The Big Idea: Diana Peterfreund

A word for you: “Unicorns.” Did you roll your eyes? Oh, come on, yes you did. And yet, some part of your brain knew that one point, unicorns were actually cool. What happened to them? Can anything be done to return them to their former status?

Diana Peterfreund has a few ideas on the subject, and in her new novel Rampant, she lays them out, offering a take on unicorns that is both new and yet also refreshingly old school. I’d tell you more, but then that’s not why you read these Big Idea pieces — here’s Peterfreund on bringing the sexy back to the unicorn.

DIANA PETERFREUND:

I feel sorry for unicorns. No other mythical monster has suffered such brand degradation. Nowadays, unicorns are synonymous with weak, childlike, unrealistic naivety. You don’t see folks dissing dragons the way they do unicorns. No one ever equates griffins with rainbows, glitter, and six year olds. The sphinx isn’t cheesy. But the unicorn? The symbol of kings, the darling of artists, the keeper of a magical horn whose rumored mystical properties once made it worth more than its weight in gold and almost drove a real species (the narwhal) to extinction? The unicorn has become laughable.

I could postulate a dozen theories on why this happened. I could blame Lisa Frank, she of the rainbow-colored unicorn Trapper Keepers. I could talk about our society’s willingness to devalue anything associated with girls or women (dragons, overcome by a knight, are badass; while unicorns, conquered by a damsel, are wimpy). I could discuss how the combination of its lack of fire-breathing reptilian characteristics and its passing resemblance to a pretty horsey might not be doing the creature any favors. Except, it seems even the horse gets more street cred than the unicorn. Think about it. Stallion. Mustang. Charger. Steed. Colt. People don’t name sports teams or cars after unicorns.

But they do for beers: Kirin Ichiban. A kirin is a type of unicorn, with characteristics, magical powers, and legends very, very different than the sparkly, horse-like creature Lisa Frank and Peter S. Beagle have trained us to keep an eye out for. In fact, there are lots of unicorn legends from all over the world, and some of them would make the little old lady with the crystal unicorn figurine on her mantelpiece reach for her smelling salts.

And that’s the Big Idea behind Rampant: these other unicorn legends, the ones that feature unicorns as dangerous creatures, as man-eating beasts. After all, the monster has a big sharp horn on its head. You don’t think there are stories in which the animal uses it?

One day, I stumbled across a description of a mythical monster called a karkadann, a type of unicorn from the Turkish peninsula who sounded—to be honest—more than a little like a rhinoceros. A one-horned beast, it was ravenous and deadly, could kill lions, eat people, and could never be captured or tamed, except by a select few, like maidens…or Alexander the Great. Seems some people had a few theories about Alexander’s famous and beloved warhorse, Bucephalus. Man-eating Bucephalus. Enormous Bucephalus. Bucephalus, which meant “ox-head” in Greek. He may have been called that because he had a horn and was not really a horse at all, but this deadly Macedonian monster. There’s a lot of art depicting Alexander conquering Asia on the back of a unicorn. There’s even more depicting the unicorn Bucephalus surrounded by piles of human bones.

Now there’s a badass unicorn.

And then there’s the little goat-like zhi, or xiezhi, a unicorn of ancient China. During the Han dynasty (~200 B.C.), this unicorn supposedly filled in as judge, jury, and executioner in the courts. It could magically separate the innocent from the guilty, and would gore the latter through the heart. In fact, the modern character for “fa” (“law”) incorporates the ancient symbol of the xiezhi, a symbol that early Chinese magistrates used to wear on their official robes.

Even the Western unicorns of history didn’t necessarily adhere to their modern, glitter-farting reputation. Far more deer-like than horse-like, unicorns were described in medieval bestiaries as possessing dangerous horns and horrible bellows, and being impossible to catch. Sometimes, they were depicted locked in battle with elephants—and winning. No wonder so many people, including the kings of Scotland, put such a fierce creature on their coats of arms.

I visited the Cloisters in New York, where I saw the tapestries depicting a unicorn hunt, a bloody battle in which the unicorn is more than willing to fight back and gore its attackers, be they dog or human. And what of the maiden they use as bait? Many of the bestiaries say the only way to catch a unicorn is to send out a virgin as a lure and wait for the unicorn to come and fall asleep in her lap. There’s tons of medieval and Renaissance art showing a man stabbing—with a long spear, lest anyone missed the metaphor— at a unicorn lying in a young woman’s lap.

