Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
THE unicorn is one of the most beautiful of the "shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses", but he did not attain his beauty all at once. As soon as we begin to inquire how he looked to the imagination of the Ages of Faith we are reminded that his ancestry is mixed, that he descends from the horse and the ass on the side of the Greeks and from the goat on that of Physiologus. The results of this miscegenation were a series of hybrid variations as perplexing as those governed by the Mendelian law. Aristotle had said that the unicorn's hoof is solid, on the excellent ground that animals with divided hoofs have two horns when they have any horns at all; but on the other hand, Physiologus declared that the unicorn resembles a little goat, and the goat has a divided hoof. The faithful did not know what to think, and in default of a Thomas Aquinas to resolve the apparent discrepancies between Aristotle and Physiologus they tried to believe in a unicorn somewhat like a goat and somewhat like a horse at the same time. Early representations of the animal show cloven hoofs on the fore feet and solid hoofs behind, or vice versa; they show a goat's beard on a horse's head or even the body of a goat with the head of a horse. A more perfect example of the divided allegiance of the Renaissance could hardly be imagined; yet, in spite of these difficulties, the artists of the time made the unicorn at least as credible as the animals they had before their eyes, and usually far more graceful.
From the thirteenth century to the sixteenth, representation of the unicorn in ecclesiastic decoration was continuous and widespread. Formerly he had been depicted chiefly in manuscripts and it is clear that his increased popularity was due in some degree to the rapid intensification of Mariolatry. Although the animal's figure was not so much used in England as in Europe, I have seen him represented on misericords in Lincoln Cathedral, in St. George's of Windsor, in the chapel of Durham Castle, in St. Botolph's of Boston, and in at least half a dozen parish churches. Mrs. Jameson describes an elaborate representation of the Holy Hunt which stands over the altar in Breslau Cathedral, and the same subject is treated in stained glass at Bourges, Erfurt, Caen, Lyons, and many other places. Representations of the unicorn on old altarcloths, corbels, and capitals are almost numberless.
A subject so popular as this was certain to be adopted by secular art, as the Physiologus story was used by Richard de Fournival and others in erotic poetry, for it was only necessary to lay a slightly additional emphasis upon the theme of the hunt and to subordinate the holy symbolism in order to make the transition from sacred to profane. Perhaps the most sumptuous representations of the unicorn ever made are those in the "Millefleur tapestries" produced about the year 1480 for François de la Rochefoucauld. Here we are shown a pure white animal, vaguely equine but smaller than a horse, with goat's beard and cloven hoofs and the spiralled horn. Although the monogram "A.M."--Ave Maria--appears in each scene, the atmosphere of the whole series is not devotional but that of an elaborate hunt in the French manner. The death of the unicorn is shown, but we do not find the Virgin in her conventional position, and there are other indications that the theme is tending toward a purely secular treatment. The same tendency is observable in the superb Flemish tapestry, based probably upon an Italian cartoon and now in the Academy of Fine Arts at Florence, which shows the naming of the animals by Adam--most of the beasts trooping by in pairs, but the unicorn, significantly leading the procession, without a mate. The unicorn is singled out for such special honour in many other representation, as, for example, in the large picture by Tintoretto in the Church of San Rocco at Venice, which shows the Saint healing animals in the desert. Here the unicorn stands at the forefront of the group, very shaggy about the head but horse-like and with a striated horn. A purely secular treatment is seen in the familiar and beautiful d'Aubusson tapestries known as La Dame a la Licorne, probably intended to illustrate the metrical romance of that title, which is now in the Musée de Cluny, for in these the animal is scarcely more than ornamental.
