Marco Polo’s Unicorn
When celebrating horses, let’s not forget the unicorn
The Circling Fin
Tyrone writer John Montague once recalled the horse he rode as a boy, a patient and ‘barrel-backed’ creature compared to the other kinds of horses, from Clydesdales to racecourse champions, more celebrated in our culture. In contrast to the lumbering workhorses on his farm, the poet recalls the
slender-ankled as models
glimpsed through the rails
through sunlong afternoons
as with fluent fetlocks
they devoured the miles
Just as it is with horses, so it is with their reclusive cousins, the unicorns. They come in all forms and, though gentle, don’t care to be ordered about. When I was young, the unicorn was a solemn, equine beast, most often associated with realms of enchantment and generally seen in the company of the Lion Rampant – another firm favourite for the Animal Nobility throne.
That kind of unicorn is a world away from the vision most children now have of the creature, which is purple, plastic and comes in a box with a rainbow mane and personalized brush. These unicorns, unlike their ancient counterparts on Renaissance tapestries, are found nowadays mostly in the company of bronzed princesses who look like makeover-show contestants.
Then, not long ago, the North Korean History Institute made an announcement that caught the attention of the world: The lair of a unicorn ridden by an ancient king had been reconfirmed by their archaeologists. The clinching piece of evidence was a rock outside, inscribed with the words ‘Unicorn Lair’. It may be that translators at Pyongyang’s Government Press Office weren’t quite intending to claim proof of unicorns’ existence, but that is what they officially declared through their English-language service, much to the amusement of media-watchers worldwide.
But perhaps unicorns are not as absent from our zoos and wilderness as we’ve been led to believe. Ancient Greek naturalists were the first to write about these horned quadrapeds and Marco Polo claimed to have seen one on his way through Sumatra. In fact they might have been looking at rhinoceros, whose stoical and dignified demeanour is always a pleasure to encounter at the zoo – though I’m not so sure I would welcome their company in the wild.
Back to John Montague and his first horse, a warm memory from what he calls the ‘rushy meadows’ of his childhood. Montague credits his mount’s stoical reaction to suffering with helping him to grow up: as he puts it, ‘forcing me to drink from the trough of reality’.
It is true that you don’t get far in this world without sticking your nose into that trough – look at the state of North Korea for why – but, once you’ve had your fill, the meadows of unreality have their place too. And that is where, alongside the other marvels of zoomorphic imagination, from dragons to sphinxes, you will find Marco Polo’s unicorn.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.