The more I looked, the more I discovered a whole world of unicorns that had been practically forgotten. I wanted to bring the monster back to its full glory, to shine a spotlight on all the cool and dangerous myths we’d put aside.

Of course, I also had to find the people for my book, the ones who were going to deal with these very dangerous creatures. And then I remembered the maidens, and thought how unlikely I’d be to just hang out passively and pretend to be bait for a man-eating beast. If I were a maiden who could lure the unicorn in, I could certainly kill the darn thing myself.

So I had unicorns, and I had unicorn hunters. I had a story about revisionist history, about extinction and animal rights, about feminism and society, about monsters and magic. I had all the ingredients for a rip-roaring modern fantasy novel about killer unicorns and the teen girls tapped to stop them from running Rampant.

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Rampant: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Go to the “Killer Unicorns” minisite. Visit Diana Peterfreund’s blog.

57 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Diana Peterfreund

  1. “…the sparkly, horse-like creature Lisa Frank and Peter S. Beagle have trained us to keep an eye out for.”

    I have to defend Peter S. Beagle’s unicorn a little. The movie version may have been sparkly and horse-like, but the book version was not. From the second paragraph of “The Last Unicorn”:

    “She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery.”

    That said, you’re right on the rest of it. Too many rainbows and stars associated with popular conceptions of unicorns.

    But Peter Beagle’s unicorn stands alone.

  2. I shall have to check into this, both for me and my animal-crazed niece who’s just hit the ‘tween years.

    Another favorite of mine bringing the badass back to unicorns: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn.

  3. I doubt anyone rolled their eyes when we recently talked about the re-release of Steven Boyett’s Ariel, a must read! Since the title character is wonder-of-wonders a unicorn. Ariel is not one you could ever view on a Saturday morning cartoon without massive editing!

  4. Janice, you are correct. Beagle’s unicorns are very traditional cloven-hoofed, deerlike creatures. But they are also pretty gentle/magical/mystical rather than particularly deadly and dangerous. Two sides of the unicorn myth.

    I do love those unicorns too. there’s room for all types.

    I actually got a chance to meet Mr. Beagle a few weeks ago at Dragon*Con, which was one of the highlights of the conference for me! It was so exciting! I love his work, and I gave him a copy of RAMPANT, which has a quote from The Last Unicorn as an epigraph. We even got to talk about karkadanns! He’s a unicorn expert, that man.

  5. VultureTX, I just saw that on another blog (The Book Smugglers, I think.) I have to check it out. I love how the cover I saw featured an Ariel the unicorn with a screw-shaped alicorn, rather than the rope-twist alicorn you usually see.

    Jewel the unicorn in the Narnia books is also pretty badass.

  6. You had me up to “revisionist history, about extinction and animal rights, about feminism and society…”

    Then again, I don’t think I’m in your target demographic. ;c)

  7. I thought it would be a fun read. And yes, it was fun… but also so very much more. Love, death, fighting, sex: this is a book with everything.

    We moved it onto the ‘Recommended’ shelf of our bookstore as soon as it arrived.

  8. The one problem with these is that I really, really want to read the books, but they’re so new that my local library doesn’t have them yet! :(

    I’ve already given up and ordered one Big Ideas book. *g* Strongly tempted with this one… :)

  9. “Badass unicorn” makes me imagine a poor creature wrestled into an Ed Hardy t-shirt and instructed to “glare at the camera like you caught it talkin’ to your girl, bro.”

  10. This is the second time I’ve heard about this book, and it makes me want to read it even more!

    I love your Big Idea! I was a unicorn fanatic as a kid, and it never entirely left as I got older; I loved the Firebringer series by Meredith Ann Pierce, with a warrior Unicorn as the main protagonist fighting griffins and wyverns, for the same reasons.

  11. I doubt anyone rolled their eyes when we recently talked about the re-release of Steven Boyett’s Ariel, a must read! Since the title character is wonder-of-wonders a unicorn. Ariel is not one you could ever view on a Saturday morning cartoon without massive editing!

    Except I can’t help but notice that nowhere on the cover of the book do you actually SEE Ariel. Clearly, the publisher didn’t want to have a unicorn on the cover of a fantasy-apocalypse novel. Even Rampant’s cover sort of hides the unicorn a little.

  12. WizardDru, and that was a battle, to get a unicorn on there. The first version of the cover had no unicorn at all. I like this one much better.

    Does the new Ariel cover have no unicorn? I must have been looking at an old one.

