This Old Monster: The Unicorn
Welcome to an article that will become a new feature here on my bloggery Fridays: This Old Monster, where much like Bob Vila, I take a classic monster that’s either underused or growing stale and breath new life into it with my usual brand of weirdness and finesse.
Our first subject is an oldie, but a goodie: the unicorn. Let’s get started:
The unicorn, as I’m sure you’re all aware has a bit of an image problem.
Yes, the unicorn is the very definition of what stereotypical precocious little girls love. Presumably, this comes from the lore that states that unicorns only allow virgins to ride them and parents give their little girls a nudge toward loving a creature whose companionship has purity as a prerequisite because chastity belts cost too goddamn much.
This of course makes no sense on so many levels. First (because the less mature of you have been itching to see the joke made), the thing has a big ‘ol phallic symbol right there on its face. No one should be encouraging their children to become attached to a creature defined by having highly visible genitals of genital-proxies pointed at them. Incidentally, this exact line will appear if I ever do a ‘This Old Monster’ for tanuki—and ‘Genital Proxy’ is a great name for a rock band.
But more importantly, the face-wang the unicorn packs is, in reality, a horn. You might recognize horns as a built in dueling saber for the natural world. Let’s take a moment and reflect on what horns are actually for, shall we:
That’s what horns do. And every night, millions of parents put their children to sleep under bedspreads depicting a creature that is not only be-horned, but famous for that horn. And they tell us to worry about violent videogames (which is currently the natural defense of another group of irrational creatures that find their phallic symbols very, very important).
This is what we’re working against. Somehow, people have ingrained this image of a unicorn as a cartoonishly good and pure creature. Not only that, but it is one of the leading metaphors for silly, childish fantasies. So much so that during the 2012 elections when a group pursued a campaign to allege that President Obama was not a natural born citizen, the counter attack was to challenge these so-called ‘birthers’ to prove that challenger Mitt Romney was not a unicorn.
With that pedigree, it’s damn hard to make decent use of unicorns outside of classic children’s fare like The Last Unicorn. The best play unicorns have gotten in pop culture in the last decade has been as part of the newest My Little Pony show (which I’m to understand has pretty good writing which led to a rather outspoken tertiary demographic of fans. That’s all we’ll say here, as I haven’t seen it and know very little about it beyond the internet’s usual overreaction to discovering that things have hardcore fans).
Even Dungeons and Dragons can’t bring itself to make them useful monsters, instead sticking them with a Lawful Good alignment that means they’re not just inherently Good (and thus not instantly killable), but also that they’re obnoxious. Version 3.5 added the humiliation by making them into summonable and unsommonable mounts that were instantly dubbed poke-mounts by the fans.
The lack of play is a shame, because the unicorn has some solid points in its favor to bring to the party.
The classic description of a unicorn isn’t just ‘horse with horn’, but rather a mash-up of a horse and a goat with a horn. They typically have horse bodies and heads with goat feet and the beard of a billie goat.
The goat hooves are particular interest, as man breeds of goats have specialized hooves and legs to allow them stability on dangerous and uneven terrain. This would mean that a unicorn would be an all-terrain animal similar to a mountain goat rather than a plains-bound ground-pounder like a horse.
Goats are also known for their legendary appetite. Granted, that aren’t the truly omnivorous can eaters of cartoon fame, but this is an article about horned sparkle-horsies, so we can take some liberties. This opens up the idea that a unicorn might be truly omnivorous thanks to its part-goatness.
And now, a cartoon about a goat eating things.
Let us not discount the equine portion of the unicorn though. Horses weren’t always a more useless, giant version of dogs; good only for shows and races. Nor were they always the docile plow and buggy pulling beasts of burden seen in period films, Amish country and Central Park. And while today’s horses face only the dangers of Brits hunting them to extinction after discovering how delicious they are, the horses of Yore faced the Valhalla-worthy prospect of death on the battlefield.
Behold the warhorse, an armored conveyance that was also tasked with biting enemies and staving in their goddamn heads with its mighty hooves. In a very real way, this was the original war machine.
Warhorses were no joke. There’s a reason that not long after the cavalry and the hoof-to-skull maneuver known as the cavalry charge become were invented, nearly every army on Earth dropped the shield-wall and phalanx for massed pikemen wielding one of literally dozens of types of polearm. The legendary horse killing swords were not created just to screw with some guy by killing his expensive mount.
Horses can seriously ruin you if they have the inclination. Virtually in my own backyard, a horse paralyzed Christopher Reeve for daring to ride it, an injury that would contribute to his death. Reeve, as you might know, played Superman. Let me put it a less accurate, but more pleasingly alarmist way: A freaking horse killed Superman. Not even a magic horse, or a super-smart horse, just a regular horse, the kind that is barely smarter than the cast of [insert reality show here].
Let’s not forget that in addition to being badass, horses have a top speed of fifty-five miles per hour (sorry, non-US folks, I’m still a fan of the Empire) and their strength is literally where the term ‘horsepower’ comes from. For those interested, the bastion of all facts, Google defines horsepower as: A unit of power equal to 550 foot-pounds per second (745.7 watts).
Even before we start delving into magical powers, we have an incredibly strong and fast monster that can move with surety on any terrain other than vertical and can eat anything. Plus it has a goring weapon on its head. That’s already pretty good, but let’s take a look at the lore and see what else ol’ uni’s got under the hood.
Hmm… Okay, so Wikipedia’s sole example of powers directly attributed to the unicorn is ‘jumping off high places and absorbing the damage with its horn’. That’s literally all the mythological unicorn was said to be capable of. The horn (or alicorn), however was a mystical Swiss army knife, capable of healing, poison detection, and filling the wallets of snake oil salesmen.
