Being a child who loved horses and mythology, I was always fascinated by images of the unicorn. My school library had a copy of the Unicorn and the Lake (Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Michael Hague), which I finally found for myself as an adult. It is illustrated with lovely watercolours, seemingly inspired by medieval images of the unicorn (such as the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry).
Later, my best friend and I watched the japanese-animated ‘The Last Unicorn’ (Rankin/Bass) over and over again. This also visually quotes medieval images of the unicorn. Apparently it was animated by artists later to join the amazing Studio Ghibli.
I also loved seeing the ‘real’ unicorns (actually Andalusians!) in Ridley Scott’s ‘Legend’. He later returned to the symbolism of the unicorn in Blade Runner, in a (cut) dream sequence and an origami reference (which doesn’t seem to make much sense without the dream sequence!).
The symbolism of the unicorn? Very complicated! Here are a few starting points from the western tradition. In the Christian context it can symbolise resurrection and immortality. Perhaps it is best known as an image of purity or love (both sacred and profane). In the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, the unicorn is tamed only by a virginal woman. It lays it’s head upon her lap. There is an obvious sexual element here, which is difficult to interpret!
The drawing above was inspired by Durer’s unicorn – the original engraving is of a woman being abducted on a unicorn’s back. Here the unicorn appears to be an embodiment of danger and masculine lust.
In both 'Legend' and 'The Last Unicorn' (based on a Peter Beagle book), the unicorns are pure, and it is only the desire of others to touch or possess them that leads to the threat of death, animalistic sexual desire and the extinction of those values their captors most want to possess.
In the end, perhaps the wonderful thing about the unicorn is its mysterious symbolism!
When I was 16, I finally had the joy of seeing the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry in Paris at the Musee de Cluny. Really magical!
Here is an image of the Lady and the Unicorn at the Musee de Cluny
The opening sequence of The Last Unicorn
And the Legend trailer