The London Review of Books has its own bookshop, and this revelation hit me en route to the British Museum. I had stepped out of Holborn tube station, right into an area which I inevitably associate with the Inns of Court and a somewhat Dickensian atmosphere. Still, I know enough about the Bloomsbury set (let’s not linger on this, though, lest another reading list gap rear its head) to get the tingling feeling of a literary time-traveller once the dome of St Paul’s is out of sight.
The LRB bookshop is of an ordered nature, all pristine books in neat lines of uncracked spines. The entrance area feels somewhat transitory, with wide windows framing the outside world which still feels too close for comfort. Downstairs, it’s a different, hushed, story, where time spent in the company of books is a slow affair.
My choice was largely inspired by the flashbacks which its title and cover brought about. When I was little, I was so fascinated by my father’s veterinary textbooks that I gobbled up whole chunks of what I couldn’t understand – as exemplified by a durable and proclaimed conviction that horses can suffer from amnesia (as opposed to anemia). Then, I started acquiring information about all sorts of animals – the mouflon and Przewalski’s horse being two particular favourites. So when I saw a book titled The Natural History of Unicorns, sporting a drawing of a very un-unicorn looking animal, I had to know.
As it turns out, in order to be a scholar of unicorns – and there is, believe it or not, such a thing as unicorn scholarship – you would have to be of that special kind of people who are willing to pursue chimeras. Thankfully, Chris Lavers, a Lecturer at the University of Nottingham, is one such person. History here is jumbled and hard to follow in a linear manner. It is like swimming in a vast expanse of stories and emerging with a sea shell which carries only a distant echo of the truth.
Ctesias, a Greek physician who lived in the court of the Persian king in fifth century BC, was fascinated by the unknown lands to the East – India. In Indica, a work which survives only in fragments or accounts, he describes a peculiar animal with one horn. It combines so many distinct traits that it could only be a composite of a number of animals. Thus, animals as different from each other as the rhinoceros, the chiru (Tibetan antelope), the kiang, the wild ass, and the yak, could have merged to form Ctesias’ beast.
Much later, when a unicorn pops up in the Bible, it is rather strange that its defining characteristic – namely, unicornity – is not elaborated upon. And here, there is a wonderful story. When the Bible text was translated from Hebrew into Greek, no scholar recognised the animal reem mentioned in the original, but it seemed to vaguely correspond to Ctesias’ descriptions. Thus, it was translated with a Greek word meaning monoceros, i.e. one-horn. The dominant Christian position thereafter was that the reem is the rhinoceros. However, the original reem, that of the Hebrew text, turned out to be (as later revealed in Henry Rawlinson’s study of a Persian inscription), the now extinct aurochs – a two-horned animal.
Throughout time, the unicorn became more prominent in the Christian tradition. Physiologus, a (presumably) second-century text/predecessor of bestiaries, consists of descriptions of animals and fantastical creatures, and, of course, features the unicorn. The nature of stories in the text is allegorical, and the tale of the unicorn refers to a virgin who can trap the animal, and carries distinctly Christian connotations. This story, however, seems to be a modified version of ancient Eastern tales of the male meeting the female, and settling down after the due process of (sexual) taming is completed. The religious later seeped out into the secular and chivalrous which, in an ironic return, was once more preoccupied with the charms of women. It’s a beautiful way to think about stories as they twist their way through the centuries, to then flow into others, and, ultimately, saturate human lives, not only in art, but in practice as well. Thus, in the Middle Ages, alicorn – the unicorn’s horn – became a desired and consequently very expensive possession, due to its supposed alexipharmic properties (i.e. as an antidote to poison). In reality, what was peddled as alicorn had very little to do with what we would now picture when we think of a unicorn. Just compare a photo of a narwhal with the white horse-like creatures of medieval tapestries.
In the eighteenth century, travellers encountered the idea of a one-horned animal in their explorations of India and Tibet. Lavers says: “Nikolai Przhevalsky eventually twigged that Himalayan unicorns existed wherever he happened not to be, a phenomenon nicely illustrated by the rajah’s phrase barra dûre!, a great way off!” Similarly, later exploits into Africa did not result in the discovery of unicorns – but the pursuit led to Harry Johnston finding the okapi in the Ituri rainforest. Unicorns don’t and can’t exist, was the adamant position. Until science, in the face of W. Franklin Dove, intervened to create a unicorned calf, by surgically manipulating its horn buds.
I have to admit complete and utter failure in all my attempts to arrange the facts, conclusions, and hypotheses of this book neatly and chronologically in my head. Coming to the natural history of unicorns as a lay lover of zoology, I relished the descriptions of the real animals, accompanied by pictures and stories. But what stuck with me above all is humanity’s power to transcend the constraints of its surrounding world through a combination of chance, foolishness, and imagination. A child sits down to watch a cartoon about a unicorn, surrounded by a biscuit tin, an ironing board, and the ghost of an aurochs. It’s the stuff of myth, really.