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.
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.