Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Adventure classics -- A perfect creature in an imperfect world

Black Unicorn

by Tanith Lee


Without intending to, I see that I’ve written a whole month’s worth of Adventure classics posts about British fantasy (making allowances for Lord Dunsany, whose title came from a British, rather than Irish ruler). Blame it on the unicorns, who began the posts and end them.

image: wikimedia commons
But the unicorns Lord Dunsany’s hero hunted in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the ones whose straying over the pastures between Elfland and the fields we know opened the borders to a host of strange creatures, were traditional white unicorns.  Tanith Lee’s unicorn of today’s post is that incredibly rarer creature, a black unicorn. A creature so rare, musicians as different as 2 Chainz and Alexander James Adams (formerly known as Heather Alexander) write songs equating its uniqueness with their own.

There are precedents for the blackness of the unicorn, including the rhinoceros, whose horn was credited from antiquity with the same magical, medicinal, and poison defeating properties later ascribed to the more graceful unicorn. Even once human imaginations made the leap from a real, often black animal to a white one, the horn retained its blackness for ages longer.

Lee’s meeting with the rare creatures in Black Unicorn, opens with a bone brought to young sorcerer in training Tanaquil by her pet peeve (creatures we all possess, although they never do anything as useful as Tanaquil’s did).

“What (Tanaquil) had taken for a bar of moonlight was not. It was a bone. Long and slender, unhuman, not at once identifiable, the material from which it was made glowed like polished milk-crystal. And in the crystal were tiny blazing specks and glints, like diamond--no, like the stars out of the sky,” Lee writes. And because Tanaquil’s practice of magic so far had been limited to putting broken mechanical things back together, she gathered all the bones she can find of the long-dead unicorn and strung them back in order, adding a few bits in place of bones she and the peeve couldn't locate.

And with the aid of Tanaquil's unacknowledged magic, the unicorn returned to life, “black as every night of the world together, and it shone as the night shines with a comet.”

Normally, we might thind a world in which a living unicorn can be raised from a dead skeleton would be a world magical enough. But Tanaquil’s world, her sorcerer mother has told her, is badly made. “But we sorcerers believe there are other worlds, some worse, and one the improved model of this.” And it is from that “improved model” of the world that the unicorn longs to return. A return in which only Tanaquil, young, spoiled, and ignorant though she is, can aid.

Following the trail of the black unicorn, she will unravel mysteries about herself, meet her absent father, her long-lost sister, and find the courage to become the equal of her mother. She helps the unicorn return to its true home, the perfect world. And she returns to her own world, finding no place for herself and the peeve amid perfection.

“Do you believe,” Tanaquil writes to her mother, as one sorcerer to another, “the unicorn will have any trouble there form the additions I had to make to its bones, the copper and other metal I added? Will it always now, because of them, keep some link to this earth?” Perhaps it did, because Lee wrote sequels, Gold Unicorn and Red Unicorn.  Read about them, Lee, and her books at 

Unfortunately, black unicorns are so rare, I had trouble finding a copyright free image of them, which is why this post is illustrated with white unicorns. For other unicorn lore, I liked the compilation at

And for a look at the real-life antecedents of unicorns, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a December of adventures of the spirit with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.)

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