I like to support museum gift shops, and this was an easy buy at the Met Cloisters in New York City where I saw one of the unicorn tapestries referenced in this book. (I’ve also seen the unicorn tapestries in Paris at the Musée de Cluny, which was equally a treat.) I did not actually read this book until years later, but it’s a timeless tale in both focus and writing style.
Unfortunately, “timeless” is not always a compliment. Lavers’ text is not always accessible to the lay person unused to reading academic prose, and at times it was slow-going even for my brain used to editing dense medical text. A chapter every few days was doable, but I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone as a light read on a fluffy subject. Rather, the point of this text is to take anything potentially magical out of the unicorn story, which is does unapologetically and very well. This is a deep dive into historical writings and legend, with some useful detours into the realm of religious metaphor.
The organization of the text is very Eurocentric, with the information revealed in the traditional hierarchy of “let’s see what the Greeks said about this,” then “how does it fit into the Judeo-Christian mythos,” and finally a few chapters at the end on any unicorn stories from Africa (all from the perspective of colonizers in a chapter literally called “The Dark Continent”) and some references to older epics that, big surprise, don’t convert quite as nicely to Christian analogs.
On the other hand, I learned about a bunch of cool horned animals in Asia that I wasn’t familiar with. As a relatively educated reader in the 21st century, I mostly agree with the theory that traders didn’t necessarily keep a pair of horns together. You’d make more money selling them individually, and if the buyer hasn’t seen one before, why not tell them a great story to seal the deal?