Creative Commons license icon

Discussion: Did 'The Last Unicorn' change our views on single-horned horses?

Your rating: None Average: 3.9 (7 votes)

Rarity as drawn in a realistic styleIt is no secret that the most well-known concept of unicorns is from Europe, in the Middle Ages. In stories from that time period, the creature will be a walking snorting virgin detector with a... ehem... phallic symbol on its head. The horse with one horn will be for girls, and is always male.

Enter 1968: a peculiar book comes out, the likes of which the world had never seen before. The main character is a unicorn. And it is a mare. Female. And instead of having been created by God to detect "proper maidens", she is a semi-immortal creature with a different role in the world. The story centers on her search for her kind, while exploring the concepts of emotions, immortality, and the source of the latter.

In other words, this unicorn was completely different from the existing folklore.

So how did Peter Beagle's book, and the subsequent animated adaptation, change our view of unicorns? Give us your thoughts in the comments!

Comments

Your rating: None Average: 1 (2 votes)

I don't know about others but I've never heard of The Last Unicorn so it certainly didn't directly influence me at all. I'm not sure if anyone else knows about it but if not it probably didn't change too many people. Maybe it's ideas were adapted by other people that used unicorns but since I'm not sure who all those people are and what they have read and watched I really can't say.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 5 (3 votes)

Not much. I have been reading s-f & fantasy since the 1950s, and many of the stories have featured unicorns, usually as minor background characters. There is "The Silken-Swift" by Theodore Sturgeon, "The Well of the Unicorn" by George U. Fletcher (Fletcher Pratt), and I think there was a unicorn in "Three Hearts and Three Lions" by Poul Anderson. (Ooops -- no; "The Well of the Unicorn" was the name of a magic well; there is no actual unicorn in the story. I highly recommend it as a fantasy adventure novel anyway. Not anthropomorphic, though.) The unicorn was usually such a minor character that its sex was not mentioned. "The Last Unicorn" was different in that it was the first novel to make the unicorn its protagonist, and to make her clearly a female, but I just took this as Peter Beagle being very imaginative; not as revolutionizing the standard image of unicorns. There have been other stories since with female unicorns, like "The Unicorn Girl" by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball, but I have not thought of them as particularly influenced by "The Last Unicorn".

Fred Patten

Your rating: None

Two things; I do not think the male version of the unicorn has ever gone away, so Beagle may have created a concurrent myth rather than replaced it, though we admittedly prefer our unicorns girls now. I think the unicorn you could encounter if you were very lucky (literally, luck is a levelable stat) in "The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" was male, and kinda fit the old legend.

Second, how am I gonna categorize this?

Your rating: None

Categorize this as you would candy: chocolate ones go in the left bag, strawberry in the right.

Well, I'll be...

Your rating: None

Wasn't that part of a quest and not luck related? I remember running into one at some point and I think I had to kill it for some reason.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None

We're both right; there was a quest to kill the unicorn, but you could also run into it randomly if you had high enough luck, both in game and probably out, too.

I got to thinking of a very recent "male attracted to virgins" unicorn; 'Cabin in the Woods' had a subtle (and at the same time not so subtle) virgin-loving male unicorn.

Your rating: None Average: 4.6 (5 votes)

I'd say it didn't change the mythos but just updated it, like werewolf and vampire movies did for those creatures. The book is very self aware about it's relation to mythology (kind of a post modern take on fairy tales, such as, the Princess Bride). It's full of references to fairy tales, Robin Hood, etc. and their relation to the modern world, and will they still be remembered or cared about? That's what the book is about, the mortality of an immortal. It asks, if a unicorn lives alone in the woods forever, won't she get lonely? - Then it puts her in a world full of lonely people. Very 1960's (in the best way.) Viet Nam war allegory, even.

Beagle had a set of stories for various creatures like this- my other favorite being his first novel about ghosts, "A Fine and Private Place". It is really excellent, even as a very early work- he was something of a prodigy. The nonsensical but secretly wise poet butterfly that briefly appears in The Last Unicorn is meant to be Beagle.

I was going to guess the unicorn myth came from a source similar to fauns and satyrs (woodland creatures related to fertility) but then wiki tells me the ancient greeks took unicorns as part of natural history, not mythology. They believed they were literal horned horses far away in India.

So the mythology came later out of stuff like Physiologus (ancient proto-furriness? neat trivia for furries to know about, so thanks for posting this :). The mythology seems mainly out of medieval europe, and christian symbolism, with the virgin as virgin mary.

I could say a lot of stuff about business dealings with Beagle's publisher, but that's kind of off topic. I got a ton of dealer stock from them, and permission to animate his work.

Your rating: None

Elaborate on the last sentence please.

Well, I'll be...

Your rating: None Average: 4.7 (3 votes)

I did a healthy amount of business with them. I was also interested in making an independent animated short based on his work (I've done a few of those) and got signed permission to do that. Unfortunately I saw reasons not to go ahead. As a fan I love his work. As business it's different.