Most influential in this secularizing of the unicorn were the numerous illustrations made, from the second quarterof the fifteenth century onward, for Petrarch's Trionfi. In only one of the divisions of his poem does Petrarch mention a triumphal car, but his illustrators--probably because a "triumph" necessarily meant for them a chariot with allegorical figures--provided such cars for each of the divisions. The chariots depicted by them to illustrate the "Triumph of Chastity" are always drawn by unicorns--two, four, or six in number--and these unicorns, if I may judge from the scores of examples that I have seen in woodcuts and on canvas, are always equine, cloven-footed, bearded, and with striated horns. Copies and editions of Petrarch's Trionfi were to be found in every European language during the Renaissance, and wherever they went some engraving on wood or metal of the Chariot of Chastity drawn by unicorns went with them. Many of the foremost painters of the age tried their hands at a subject which for several decades was second in popularity only to the well-worn Biblical themes. These allegorical Triumphs are to be found not in painting and engraving only but on tapestry, pottery, bas-reliefs in bronze and wood and ivory, marriage chests and birth-trays. Splendid and familiar examples of them are to be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the two great tapestries--Flemish, of the sixteenth century--from a set illustrating Petrarch's poem. Other tapestries from the same design, once the property of Cardinal Wolsey, are at Hampton Court. Eugene Muntz, the historian of art, has collected over a thousand examples of them in the volume he has devoted to the subject, and in each of these examples the figure of the unicorn is necessarily prominent. Obviously, the influence of all this work would be to withdraw the unicorn from his exclusive association with sacred themes and history. The illustrators of the Trionfi, furthermore, developed and fixed the equine shape of the unicorn as we see it to-day in heraldic insignia.
For beauty of the higher sort I know of nothing in the artistic representation of the unicorn superior to the famous Santa Justina of Moretto, painted about 1530 and now in the Belvidere Gallery at Vienna. In this serene and noble picture the animal is again depicted as white, equine, and with cloven hoofs, but the horn is for once the black horn described by Pliny.
The unicorn of heraldry was devised by men who had rather more confidence in the classic writers of antiquity than they had in the Bestiaries, and therefore their animal has more of the horse than of the goat in his composition; yet the prominent position of the unicorn in heraldry is primarily due, of course, to the moral attributes that he acquired from the Physiologus tradition. Primarily, but not entirely. Several streams of influence converged to make him the chief emblem of purity: the identification with Christ and association with the Virgin first of all, but, in addition, the waterconning trait and the world-wide reputation of the horn as a drug and a magical prophylactic. Considering that chastity was one of the foremost chivalric virtues, we are not surprised to find the unicorn figured on many knightly seals and coats of arms. There was something essentially aristocratic about him. His kinship to the horse, always associated with knighthood, was suggestive, but more important was the headlong enthusiasm of his devotion to beautiful women. He was fierce and proud and dangerous to his foes, as a knight should be, and he was also gentle; he had the dignity of solitude; he was beautiful and strong; most significant of all, he was a protector and champion of other beasts against the wiles of their enemies. In all the range of animal lore there is no other story conceived so completely in the aristocratic spirit as that of the unicorn stepping down to the poisoned water while the other beasts wait patiently for his coming, and making it safe for them by dipping his magic horn. Here was a perfect emblem of the ideal that European chivalry held before itself in its great periods--the ideal according to which exceptional power and privilege were balanced and justified by exceptional responsibility. The lion, for all the heroic courage falsely attributed to him, the panther with his sweet breath, the bear with his mighty strength, had no such chivalric significance as the unicorn, which might almost seem to have been imagined precisely to serve as an emblem of the "verray parfit gentil knight".
John Guillim, who wrote his famous book on heraldry at a time when his subject had chiefly antiquarian interest, makes clear his own feeling that the unicorn is aristocratic and a fit subject, therefore, for a gentleman's crest. "Some," he admits, "have made doubt whether there be any such beast as this or no, but the great esteem of his horn (in many places to be seen) may take away that needless scruple." The animal's invincibility and virtue are praised, and then Guillim writes: "The greatness of his mind is such that he rather chooseth to die than to be taken alive: wherein the unicorn and the valiant-minded soldier are alike, which both contemn death, and rather than they will be compelled to undergo any base servitude or bondage they will lose their lives."
Later heraldic writers rival even the historians of art in the extent and variety of their misinformation about unicorns, perhaps because they are so accustomed to discussing creatures of which almost anything may be asserted that they do not know how to respect a beast with a definite legend. We are gravely told, for example, by a writer of the nineteenth century, that the whole notion of the unicorn was derived from the spike in the middle of the "tester" or head-armour of the horse, although this spike was not regularly used in Europe until late in the fifteenth century. It is true that the "panache" has been used since ancient times as a decoration of the war-horse's head, but one would prefer to believe that if there is any connection this was suggested by the unicorn. For dense and audacious error, however, the palm should be awarded to John Brand, who says of the unicorn: "This fabulous animal of heraldry . . . is nothing more than a horse with the horn of the pristis, or sword-fish, stuck in his forehead."