As it turns out, all the sparkles and quicksilver blood (as seen in Harry Potter) is all after-market add-ons, like vampires turning into bats, the hybrid (or Crinos for the World of Darkness fans) form of werewolves, or the mummy’s ability to make Brendan Fraiser a star for short periods of time.
In general, people didn’t think the unicorn was some magical creature, they thought it was just an animal that was untamable except by a virgin because that’s how people back in the day thought animals worked. That, or they thought that girls inherently had Disney Princess power over animals.
The second X chromosome is worth like five levels of Druid.
Still, it was a pretty badass animal. The Bible uses the unicorn to explain someone’s strength and some of the animals suspected of being the inspiration include Elasmotherium, AKA the more badass prototype for the rhino, and the eland, an antelope whose hobbies include beating the crap out of lions like it ain’t no thang.
A lot of people can’t resist trying to use unicorns, and in keeping with the idea that all fairytale creatures can be made compelling just by injecting a dash of Lovecraft ripoff into their DNA, they try to butch them way the hell up.
Typically, this actually just involves stealing the unicorn-like monsters from other mythologies, calling them unicorns, then making them axe-crazy and slavering. It’s easy too, as there’s no shortage of more badass versions of the myth, like the Russian Indrik, East Asia’s duo of the Sin-you and Qilin, and Persia’s pair, the Karkadann and the explicitly carnivorous Shadhavar.
In my opinion, these aren’t really unicorn variations so much as going with a murder-horse of a different color.
And while the common view of the unicorn as the incorruptibly pure pureness of purity is also far removed from the classical (but not classic) unicorn, at least it’s actually based on the myth of the unicorn instead of ripping off other people’s myths and relabeling them.
The purpose of This Old Monster isn’t to completely divorce a monster from its roots, but to use them and build on them to make it better, rather like Bob Villa not bulldozing the titular house he’s fixing up to build something entirely new.
Now with that in mind, let’s get down to business.
The biggest problem with the unicorn is the default personality. It is the Mary Sue of equine monsters; always beloved by everyone and always on the side of good and right without fault. Never is it inclined to put its build-in weaponry to the test, preferring instead to frolic in rainbows and gallop in grassy fields with little girls on their backs.
Let’s take the core of that: a unicorn thinks itself one of the great arbiters of Right and Good. In fact, its stated ideals might even be superficially positive. But what if the unicorn takes that one step further down the slippery slope? What if it is so sure of its own righteousness that it is completely intolerant of those that don’t live by the ideals it holds true and completely willing to ruin lives to enforce its way of life?
This new unicorn would be an oppressive, sometimes violent crusader for a cause of its own choosing. It would be a symbol of Absolute Good corrupted by its very own perceived goodness. If you’ve ever played D&D with a paladin whose face is constantly begging for a fist, you know the type. If you’ve ever heard or seen anything about the Westboro Baptist Church, you also know the type as well as understanding the depths of spite and pettiness this attitude can engender.
But a unicorn is an intelligent creature (smarter than Westboro folk at least), and has good PR for being pretty and supposedly good and actually quite charismatic. In this new version, it would also be beloved by young women in-universe. This would be what makes it so very dangerous.
For you see, the new unicorn (newnicorn?) would also be a cult leader.
No, seriously: think about it. A unicorn is a magical, idealized creature with healing powers and a very clear element of dogma. It is attracted and in turn attractive to young women based on some idea of ‘purity’. How can it not be a cult leader?
Picture it: the legendary unicorn, once created by the gods as a paragon of virtue and strength. In the days since its creators last touched the earth, it has become aware that the rest of Creation is morally flawed compared to itself—and this is something it cannot abide by.
Few if any humans or demi-humans live up to its high expectations and those who don’t are considered by this being to be irreversibly contaminated (yes, I did steal that from Farscape, because I imagine it talking like Craise.)
Pictured: a unicorn.
Unable to simply live and let live, it seeks to either bring these imperfect beings into alignment with its own way of life, or else tear them down into ruin. To this end, it presents itself to those few humans it can at least stomach; virgin girls and gathers them to itself. It choose them not only because of their perceived purity, but because it believes women to be more foolish and pliable (Monster, remember? They’re allowed to be sexist.).
Dusting off all the classic cult techniques, the unicorn indoctrinates its nubile followers to its way of thinking, sending them back home to their villages and cities to act as its agents, sabotaging those it deems beyond redemption and sowing the seeds of hatred and divisiveness that tears the community apart at the seems; all the while preaching the unicorn’s beliefs to any who will listen and be converted.
When confronted, the unicorn reveals just how formidable a foe it really is: doling out physical punishment as only a horse with a goring horn can and using its advantage on uneven terrain to devastating effect. Its defeated foes are not taken prisoner, or even hidden away. It devours all evidence of their existence and uses its followers to cover everything up.
Even if captured and brought to some form of justice, the unicorn is charismatic enough that it might actually be able to talk its way out, but if that fails, it really is capable of eating anything and will bite through its bonds and whatever hems it in.
The legend that a unicorn can be captured by a maiden is a rumor propagated by the beast itself, ensuring that the first thing people will do to recover it will be to sent it a brand new disciple to start its cult anew.
And if it comes to that, it can jump off a cliff and absorb the fall damage with its horn.
So there you have it: all the basic elements of both Unicorn Classic and the Classical Unicorn, only reshaped into something new and interesting. This is how unicorns work on the World of Ere, the setting in which Rune Breaker takes place.
I hope this has been as fun a read for you as it has been a write for me. If you have a monster in mind for the next installment of This Old Monster, please post it in the comments below, or on the forum.
One last thing before I go: tonight marks the launch of the second Descendants ebook; The Descendants Vs. Project Tome. To celebrate, I’m holding two contests to give two lucky readers the chance to win a free copy! Head on over to that link to find out how and it might just be you.
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