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  • Writer's pictureBeth Linton

Paranormal Romance Books: Narwhals & Unicorns

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

Our fascination with magical creatures seems to be as old as humanity itself. In previous blogs I’ve discussed ancient cross-cultural stories about dragons, and the folklore surrounding shapeshifters, werewolves and vampires. In this blog, I explore the origin of our literary love of unicorns and how these magical mythical creatures have found their way into fantasy and paranormal romance novels.

According to legend, unicorns live in forests, have magical qualities and can only be tamed by pure maidens; they are described as real, desirable and attainable – if only by maidenly hands. Like dragons, stories of unicorns can be found in literature from across the world, dating back to antiquity. There are stories about unicorns from Bronze Age Asian civilisations, from Ancient Greece, even the Bible (more about that later).

The perseverance of these stories raises the question: How did our fascination with unicorns begin and did people actually believe unicorns were real?

When looking back in time from our comfortable position in the twenty-first century, we have to remember that until relatively recently much of the world was a mystery to the majority of the globe’s population. For Europeans without the internet, TV, photography, even zoos, believing that a horse with a horn existed was a far smaller leap of faith than believing in a creature like a giraffe, crocodile – or a narwhal.

In 1827 a giraffe was brought to France and was put on display in a zoo. The viewing of this creature caused a sensation as many had been sceptical about its existence – but this evidentiary proof that a giraffe existed only reinforced the myth of the unicorn. If an animal as strange as a giraffe existed, why not a horned horse?

The belief in unicorns was also underscored by faith. An early mistranslation of the Bible widely available across Europe mentioned unicorns eight times. Scholars believe the reference to strong horned animals, mistranslated to unicorn (one horned), was likely a reference to a rhino, or even other dual horned creatures, but this mistranslation was taken as proof by many that the unicorn existed. It was only in the seventeenth century that the Catholic Church edited out all references to unicorns from the Bible.

While Viking trade with Europe predates the two examples given above, it is important to take a moment to consider its importance in the perpetuation of the unicorn myth because it marks the likely beginning of a trade in unicorn horns that lasted into the nineteenth century.

Vikings are best known for their propensity to rape, pillage and raid, but what is not as recognised is that these excellent seamen were also adept traders and doctors of spin. One of the Vikings’ priciest objects for sale around 1000AD was ‘unicorn horn’. In truth, these unicorn artefacts were narwhal (or narwhale) tusks, the elongated canine tooth of the male of the species that protrudes from the front of its face.

It is likely that these tusks were bought from the Inuit who hunted the narwhal, but when Europeans assumed the horn came from the unicorn, clever traders that they were, the Vikings used the myth to their advantage (click here to learn more about Vikings and the narwhal).

For many in the UK, the narwhal tusk is now cemented into our minds as the fishmonger’s weapon of choice when faced with terrorism. In 2019, a knife-wielding terrorist killed two people in London while wearing what appeared to be an explosive vest. He was detained, in part, thanks to Mr Frost who grabbed a mounted narwhal tusk from the wall of The Fishmongers’ Hall and helped disarm and subdue the terrorist until police arrived. While the narwhal tusk certainly proved useful on London Bridge that day, medieval people believed this ‘unicorn horn’ offered a more magical form of protection: it was believed that a drink taken from a cup carved from a ‘unicorn horn’ could not be poisoned and that the horn could cure ailments such as depression.

If you need proof that these beliefs were sincere, then Queen Elizabeth I’s gift from Sir Humphrey Gilbert provides it. Humphrey gave his queen the horn from a “sea-unicorn”, a jewel encrusted unicorn horn worth several million in today’s currency. Superstitious Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with this gift, that she ordered it preserved with the Crown Jewels. Unfortunately, according to Thomas Fuller (1660), the horn of Windsor was destroyed by Puritans after the civil war because of its perceived magical properties and its supposed link to witchcraft.

At a time when chemistry was still to be invented, Queen Elizabeth I and her ilk believed objects held ‘properties’. Historical documents tell us that Elizabeth I had one of the ‘unicorn horn’ cups mentioned above and drank from it. As she believed the cup would explode if the drink inside was tampered with, it was the perfect antidote for assassination attempts by poison!

King James I, however, decided he needed more than faith to test out his purchase of a unicorn horn. James I (who ruled after Elizabeth I) gave poison to one of his servants and then fed him some of the ground unicorn horn he’d bought as an antidote. Needless to say, that when the antidote didn’t work, he wasn’t happy – and I’m sure the poisoned servant’s family weren’t best pleased either!

Like their Tudor ancestors, the Victorians who walked the same English streets that saw the heroic use of the narwhal tusk in 2019, believed in the magical qualities of the unicorn. There are accounts of wealthy Victorians purchasing narwhal tusks (believing them to be unicorn horns) to add to their fashionable nineteenth century collections of oddities from around the world.

This form of ivory-trading still exists today. While it tends to be elephant and rhino horns that make the news, narwhal and mammoth are also traded and fetch large sums (to read more about this unusual ivory trade click here.)

Given the ‘proof’ of the narwhal horn, the ingrained belief caused by the mistranslation of the Bible, and the stunned wonder upon viewing animals like the giraffe, it is hardly unsurprising that fantasy stories continue to include the unicorn as a hopeful and credible creature.

Unicorns can be found in modern fantasy novels like Harry Potter. Unicorns also take a staring role in fantasy romance and paranormal romance novels. A unicorn shapeshifter is full of romantic possibilities – just as dragon-shifters and werewolf-shifters are. Add in fated mates, alpha male qualities and other magical features and you’ve got yourself a romance book!

So, as I end this blog of all things unicorn lovin’ I leave you with some homework: Next time you see an illustration of a unicorn take a moment to check out its horn. You get a gold star if you notice that the horn is spiralled - just like a narwhal’s.

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