Before the accession of James I to the throne of England a great variety of "supporters" had been used for the Royal Arms, but a lion had for several generations been one of the two. Henry VI used the lion and the antelope; Edward IV the lion and bull; Richard III the lion and boar; Henry VII and Henry VIII the lion and dragon; Mary and Elizabeth the lion and greyhound. On the Royal Arms of Scotland the unicorn had been employed as consistently as the lion in England. It is often said that the lion and unicorn were chosen as supporters of the British Arms because of the belief in the natural animosity of these two beasts and as a symbol of the reconciliation between England and Scotland. James I was a learned man to whom such a symbol might well have been interesting, but the presence of these two historic foes in the British Royal Arms is really no more than a fortunate accident. James kept his Scottish unicorn and he chose the English lion merely because it had been the most persistent supporter of the English Arms before his time. He kept the lion dexter as it had been on Elizabeth's Arms, and he retained all its heraldic insignia. His unicorn remained, as it had been in Scotland, argent, armed, crined, unguled, gorged with a coronet of crosses patécs and fleur-de-lis, with a chain extending from the crown between the forelegs and reflexed over the back, all or. Since their adoption by James the British supporters have been used continuously, except that the seal of the Exchequer in the time of Charles I shows as supporters a stag and an antelope, chained and ducally collared.
No small amount of lore is implicit, to the pausing eye, in this heraldic unicorn as one may see him to-day on the first page of an English newspaper or rampant over the Old State House in Boston, Massachusetts. He owes his horse's head and neck and mane to Pliny and to certain artists of the Italian Renaissance, his graceful legs to a series of mediaeval writers who will be named in due course, his beard and divided hoofs in part to Physiologus, his tail either to the oryx or else to the aesthetic taste of the College of Heralds, and the spiral twistings of his horn to a marine mammal of the northern seas. Here is a creature fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet, in spite of his compound ancestry, one more than a match in beauty for the megalocephalic lion, and one so credible, or rather so probable, in appearance as to make the hardiest doubter feel that if there is no such animal then an excellent opportunity was overlooked in the process of creation. He seems to fill a gap in nature.
One can readily understand that during the Middle Ages, when coats of arms were not confined to stationery and table-silver but were pictures in vivid hues that went everywhere in the world--flaunting in state processions, resplendent at Court, rallying soldiers about their lords in battle--the frequent use of the unicorn upon heraldic crests would do much to increase the animal's vogue and to make it seem certain, if there had ever been any doubt, that he was as real as any beast of field or forest. It is certain that the presence of the unicorn on the British Royal Arms, reproduced as they are millions of times in every year and scattered throughout the world, has tended to maintain interest in the animal and to develop a curiosity about its tradition even in our time.
One of the fundamental facts concerning lions and unicorns is that they hate each other by instinct, as Englishman and Scot once did, and that they never meet without fatal consequences. This is matter for later discussion, but in the meantime we may pause to wonder at the chance that brought such deadly opposites into accord, uniting majesty with gentleness and beauty with strength. To the adult observer they seem to be now at peace, but the familiar nursery rhyme will not have it so, for there, until recently,
I should never have doubted for a moment that this bit of doggerel was suggested by the British Royal Arms if I had not come upon the following remarkable passage: "In one of the rooms of the Borromeo Palace on the Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore are two large tapestries--say fifteen feet by twelve feet--apparently of the sixteenth century or earlier. The first represents a lion and a unicorn engaged in combat for a crown lying between them. The second shows the lion chasing the unicorn round a mediaeval walled town drawn quite small in the centre of the tapestry, the lion and the unicorn being on a much larger scale." These assertions are so surprising and indeed inexplicable that I have gone many miles out of my way on a journey through northern Italy in order to verify them--only to find them false. The Borromean Palace does contain two excellent Flemish tapestries in which the lion and the unicorn are prominently figured, but in neither of them can I find either a crown or a pursuit round a walled town. Both tapestries show the two animals fighting: in one the unicorn has gored the lion and is lifting him off his feet, and in the second the unicorn is attacked from behind by two lions while goring a third. The tapestries may have been intended to bear some symbolic significance, for the unicorn is prominent in the Borromean arms--a huge unicorn of stone stands on the summit of the palace gardens--but there can be no connection between them and the English nursery rhyme.
