For over four centuries, the lion and the unicorn have been battling. In the words of a British folksong –
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.
And why were the battling? Strangely enough, we can go back to my most recent article about Guy Fawkes Day and the Gunpwoder Plot (here), which took place during the time of King James I and VI, so called because he was the first king of England named James, but the sixth King James of Scotland.
The traditional coat of arms of Scotland showed the heraldic elements supported by a unicorn on either side, while the coat of arms of England showed two lions supporting the design. With the so-called union of the crowns of Scotland and England, in 1603 under the House of Stuart (the family of King James), the heraldic animals were similarly united. The shield is supported by a Scottish unicorn on the left and an English lion on the right in Scotland, but with an English lion on the left and a Scottish unicorn on the right in England. (In heraldry, as in stage setting, the left is the stronger position.)
In the seventh chapter of Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll writes of “The Lion and the Unicorn” and of Alice’s meeting with them. You can read the book on Project Gutenberg here and that specific chapter here and enjoy Lewis Carroll’s usual mordant humor; do not ever believe that the Alice books are for children.
Perhaps, too, Lewis Carroll shows us as good a deal as one can hope to make with a unicorn:
‘What-is-this?’ he [the Unicorn] said at last.
‘This is a child!’ Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her… ‘We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’
‘I always thought they were fabulous monsters!’ said the Unicorn. ‘Is it alive?’
‘It can talk,’ said Haigha, solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said ‘Talk, child.’
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: ‘Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!’
‘Well, now that we HAVE seen each other,’ said the Unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
Maybe, as we look at each other, we all are fabulous monsters of a sort. Some are those fabulous monsters called unicorns, while others are fabulous monsters crazed by the task of searching for unicorns. (Does that sound like anyone you know?)
You can find an index to all my stories of hunting unicorns, “The Joys of Chasing Unicorns,” here.