  13. I think this entry might have just taught me something about my favorite Disney movie from my kid days. Not anything about unicorns — I read the book and everything she says is true (also, it’s awesome) — but about the character Mulan. Her full name was Fa Mulan, and if “fa” means “law” then I could see why she was so bent on justice and equality.

    And wow, that really has nothing to do with anything else. Sorry, just had to share my random observation of the day with the world. Glitter-farting. Heh.

  14. Talk about a compelling post :D. I read about this elsewhere, too, but the unicorn research really did me in.

    I’m all over it! Thank you for sharing the big idea behind the book, Diana!

  15. Deliberately pimping myself, I made my unicorns morganadontid quasi mammals (officially a group of therapsids in case you’re wondering); with a beak instead of incisors hiding behind a pair of fleshy lips, a pair of vestigial toes to either side of the hoof, and a horn that looks like a tapering column with a badly worn down tip. That last mostly because they use their horns with great vigor and at the slightest provocation. Domination and mating fights get intense.

    Sometimes a unicorn exhibits a pair of vestigial side horns. On very rare occasion a unicorn will be born with three hooves or three horns instead of just one. On extremely rare occasion a unicorn will be born with three toes and three horns. These last are never for sale by the owners.

    Individuals do own unicorns, but only the Unicorn Orcs own herds and breed them for their own use and sale to others. The orcs never sell a tricorn. Only the orcs have consistent luck in breeding the animals.

  16. @ 19 (Diana ) – no, no unicorn on the cover of Ariel – it has a tough looking guy with a sword standing in front of the burning, crumbled remains of the city.

    (glitter-farting – *snicker*)

  17. Hmmm… the whole “virgin-as-unicorn-hunter” does remind me of a comic some friends of mine did for Antarctic Press (to some notable critical acclaim):

    Legends from Darkwood

    I’m not saying Ms. Peterfreund is in any way copying after them, I just find the similarity interesting. I mean, it is a fairly straightforward sort of logic, yes? Why not just have the maidens kill the thing themselves? Well, I mean, if you don’t live in a terribly chauvinistic society, at any rate.

  18. If you want badass unicorns, may I recommend P.C. Hodgell? Her world (Rathillien) has “rathorns” (rath-orns), fierce, armored unicorns that are mankillers and blood-eaters, and crazy to boot. Check out God Stalk, The Dark of the Moon, Seeker’s Mask, To Ride a Rathorn, and the next in the series, Bound in Blood, due out in (I think) February.

  19. When word got out that I was writing the book (esp. after I sold it) I was utterly inundated with unicorn stuff. I got some great unicorn recs — the Firebringer series, and the Hodgell, and gifts of unicorn figurines (I have an avenging unicorn action set) and even a unicorn poster with my fave, Neil Patrick Harris, riding one.

    But I haven’t heard of Darkwood! I just bought it. Can’t wait to read! Thanks, Austin!

  20. Shortly after reading this blog post, I happened to read this review in the 9/14 issue of the New Yorker for a new book by Chris Lavers called The Natural History of Unicorns. It’s a non-fiction history of the idea of unicorns likely to be of interest in this context.

  21. Steve, I have that book! It’s awesome. It came out the same day as RAMPANT. The nice Morrow people sent it to me after I told one of the marketing folks at a party that I’d used some of Lavers’s research on knife handles for a scene in my book (My unicorn hunters make weapons out dead unicorn bits. Yay, bone magic!)

    It was funny — reading it was like reading a very well written and footnoted version of my research notes. ;-)

  22. Are all your unicorns white? It would be refreshingly different to see/read about bay, chestnut, or even Appaloosa-colored unicorns.

    I understand the symbolism of white, but still.

  23. Linkmeister, my unicorns aren’t particularly horse-like, so probably not Appaloosa — though I agree that would be REALLY cool. Maybe in a future book?

    My unicorns come in all colors and coat types. I have black brindled ones, and shaggy/wiry long haired ones (think mammoth fur), and llama coat-like ones (the two you meet in this book are actually white, but they aren’t all that way), and dun-coated ones, too.

  24. Sounds very cool. I was one of those girls with the Trapper Keeper (and the folders, and the calendars, and the journal, and the sparkly thing in the window, and…). I still have a soft spot for the critters, and this sounds like a very nifty take. Bravo!

    This feature is a wonderful part of this blog, btw. It’s fascinating hearing all of these thought processes.

  25. I highly recommend THE LORE OF THE UNICORN, by Odell Shepherd, for a survey of unicorn myth and iconography throughout (mostly European) history. It was a research tool for ARIEL.