There is much to be surmised, but little that a cautious investigator would care to affirm positively, about the symbolic meanings ascribed to the unicorn in pre-Christian times. Several bits of evidence concur, however, in the suggestion that for a very long time one-horned animals have been regarded as emblematic of unlimited or undivided sovereign power. We have made nothing as yet of the curious statement which occurs in nearly all the older texts of Physiologus that when the unicorn is captured he is "taken to the palace of the king"--a remark which, as I have said, is one of the few traces of a connection between the Physiologus unicorn and that of the Greeks. Philostratus makes it clear in the passage cited above from the life of Apollonius that only the kings of India hunt the unicorn and only they possess the beakers made from its horn. Aelian also tells us that only the potentates own these beakers, and he says in another place that the young of the "cartazon" are taken to the king. Of course there is abundant evidence that the larger animals of the chase are regarded in many parts of the world as belonging to the king," but the rule seems to apply with special force to unicorns as it does also to the rhinoceros. On his voyage to the East Indies in 1592 James Lancaster sent commodities to the King of Junsaloam, off the Straits of Malacca, "to barter for Ambergriese and for the homes of Abath [rhinoceros] whereof the king only hath the traffique in his hands." In South Africa the so-called "kerry", a sort of wand or sceptre made from the horn of the white rhinoceros--which, however, has two horns--is so well recognized a symbol of sovereignty that quarrels arising from disputes over the ownership of it have led to more than one Kaffir war in recent times. In China, again, the unicorn, or Ki-lin, has been associated for ages with emperors, the appearance of one of these animals being accepted as a certain prophecy of a beneficent reign. Plutarch tells us of a ram's head with only one horn that was brought to Pericles from his farm as a sign that he would become the single ruler of the Athenian state.
But the most remarkable and conclusive evidence for this ancient symbolism is to be found in the Bible. In the Book of Daniel (chapter viii) there is recorded this strange vision: "And behold, an he goat came from the West on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. And he came to the ram that had two horns . . . and ran unto him in the fury of his power. And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and brake his two horns: and there was no power in the ram to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and stamped upon him." Later in the same chapter we are given an interpretation of this vision: "And the rough goat is the king of Grecia, and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king."
The one-horned goat of Daniel's vision, in other words, stands for Alexander the Great, and the whole allegory depicts his triumph over the hosts of the Persians, represented by the two-horned ram. The interesting thing is that the one horn should be chosen as a symbol of superior power. One can readily understand it as a symbol of single and supreme sovereignty, and it is permissible to paraphrase the sentence quoted above so as to make it read: "The great horn that is between his eyes signifies that he is the supreme king." Exactly the same symbolism is found in the pseudepigraphic first book of Enoch, in the ninetieth chapter: "And I saw till horns grew upon these lambs, and the rams cast down their horns; and I saw till there sprouted a great horn of one of these sheep, and their eyes were opened. And it looked at them and it cried to the sheep, and the rams saw it and all ran to it." The one-horned sheep of this passage, according to the notes of R. H. Charles, must be Judas Maccabaeus.
One recalls in this connection several Biblical references to horns, apparently single, which make it clear that they were symbols of power. In I Samuel ii. I are the words "By Jehovah my horn is exalted," and in Psalms lxxxix. "By thy favour our horn is exalted." "Lift not up your horn," says David again as a caution of humility, and in Jeremiah we read: "The horn of Moab is cut off." In these passages the horns concerned, whether actual or metaphorical, were those not of animals but of men. Frequently, no doubt, they were actual; that is to say, they were high head-dresses of some sort related to the tall peaked caps worn by Persian and Assyrian kings and by the members of their households. Such symbolic adornments for the head were used by the flamines martiales of Rome, and they seem to have consisted of single horns. Bishop Taylor, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, says that he saw Sepoys in India who wore single spikes or horns on their foreheads attached to flat leather helmets. Perhaps the most familiar example of this symbolic head-dress is the peaked cap of the Doges of Venice, which seems to have been derived from the Orient.
