride horses at all, I'm vegan, so I have a whole other take. And asexual. I hate when everything is made into a sexual symbol. And Freud can go to hell for me.

Another thought - one of Audre Lorde's poetry collections is called The Black Unicorn. BOOM!

PS I think men can be feminists


message 19: by Wolf (new)

Wolf Ostheeren (hazelwolf) | 70 comments Thank you! Another book I'll have to read. I found the title poem online and it's really powerful: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/...

To be honest, I've been avoiding really thinking through the human/animal issue for years. I agree with vegans on a lot of things in theory, but I can't put it into practice because I couldn't live without animals and that would be the final consequence. And I'd rather believe that it is a symbiosis than believing in this "global slavery of animals", because, to be honest, I've had my horse for nearly 25 years (constant lack of money, her always better shoed than me and more often at the dentist, too) and sometimes feel more enslaved by her than she could ever be by me. But that's probably opening a can of worms and leading us too far off topic.

Totally agree on Freud though!


message 20: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 869 comments Sidesaddle was a matter of looking impressive and stately in processions. For serious riding, women rode astride.


message 21: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
Wolf wrote: "Thank you! Another book I'll have to read. I found the title poem online and it's really powerful: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/...

To be honest, I've been avoiding rea..."


I love that poem!

For the sidesaddle thing, lots of Victorian lit will have women riding astride, and these women are deemed less ladylike than others--not that they shouldn't be riding that way, but more that it's a marker of their rebelliousness, that they will not be easily 'tamed' in marriage. Like in Far from the Madding Crowd. They're often the heroines.


message 22: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments Audre Lorde was one of those geniuses who did something well beyond my wildest imagination... you know how Anne Rice speculates that Renoir sold his soul, because how else could he paint everyone as an angel?

Sorry for my slow reply, Wolf. I haven't really delved into animal rights theory... I am not one for orthodoxies. Eating vegan is necessary to me after becoming aware of current farming practices, but I have plenty of time to listen and learn from people who have perspectives about their relationships with animals that don't involve breeding for torture and slaughter = )


message 23: by Michele (new)

Michele | 520 comments Wow, so many thought-provoking, analytical, interesting posts in this thread!

I wonder if there are fewer unicorns in books because unicorns were fairly one-dimensional. Dragons are usually portrayed as complex, tricky, arrogant, players with language and riddles, etc. Unicorns are so tightly tied to their role as icons of female chastity that they're...well, not boring, that's not the right word, but maybe circumscribed? You can only do so much with them.

Totally agree that a horse is often just a horse :)

There is a great anthology, Unicorns!, that has two of my favorite unicorn stories: The Silken-Swift by Theodore Sturgeon (1953) and Mythological Beast by Stephen R. Donaldson (1979).


message 24: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
Michele wrote: "There is a great anthology, Unicorns!, that has two of my favorite unicorn stories: The Silken-Swift by Theodore Sturgeon (1953) and Mythological Beast by Stephen R. Donaldson (1979). ."

I nominated that one for this group read, based on a rec from Chris, but it did not get picked. I'll still have to read it sometime!


message 25: by Michele (new)

Michele | 520 comments Margaret wrote: "I nominated that one for this group read, based on a rec from Chris, but it did not get picked. I'll still have to read it sometime! "

Sorry I missed voting for it -- do read it, though, it's a wonderful collection.


message 26: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
Michele wrote: "Margaret wrote: "I nominated that one for this group read, based on a rec from Chris, but it did not get picked. I'll still have to read it sometime! "

Sorry I missed voting for it -- do read it, ..."


Added it to my TBR list!


message 27: by Phair (new)

Phair (sphair) | 34 comments I recently reread Guinevere Guinevere (Guinevere, #1) by Sharan Newman by Sharan Newman because I thought I had remembered that a unicorn played a large part in the story. The unicorn lore was definitely there and was actually quite moving. Loved the sweet touch of mystery and longing that lightened what was otherwise a rather historical & gritty retelling of the early days of the Arthurian story.


message 28: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
I found a recent unicorn short story! Maiden, Hunter, Beast by Kat Howard: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fic...

A pretty short read.


message 29: by Zanna (new)

Zanna (zannastar) | 245 comments That story reminded me of Deathless


message 30: by Wolf (new)

Wolf Ostheeren (hazelwolf) | 70 comments Apparently, it's (one of several) Unicorn Day(s) today. We chose a seasonal theme! Just kidding. But happy unicorn day to you, anyway!


message 31: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3560 comments Mod
Zanna wrote: "That story reminded me of Deathless"

It didn't remind me of that, but both authors are friends and sometimes peer review each others work.

I liked what the story was doing, but I wanted more about the characters. The pov switches were a bit jarring, but I did like the 3 person narrative, and the alternate history of the unicorn was a cool idea.


message 32: by Susan (new)

Susan Budd (susanbudd) | 10 comments A unique book about unicorns is Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History by Paul A. Johnsgard & Karin Johnsgard. It's written in the style of a science book that traces the history of dragons and unicorns as if they were real animals.


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