After my recent article about hunting unicorns in New York City (here), I want to expand the search to some of my favorite works of literature, using the resources of the Internet. As an old English major, I am delighted being able to access literary texts on sites like Project Gutenberg (here) and then to search them in a way that we never could with a paper copy.
In my previous article, I referred to the use of the word unicorn in the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible (here). To find those references, I used the very valuable Bible Gateway (here) search, which allows searches in a wide range of Bible translations.
With an online concordance of Shakespeare’s complete works (here), I tracked down four unicorns in the works of the Bard:
Now I will believe / That there are unicorns. The Tempest [III, 3]
To tame the unicorn and lion wild… Rape of Lucrece [line 1004]
Wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury… Timon of Athens [IV, 3]
I can o’ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers… Julius Caesar [II: 1]
How do you betray a unicorn with trees? Edmund Spenser tells us, further down. Usually, of course, unicorns are betrayed with a virgin. Fascinated, the beast will lay his head in her lap, and the hunters can then take him.
Whenever I am looking for words, I always start Moby Dick, by the word-drunk Herman Melville, which you can find here. Then, click on “Edit” and then “Search” or “Find.” Surprisingly, Melville has something to say about unicorns; actually, that is not so surprising, since he has something to say about almost everything.
In the case of the unicorn, he tells us about the narwhale, a seagoing mammal whose single horn was often traded, sold, and cherished as the horn of the unicorn, as Melville recounts in Chapter 32:
The Narwhale I have heard called the Tusked whale, the Horned whale, and the Unicorn whale. He is certainly a curious example of the Unicornism to be found in almost every kingdom of animated nature. From certain cloistered old authors I have gathered that this same sea-unicorn’s horn was in ancient days regarded as the great antidote against poison, and as such, preparations of it brought immense prices.
In The Anatomy of Melancholy (here), the melancholic author who is always good for unusual information lists among his pre-Prozac prescriptions for melancholy (depression) not only “unicorn’s horn” but also “the milk of unicorns.”
In The Faerie Queene [II, 5], on of the most neglected of English literary classics, Spenser explains how the lion, always portrayed as a special enemy of the unicorn, tricks the unicorn with a tree:
Like as a Lyon, whose imperiall powre
A prowd rebellious Vnicorne defies,
T’auoide the rash assault and wrathfull stowre
Of his fiers foe, him to a tree applies,
And when him running in full course he spies,
He slips aside; the whiles that furious beast
His precious horne, sought of his enimies
Strikes in the stocke, ne thence can be relast,
But to the mighty victour yields a bounteous feast.
I have a little of that “wrathfull stowre” to find that The Faerie Queene is not available complete on Project Gutenberg. I was able to find it on Renascence Editions from the University of Oregon (here).
I have said on occasion that if I could only take one book to a deserted island, it would be Gargantua and Pantagruel, available on Project Gutenberg (here). Here, Rabelais, as is typical of his writing, takes the mythical beast at face value and deals with the issue of how it could eat, with that elongated horn on its head:
I have conferred with the esquire, and taught him how they must be fed. These cannot graze on the ground by reason of the long horn on their forehead, but are forced to browse on fruit trees, or on proper racks, or to be fed by hand, with herbs, sheaves, apples, pears, barley, rye, and other fruits and roots, being placed before them.
Then, he continues, with a bit of information about the horn of the unicorn that I have never seen anywhere else:
I saw there two and thirty unicorns. They are a curst sort of creatures, 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 out a sharp black horn, some six or seven feet long; commonly it dangles down like a turkey-cock’s comb. When a unicorn has a mind to fight, or put it to any other use, what does it do but make it stand, and then ’tis as straight as an arrow.
I am not going to include the next paragraph. Remember that from the name Rabelais comes the adjective Rabelaisian, referring to crude humor. If you are curious, go to the text (here) and search (using the edit/search function of your browser) to find what Rabelais does with this image.
I do not usually search Marco Polo’s Travels, but in the Wikipedia article on unicorns (here) there is a reference to his description of the unicorn, which suggests that he is referring to the rhinoceros. In the second volume of The Travels of Marco Polo (available on Gutenberg here), I found the description:
There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles
Other books for hunting unicorns and odd words
Other books that I often search include Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales. There is one reference in Don Quixote to the “Knight of the Unicorn,” but otherwise, I found no unicorns here.
It has been a while since I have written about one of my favorite topics, the stories of Tintin, the boy reporter, whose escapades were chronicled by Hergé (pen name of Georges Prosper Remi). In 2011, Steven Spielberg will release the first of three Tintin films, Secret of the Unicorn. In this instance, the Unicorn is a ship.
Today, I was lacking the most important piece of equipment for a unicorn hunt, one that is rather difficult to find nowadays: a virgin. But, the hunt will go on, later, with new technology, whether or not a virgin can be found.
You can find an index to all my stories of hunting unicorns, “The Joys of Chasing Unicorns,” here.