"No one", says Coleridge, "has yet discovered even a plausible origin for this symbolism as to horns", but the problem is not quite so difficult as he suggests, now that we know a little more about the habits of primitive minds. Very simple men think of the power of a horned beast as residing in the horns with which it defends itself and attacks its enemies; to such men, therefore, horns are a natural symbol of vigour, power, strength of any kind, and they have been used as such a symbol for ages. Homer makes Achilles push the Trojans with his horns. Horace says that wine adds horns to a man of lowly condition; the Lamb of the Apocalypse is equipped with seven horns, the perfect number, to signify omnipotence; the famous horns of Moses, whatever they were originally intended to signify, have usually been interpreted as symbols of power. All these horns are double, but it will be readily understood that when the strength of two horns is concentrated in one that one is very strong indeed and a perfect emblem of strength.
We may take it as highly probable, then, that one-horned animals were regarded in the pre-Christian world, in many widely distant places, as symbols of sovereignty. Turning to the symbolism of the unicorn in Christendom we are on firmer ground. Partly because of its association with the Virgin, partly because of its service as a purifier of poisoned waters, and to some extent on account of the reputation of its horn, it came to be regarded as an emblem of purity. An instance of this is seen in its association with Saint Justina, and even clearer examples are found in the numerous illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity and in the remarkable engraving made by an unknown artist for the Hypnerotomachia of Poliphilo in which the triumphal chariot of Diana is drawn by eight unicorns. So widely variable is symbolism of this kind, however, that Leonardo da Vinci makes the animal a type of incontinence, or what he calls Intemperana. Still another symbolic significance of the Christian unicorn is that of solitude--a significance derived not from Physiologus but from Pliny and Aelian, and one, therefore, which is found only in the more learned tradition. Several of the early Fathers and of their followers drew the unicorn into their praise of solitude, and in later centuries the animal was generally understood to be an emblem of the monastic life. There is still preserved at St. Fulda a pastoral staff supposed to have belonged to Saint Boniface, and, if genuine, dating therefore from the seventh century, on which the unicorn is shown kneeling at the foot of the Cross. Many monastic seals are still to be seen on which the animal is the central figure. I have already referred to the strange metaphor connecting the unicorn's horn with the central beam of the Holy Cross--a metaphor struck out, probably, in the disordered African fancy of Tertullian but used also by Irenaeus and by Justinus, to mention only two of many.
By far the most important emblematic significance of the unicorn, however, was that in which he stood for Christ. This signification is stated in Physiologus and in most of the passages derived therefrom, it is implicit in the pictorial allegory of the Holy Hunt, and the Church Fathers, with their enormous influence upon a millennium of thought and life, spread it broadcast. "Who is this Unicorn," says Saint Ambrose, "but the only-begotten Son of God." "The unconquerable nature of God is likened to that of a unicorn," writes Saint Basil. More extended interpretations were not uncommon, such as that in which we are told that the unicorn represents the Hebrew people as a whole, its one horn standing for their single law wherewith they are to toss aside all other nations. Speaking in general, however, one may say that from the third century of our era to the period of the Reformation the unicorn represented the person of Christ. Whether the pre-Christian symbol had any direct influence upon the Christian allegory one hesitates to say.
Only in recent years has the legend of the unicorn been turned over to avowed and professional dreamers; throughout the greater part of its history it has been shaped chiefly by practical menhunters, physicians, explorers, and merchant--adventurers--who regarded mere poetry with the healthy contempt shown by Shakespeare's Theseus. Yet the literary allusions to the animal are of course very numerous. I can choose only such examples as seem typical or otherwise important, and these may be arranged in an approximately chronological order.
Several of the earlier references to the unicorn occurring in what we may call imaginative literature--although it seemed no such thing to its authors--appear in the numerous mediaeval stories of Alexander. In one of these we hear that among the gifts sent by Queen Candace to the Conqueror there was a unicorn, valued not so much for itself as for the precious stone growing at the base of its horn. No translation can rival the rudeness of the original, but this is the sense of the lines:--
The ruby or "carbuncle" in the brow of Queen Candace's unicorn is an adornment which seems to have been of Levantine origin, and it reminds us that Pfaffen Lamprecht, the author of the poem, was a contemporary of the Crusaders, who brought back many such exotic marvels. For the rest, the meagre lines follow Physiologus except for the na•ve admission that the unicorn is scarce in this land (der ist luzzil in diz lant), which may possibly be a reminiscence of Aelian.
