The Natural History of Unicorns

2009-05-27 00:00


The Natural History of Unicorn

Chris Lavers


THE unicorn long ago became a creature with powerful symbolic meanings and, to that extent, belongs mostly in mythology or the iconography of Christianity at various stages. But has there even been a real unicorn? Well, yes and no, according to this intriguing, small-format hardback. The author suggests that a number of real animals (the Indian rhinoceros, several mostly Tibetan creatures) have contributed to the myths. He also suggests that some very ancient Near and Middle Eastern artworks played their part. And his book contains a sprinkling of relevant black-and-white photographs. The rest of the myth-body is probably due to the human imagination. So the unicorn, like so many elements in mythology, stands on that fine line between the so-called ordinary world and that of the imagination where myths tend to be generated.

For all the irrational, certainly imaginative factors involved in the unicorn-story, this book itself is thoroughly researched and painstaking, both historically and zoologically, with an enlivening vein of humour running through it. The author is an academic geographer with a strong natural-history bent, and has bestowed loving attention and a fair dash of speculation on his subject. Apart from the unicorn itself, there are other fascinating elements in the book: the gallery of odd characters throughout history (from as early as Classical Greece) who have written about, or gone hunting for, unicorns in different parts of the world (including the Congo jungles); a lot of detail about real creatures one doesn’t usually bump into (the Tibetan Kiang, the Yak, the Narwhal); information about the widespread trade in types of ivory such as walrus tusks; and the discovery of woolly rhinoceros skulls and horns in Arctic areas (something which he thinks may have contributed, startlingly, to myths about the giant bird, the Roc). The book is a trip into both natural history and a kind of mythological zoo.

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