The Natural History of Unicorns, By Chris Lavers

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"For most of recorded history people thought the unicorn existed,", says Chris Lavers. From Christian Europe to Tibet, from Lake Chad to the Cape of Good Hope, there were stories of one-horned beasts with strange and terrifying powers, which shared our world yet were always just out of reach. As one would-be unicorn hunter, Nikolai Przhevalsky eventually twigged, they "existed wherever he happened not to be". Yet, as the author Chris Laver says, teasingly, in his introduction to this weird and fascinating story, "Unicorns did exist. There are photographs". But it depends what you mean by unicorns, and what is meant by existence.

The unicorn made its entry into European literature in "a mess of a book" called Indica by one Ctesias of Cnidus around 398BC. Among the dog-faced aborigines and pygmies whose genitals hung down to their ankles, his "wild ass of India" with its white body, blue eyes and 18-inch horn seems one of the more plausible inhabitants. But was it purely imaginary? Laver suggests that the unicorn is an amalgam of two genuine animals, the wild ass and a Tibetan antelope, the chiru, which can indeed look one-horned from the side. Before we nearly wiped them out, they shared the same mountain habitat and lived in herds. How easy it might have been for one to have blurred into the other.

The powers of the elusive unicorn grew over time. It has a puzzling role as a Christian icon, sometimes symbolising Christ, at other times the wonders of the Garden of Eden. Always swift, savage, untameable, and, by implication, male, it could nonetheless be pacified by a maiden, who gently held its horned head in her lap.

When such semi-religious symbolism fell out of favour, a new form of unicorn hunting took over as explorers tried to locate and bring back a real one. The existence of unicorns was given a boost by the discovery of the beautiful, spiral horns of the Atlantic narwhal. Hugely expensive, and useful as an antidote to poison, they helped to entrench the legend for, as Lavers notes, "If unicorns existed in the sea, it stood to reason that they also existed on land."

Yet no one ever found one. Explorers were fed tall tales by their hosts in India and other parts: "Europeans probably brought up the subject first, and a combination of pride, the desire to impress and the disquieting presence of European firearms provoked the desired response". The last great unicorn hunt took place in Uganda and the Congo in 1900. Harry Hamilton Johnstone was convinced of the existence of a forest-dwelling horse. Led by his native pygmy guides, and after losing many members of the expedition to blackwater fever, he eventually found evidence of his quarry. But it was not the unicorn but another animal unknown to science: the okapi.

In the wrong hands this could easily become flat and rather tedious. But Lavers has the gift of literary touch. He treats his sources with sympathy respect and good humour, but never topples into over-seriousness. He is a good bubble-burster, leading the reader along into a kind of scholarly shaggy-dog story and then popping it with a prick of nicely phrased common sense.

Some aspects of unicorn-ology he hardly touches, notably the beast's role in heraldry and as a New Age icon (there is the sense of a missing chapter somewhere). But Lavers's charting of the unicorn myth is genuinely gripping, if sometimes a little over-elaborate, and the image he wants us to take away certainly worked for me: "If your unicorn shifts disconcertingly between a goat, a horse, a rhinoceros, a marine mammal from the North Atlantic, assorted Tibetan ungulates and a six-eyed ass whose ears will terrify, the work of this book is almost done."

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