In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parfal there is another reference to the unicorn's ruby (karfunkelstein), here used as one of the several medicines, including also the animal's heart, employed to cure the wound of Anfortas, King of the Grail:--
The unicorn story found expression even in a poem called, by one who should have known the word's precise meaning, a Volkslied. Although this poem does not seem to me to bear the marks of the popular ballad, it has beauty and a definite value for the present purpose, so that it seems worth while to attempt a translation:--
The most interesting feature of this poem is the drawing of the unicorn into a local mise-en-scéne. The landscape is that of Switzerland or Upper Germany, the opening stanzas are those of a secular poem dealing with a hunt, and the unicorn is visualized by the writer as a chamois. In spite of its conventional prettiness, the poem gains from these peculiarities a certain freshness and charm.
As I have already pointed out, the unicorn provided a useful metaphor to the erotic verse of the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Burkhardt von Hohenfels calls himself a unicorn because a woman has lured him to his doom, Guido Cavalcanti says the same thing in a sonnet addressed to Guido Orlandi, and Thibaut, Count of Champagne, writes:--
One of the most familiar literary allusions to the unicorn is that in Rabelais. Pantagruel says, in narrating his adventures in the Land of Satin: "I saw there two-and-thirty unicorns. They are a cursed sort of creature, much resembling a fine horse, unless it be that their heads are like a stag's, their feet like an elephant's, their tails like a wild boar's, and out of each of their foreheads sprouts a sharp black horn, some six or seven feet long. [Pliny, whom Rabelais follows in most other particulars, had made the horn only three feet in length.] Commonly it dangles down like a turkeycock's comb, but when a unicorn has a mind to fight or put it to any other use, what does he do but make it stand, and then it is as straight as an arrow."
The unicorn has a less prominent role in the romances of the Middle Ages than one might expect, considering his potentialities, but this fact merely reminds one again that he was not regarded as exceptionally romantic or wonderful. The title of Le Romans de la Dame a la Lycorne et du Biau Chevalier au Lyon arouses expectations which are not fulfilled, for here the animal's function is largely symbolic. He is given to the heroine by Li Diex d'Amours in recognition of her tres grant purté, and all that he has to do in the course of eighty-five hundred lines is to swim the moat surrounding the Castle of Chief d'Or with his mistress on his back--the lion belonging to the hero, similarly mounted, paddling proudly beside him.
Far more interesting than this merely ornamental beast is the unicorn we meet towards the end of the charming Old French prose romance called Le Chevalier du Papegau. King Arthur, wandering on his maiden adventure, has been stranded on a strange coast, and there he finds a square red tower, without door or window, in which a dwarf is living. The dwarf tells Arthur that he and his wife had been set on shore there many years before by the Lord of Northumbria, and that his wife had died shortly after giving birth to a son. "When my wife was dead and I had buried her," says he, "I put my food into my overcoat, wrapped up my child as best I could, and then went through the forest looking for a hollow tree where I might rest and find shelter from the rain and the night and the wild beasts. At last I found one with a hollow large enough for six knights to lie in, and within the hollow there were new-born fawns, each one with a little horn in the middle of its brow. And when I saw these fawns I went inside and looked at them for a long time with wonder, and I sat down among them. While I was sitting there the mother came--a huge beast, as large as a large horse, with a horn in her brow as sharp as any razor in the world and with fourteen great udders of which the smallest was as large as the bag of a cow, and when this beast saw me she looked at me so terribly that I leaped up and dropped my child and fled. The child began to cry bitterly--and you are to know that it was the finest and fairest infant that ever was seen--so that the beast was touched with pity and she came into the hollow, while I lay hidden behind a root looking to see what she would do to the child. She lay down before him and put the nipple of her udder in his mouth and nursed him until he fell asleep. All that night I lay there without sleep and without daring to move for fear that the beast might kill me, and the child lay sleeping among the fawns. In the morning the unicorn went out to feed and I arose and took up the child, but while I was swaddling him she returned again. This time, however, she showed me such affection that I stayed with her; and when my son and the fawns had been suckled, the beast, who saw that I was little--for I am a dwarf--seemed to think that I must be young, and she made a motion with her head toward one of her udders that was still quite full. Being very thirsty, I did as she wished, and I found she had the best milk and the sweetest that ever I had drunk. Sire, I lived thus while my food lasted, and my son was so well fed that he shows it still, I thank God. But when my food was gone I grew weak, and one day as I was looking out of the hole in our tree I saw a great stag going by, and I was so hungry, after living a long while on milk, that I cried out: '0 Lord God, how I wish that I had a steak from that stag, well cooked!' The unicorn overheard me; she dashed out of the hollow tree, made after the stag, and cut him in two with a single blow of her horn."
