Friday, 3 April 2009

A Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked this up. The title just intrigued me! Its a fascinating look at the history of unicorns. We all know that unicorns don't exist but this book looks at both the history and development of the myth, and the actual animals that could have inspired the myth in the first place.

It covers a lot of ground, starting with accounts of one horned beasts stretching as far back as 398BC. As well as producing these accounts, Chris Lavers goes on to suggest what the beast discovered could have actually been. Many theories are suggested, including a rhinoceros, antelope and other such horned beasts.

It also goes into the reasons the myth of the unicorn has lasted so long. I actually found these parts most interesting. It explores ideas of the unicorn as a symbol of Christ, and how this association developed, as well as the unicorn in heraldry, which would be the image of the unicorn most of us have in our imaginations today. One of the reasons the unicorn myth is so enduring is the idea of the anti-poisoning and magical properties of the horn. This is traced back to its origins and goes on to examine what the horns that turned up claiming to be unicorn horns could have been. Narwhal tooth, a type of fish, was the prime suspect!

This book comes as far forward as the early 20th century and the search into the African heartlands for the elusive unicorn. It is theme running throughout the search for the unicorn that reports of sightings are always far away from where the report is made! Another reason the myth is so enduring.

It asks a lot of questions about where the idea of a unicorn came from and doesn't really give any definitive answers. But then there are no definitive answers to give. It's entertaining and does explain where the ideas may have come from and how and why they were perpetuated. I also like the fact that it uses language that makes you feel you are on the hunt for the unicorn. Words such as searching, tracking and hunting.

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