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Reviews: Books


The Natural History of Unicorns

Author: Chris Lavers
Publisher: Granta, 2009
Price: £18.99 (hardback)
Isbn: 9781847080622

An absorbing story of everyone's favourite heraldic beastie

I received The Natural History of Unicorns with some trepidat­ion, given that I am working on a book entitled Unicorns: A Natural History. Happily, there is no conflict, for whereas mine concentrates upon the retelling of famous and not-so-famous unicorn legends from around the world in the same manner as my earlier Dragons: A Natural Hist­ory, and should be similarly illust­rated in full colour, this present book, by Chris Lavers, focuses upon the origin and history of the unicorn, and for the most part it does so very satisfactorily.

Many books have been published on this most fascinating and ethereal of mythological creatures, including standard works such as Odell Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn (1930) and Rüdiger Beer’s Unicorn: Myth and Reality (1977, not included in the bibliography of Lavers’s book). Consequently, I was curious to see how, if at all, this latest book would differ from its predecessors.

When dealing with the unicorn’s early history, somewhat inevitably Clavers covers much the same ground as earlier works, though with particular emphasis upon Ctesias of Cnidus’s contributions in moulding the unicorn into the form familiar to us all today. Clavers does not shy away from incorporating his own ideas and research, such as proposing, quite reasonably, that instead of the Persian onager being the asinine component of the Indian unicorn’s composite identity, for logical geographical considerat­ions it was more likely to have been the kiang, a large Central Asian wild ass.

That section is followed by other detailed chapters that examine such diverse subjects as the Judæo-Christian unicorn and the unicorn in Christian imagery, a belligerent if beneficent Asian unicorn of burly form known as the karkadann, the okapi as a poss­ible origin for African unicorn lore, Dr Franklin Dove’s famous horn-bud grafting experiments of the 1930s to create a dominant central-horned ‘uni-bull’, and unicorns in ancient civilisations (which, oddly, constitutes the last, rather than the first, chapter in this book).

By far my own favourite, however, is an extensive chapter investigating khutu, the enigmatic horn-like material from which in bygone ages Islamic cutlers would fashion ornate knife handles. This is the first book on unicorns that I have read that documents this subject in detail, and Lavers reveals the history of khutu to be every bit as interesting as that of the unicorn, with which it has become almost irrevocably intertwined. Down through the centuries, all manner of identities have been proposed for this mysterious substance, ranging from ivory (variously designated as mammoth, walrus, narwhal or even hippopotamus), the frontal bones of certain ungulates such as goats or cattle, the teeth of snakes or fishes, and even the roots of a specific tree. Once again, however, after assessing all of these candidates, Claver offers for consideration his own thought-provoking source – the frontal bones and associated horn material of the musk-ox, dating back to when this species still existed in Eurasia.

So far, then, so good. However, sometimes Clavers’s trawling for unicorn associations spreads a little too wide, in my view. I think it highly unlikely, for example, that Babylon’s famous scaly, claw-footed, long-necked dragon of the Ishtar Gate lays much claim to unicorn affinity – the mokele-mbembe maybe, but not the unicorn. Conversely, on certain other occasions, his trawling has not spread anywhere near as wide as it should, or at least could, have done.

I was disappointed that the remarkable diversity of unicorn types on record was accorded very little coverage here. Indeed, the single unicorn chapter in my own Dr Shuker’s Casebook (2008) surveys a much wider selection of unicorn varieties than can be found in the whole of Lavers’s book. Why no Persian shadhahvar of the flute-like horn and bloodthirsty demeanour, for instance, or the equally rapacious hare-like al-mi’raj, or the web-footed camphor, the woolly-coated pirassoipi, the swivel-horned yale, the Chinese ki-lin, or the Pata­gonian unicorn depicted in ancient Argentinian rock paintings?

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming is the illustrative content, which consists entirely of 27 mostly small black-and-white photos scattered amongst the book’s 258 pages. Although it is clearly intended to be treated primarily as a work of scholarship, I see no reason why colour images could not have been incorporated, if only perhaps as an insert of plates at the centre of the book.

After all, few mythological animals have inspired such an abundance of exquisite artwork as the unicorn – the two sets of justifiably celebrated Unicorn Tapestries instantly come to mind, for example, alongside many beautiful Old Master paintings. It is a great shame that these were not showcased here in their multi-hued glory. Having said that, I did enjoy the composite ‘Identikit’ unicorn depicted in colour on the dustjacket, but less so the fake foxing effect that was real enough for me to scratch at one spot, unsure of whether or not my review copy had been stored in a damp warehouse before being sent to me!

All in all, quibbles notwithstanding, The Natural History of Unicorns is an absorbing read and a worthy addition to the literat­ure of this remarkable creature – surely one of the most famous animals never to have existed.

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