To make this delightful but rambling story as short as possible, the unicorn helped the dwarf gather firewood for cooking the stag, she helped him build a hut of boughs, she slew for him many other beasts as the needs of his larder required them. The child throve mightily on unicorn milk, and when he was weaned the dwarf fed him on the flesh of bears. Before long he had grown into a giant, able to uproot huge trees at a single jerk, and finally he built the square red tower, making it very tall and without doors or windows so that wild beasts would not eat the father while the giant boy was off at play. And everywhere he went the mother unicorn went with him.
While Arthur stands at the foot of the tower talking up to the dwarf, this son arrives, carrying a freshly killed bear in one hand and his club in the other. Introductions are made, the giant lifts Arthur to the top of the tower, and the three dine off the bear, the giant standing on the ground alongside. Next morning the giant and the unicorn drag Arthur's ship off the sands and the whole company sets sail for Windsor Castle.--Cy finit le conte du papegaulx.
The unicorn is mentioned several times by Luigi Pulci in Il Morgante Maggiore, but no accurate treatment of the legend is to be expected from this burlesque upon romance. In one passage a strange combination is made of the water-conning trait with the ideas underlying the use of the horn at table, for we are told that the animal watches its own horn after dipping it to see whether it perspires:--
Elsewhere we see Morgante and Margutte shoot and cook and eat a unicorn, taking advantage of the poor beast just as he is dipping his horn, in defiance of all the best authorities. The remarks of Luca Pulci, Luigi's brother, concerning unicorns are equally inaccurate, for he tells us that one of his characters by the name of Severe was turned into a unicorn by Diana to punish him for falling in love with a nymph; he ran straightway to a river's brink to look at his own reflection and while standing there was pierced by an arrow from the nymph's own bow which transformed him into the River Sieve.
Turning now to English literature, we come to the characteristically elaborate simile of Spenser:--
George Chapman provides an interesting variant of this lion-capture story by substituting a man for the lion:--
Shakespeare is obviously referring to this same story in the words: "Wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee, and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury." In the two other references to the animal to be found in Shakespeare's plays the speakers express disbelief. We may safely infer that Shakespeare himself did not believe in the existence of unicorns, and this is an interesting fact when one considers that thousands of his contemporaries, as well educated and as well read as he, accepted the animal apparently without a doubt. The shallower critics of Shakespeare have entertained us for many decades with speculations as to whether he did or did not believe in witches, fairies, ghosts, and other "night fears", some of them contending that so wise a man could not have entertained such childish superstitions, and others, more plausibly, that he was a man of his times with all that fact implies. Sound criticism will of course point out that he believed in these things at least imaginatively with an intensity adequate to his artistic needs. If an imaginative faith in the unicorn had been required of him by the day's work, such a faith would have been forthcoming, much as Milton's belief in the Ptolemaic system stood forth bold and clear when he saw that it would serve his purpose. As matters turned out, however, Shakespeare never had to write a play involving a "temporary suspension of disbelief" in the unicorn, and so he lets us see that belief in the animal is to his thinking a minor mark of easy credulity. Thus Decius Brutus, showing how easily Caesar may be swayed by old wives' tales, says:--
A more revealing passage is that in which Alonso and his followers are entertained by Prospero with strange music and a phantom banquet, after which the irreverent Sebastian remarks, in the tone of a worldling whose scepticism is shaken:--
Little would be gained by an attempt to trace the later history of the legend in literature. It is true that a group of poets has recently pushed the hunt of the unicorn so actively that one critic has felt obliged to advocate a closed season, but most of this writing has been done in ignorance or neglect of the earlier legend. One reference to recent writing must suffice, and I make this chiefly because it suggests an aspect of the subject, never clearly expressed but often implied, which I do not care to consider extensively. Readers of Aubrey Beardsley's prose will recall that the Abbe Fanfreluche found in Queen Helen's library a pamphlet entitled "A Plea for the Domestication of the Unicorn," and that at the end of the story Helen goes out to feed her pet unicorn Adolphe--"milk-white all over except his nose, mouth, and nostrils". This is about all, but, as in nearly every other detail of the morbidly lascivious story, more is meant than meets the eye.