The Birth of a Unicorn

Creating from Legend

One of the things I love about writing is the unexpected. When I first started writing my novel, I did not expect that a unicorn would become one of the four main characters. But once he did, it prompted me to research various unicorn legends from around the world.

People have been fascinated by unicorns for thousands of years. There are Chinese legends dating back 5,000 years, though the unicorns of Chinese folklore bear little resemblance to the unicorns that populate Western culture, either in appearance or the kind of magic they are said to possess.

The physical appearance of the unicorns of Eastern mythology takes many different forms. In many Chinese myths the unicorn is given the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse. The unicorn of Japanese lore has a shaggy mane with the body of a bull. Tales out of Persia tell of a wild ass in India; the size of a horse, with astonishing colouring and a single horn protruding from it’s forehead.

While both the Old Testament of the Christian Bible and Jewish Talmud have passages that mention unicorns, I could find no reference of a physical description for them.

The one constant in all legends is the single horn protruding from the center of the animal’s forehead. Though even there; the size, shape and length vary from legend to legend, culture to culture.

The mystery surrounding these mythical and mystical creatures allowed me much freedom in the creation of the unicorns that live in my novel. I decided right from the start that I wanted my unicorns to be more than mere legends or caricatures. I wanted to bring them to life, to make them as real and vital as the other characters in my book.

And in order to do that I had to form in my mind’s eye exactly what my unicorns were going to look like. In much of the artwork depicting unicorns, the artists have given them long spiral horns. The paintings are beautiful but the problem came when I tried to picture these unicorns as living creatures. With those long horns, if they bent their heads to graze, the horn would prevent them from reaching all but the tallest of grasses. So for my unicorns, I decided to keep the spiral but shorten the horn to allow the unicorns to graze on shorter grass without stabbing their horn into the ground. When they dip their muzzles into a stream or pond to drink, the tip of their horn will just barely touch the surface.

As well, many unicorns in paintings are pictured with wings, though none of the legends described winged, horned beings. I decided that while my unicorns were fleet of foot they would not be winged.

Other details of the unicorns and the place they occupy in the story I’m creating are being fleshed out as I go along. It is a fine line… making them real yet at the same time retaining the magic that is Unicorn.

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