    Even though I’ve lucked out hugely with all three covers for ARIEL, I’m delighted with my publisher’s marketing & art departments’ decision not to depict a unicorn on the cover of the new edition. The thinking is that the books take place in our own world and are gritty and fairly violent, and that a unicorn on the cover would not only keep away the very audience that might otherwise be inclined to read and like the book, but would engender serious WTFs from people who want fwuffy bunny wabbit unicorn fwiends hand-holding elfie fantasy novels.

    Someone should to a take on “The Lottery” with a hungry village throwing a virgin out into the woods as unicorn bait. I hear they taste like chicken.

    Unicorns, I mean.

  26. Hey, Steve! Great to see another unicorn writer! Yeah, the Shepherd’s great! Have you seen the Lavers? Also, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History.

    I understand what you mean about the cover. That was pretty much my publisher’s thinking when they first worried about putting a unicorn on the cover. But in my case, I’m glad we finally decided to go with it.

  27. @DianaPeterfreund:

    “Janice, you are correct. Beagle’s unicorns are very traditional cloven-hoofed, deerlike creatures. But they are also pretty gentle/magical/mystical rather than particularly deadly and dangerous. Two sides of the unicorn myth.”

    Er, maybe the unicorn in Peter S. Beagle’s THE LAST UNICORN isn’t particularly and generally dangerous to humans, but she sure was ready to strike out at the harpy and go toe to toe with the Red Bull when it was time…

  28. These The Big Idea descriptions always make me want to go read the books, as it’s an interesting angle on a story description. So I decided to get one on Amazon. Then I decided that I might as well order a bunch of things in the hope that postage is for efficient for a larger buy, and thus I accidentally five titles by the only person in the world who isn’t not John Scalzi. I figured it was about time I took the plunge.
    I’m probably going to hate myself for wasting all me free time, but that’s pretty typical for me :D

  29. Sound interesting so I bought it – god bless you Amazon.
    Does anyone recall a story called Mythological Beast by Stephen Donaldson from many years ago?
    -in his collection “Daughter of Regals” I think.
    As I recall it was quietly beautiful, but the unicorn image was quite unusual.

  30. These The Big Idea descriptions always make me want to go read the books, as it's an interesting angle on a story description. So I decided to get one on Amazon. Then I decided that I might as well order a bunch of things ij the hope that postage is for efficient for a larger buy, and thus I accidentally five titles by the only person ib the world who isn't not John Scalzi. I figured it was about time I took the plunge.
    I'm probably going to hate myself for wasting all me free time, but that's pretty typical for me :D;

  31. I’ll give that a try. Although the Last Unicorn is possibly my favorite book ever, I’m intrigued by the idea of vicious scary unicorns, and this essay demonstrates that you have writing skill. Sadly, I’m underemployed, so I’m in the library queue for the book.

  32. Hi, Diana!

    It was a pleasure meeting you at Peter Beagle’s table at Dragon*Con, and I hope your book does very well.

    Interesting that you should bring up karkadanns and kirin, because earlier this year Peter completed new stories about both, which will be appearing next year in a small hardcover collection called THREE UNICORNS. The contents: one Indian/Persian story dealing with karkadanns; one Chinese story dealing with a chi-lin (their version of the kirin); a story called “Olfert Dappert’s Day” in which Peter finally fleshes out the historical reference in THE LAST UNICORN’s dedication; and an essay about his lifetime association with unicorns called “On the Horn of my Dilemma.” Send me your contact information and I’ll make sure you get a copy. I’m reachable at connor@conlanpress.com.

  33. …and I’m done with ‘Ariel’. Guess I’ll need to hunt down Rampant and investigate this new Peter Beagle book.

    Damn you, Scalzi. If only you’d HELP other writers, instead of scorn them!

  34. Araldi @# 48:
    Care to explain why you copied my comment with an added semicolon at the end? It seems a little pointless.

  35. Steve, #42

    People who think raccoons are cute and amiable never tried tussling with one over the trash. Little bastards can be nasty. They claw and they bite and they will tell you off in mean and menacing ways. They’ve been known to make bloodhounds back down, and people who handle bloodhounds will tell you the bloodhound is one mean dog.

    You write about talking raccoons think Russian Mafia and Malay pirates.

  36. Doesn’t sound like something I would normally be interested in, but I’ve learned to give all of the books in The Big Idea at least a passing glance. I’ll make sure to take a look next time I’m in Barnes & Noble.

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