If you're interested, the publisher may still have the story posted about how Peter had a deal to get a cut from writing the script of the 1970's animated Lord of the Rings, but he never got his cut. The rights passed through many hands to people who never worked with him. Finally, the new LOTR franchise success gave them opportunity to negotiate some kind of settlement. That was done, so he now has a small part of rights to something huge.

That was a bad story with a decent ending, about unfair dealing in showbiz. Well, I can suggest that after that experience, maybe Peter got someone on his own side who deals in slippery ways. Good for him I guess (he has said stuff about avoiding business and leaving it to others, who of course get to benefit from publishing him). Bad for others maybe. I can't say much more except be careful.

Not just to hint, here's a few things to know. - Many people paid for a "Last Unicorn ultra deluxe edition" 2 years ago and so far nothing has been delivered but promises. - Many people waited over 4 years I think (or was it 6), after they paid for the Last Unicorn audiobook, but it's currently listed by publisher as completed but "not shipping yet".

Making commitments and delivering only promises is just not OK. It's the same if you pay an artist to meet a deadline for a commission but they're years late.

This is a general remark, but I read about bad dealings in the music business all the time, with small bands vs. corporations. It's clear that even with a signature, agreements don't mean a thing unless you're prepared to pay to enforce them. In litigation hell it's easy to win just by having a deeper pocket.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)

Fascinating notes, Patch. Thanks.

As to the topic, I don't have much to add to what others have said. It augments and expands unicorn mythology in new, beautiful and desperately romantic ways. I dare say I love the thing far too much to say anything objective about it.

Your rating: None

It deserves all that love... unfortunately that also contributes to a small publisher putting out things they know people will pay for sight unseen, and not delivering. :(

Your rating: None

Not me personally, at least not directly.

I tend to have a proportionate ration of male/female characters in my stories, however, the protagonist is male only 33% of the time, so, as obviously I've written stories that involve unicorn characters (what kind of fantasy-equine fan would I be if I haven't?) I am not unfamiliar with female unicorns.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

The reality of it is: there never really WAS a solid concept of what a unicorn was "supposed to be".

Throughout its mythological development, the unicorn has been a great many things --- savage or gentle, benign or malicious, good or evil. There are legends of kings having dreams where they are chased into a pit of death by a unicorn, others where unicorns purify stagnant pools with their horns or just by being nearby, others where they are an utterly destructive force to be feared instinctively.

Just as varied are the unicorn's physical descriptions. Whether you want to say the "real" unicorn was a gazelle, a bison, a horse or a rhino, you have virtually equal footing for your position. Pure white, as in the medieval tapestries, or multicolored as in Aristotle's description?

The only central tenet to all of the descriptions is "free-spirited". Oh, and the whole one-horn thing.

Perhaps the most "accurate" myth is also the oldest and least-well-known: in the Harappan civilization, trading tokens depicted the unicorn as a stocky, free-ranging ungulate. While some theorize that it's a gazelle and not a unicorn at all, the other horn being "hidden" by the use of the art-in-profile style, the same civilization was entirely capable of depicting depth-of-field in its other tokens.

We may never know exactly what they meant, because the Harappan language remains untranslated.

But what we DO know is that the depictions show garlands around its neck, and offerings of food in what looks to be a wedding-style feeder.

This could be the origin of the "gentled beast" and "wedding hunt" tales which surround unicorn mythology. A prospective groom would show his prowess, in both hunting and gentility, by luring the wedding feast's main course. The garlands, indicating the animal itself was revered to some extent (this being prior to development of the Indian karmatic system which ultimately psuedo-deifies cattle), could also suggest the animal was a rare one. Certainly, there are a number of beasts which have a similarity to the Harappan Unicorn, but none appears to be an exact match. The fact that the Harappans were very consistent with how they depicted their Unicorn also suggests they were either referencing a real one, or had developed a stylized ideal of it.

I consider it a possibility, though admittedly a remote one, that the "historical" unicorn may have been a one-horned ungulate, an offshoot of the gazelle family which had a single horn and greater mass for conducting devastating goring charges. This would have given it a limited advantage in terms of evolutionary development, so it may have occupied such a niche --- until driven to extinction by one of humanity's earliest examples of social hubris.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <img> <b> <i> <s> <blockquote> <ul> <ol> <li> <table> <tr> <td> <th> <sub> <sup> <object> <embed> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <dl> <dt> <dd> <param> <center> <strong> <q> <cite> <code> <em>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This test is to prevent automated spam submissions.

About the author

Mister Twister (Andrew V.)read storiescontact (login required)

    a stew-dent and Homo Somewhat Sapiens from US of A (east coast), interested in music (listening, collecting and preserving), drawing, 2d animation and i dunno what else.

    Bio - graphy... that "graph" of my "bio"...... what?