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More than just a horse, of course

Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS

By Chris Lavers

Morrow. 258 pp. $26.99

"The legend of the unicorn is far from being a tall tale," writes Chris Lavers in "The Natural History of Unicorns," "and ancient texts give us many clues to the beast's identity and home." A lecturer in natural history at the University of Nottingham, Lavers beautifully demonstrates what natural science and cultural history can show each other about the origins of enduring myths. Rigorous but never stodgy, precise without becoming arid, he has a lot of fun in these pages while pursuing one of the favorite beasts of mythology.

Don't confuse this book with cryptozoology, with its snapshots of the Loch Ness Monster (or is that driftwood?) and plaster casts of Bigfoot's tracks (unless that's a seam showing). Lavers is a scientist and a scholar. He isn't trying to prove the existence of an elusive beast. He understands that myths, like hardy plants, grow from their native environment, then get carried abroad and cross-fertilize with indigenous stories elsewhere, producing hybrids whose lineage requires careful untangling.

Lavers wants to know what inspired the many different versions of the unicorn that cavort through such diverse sources as Pliny's natural history encyclopedia, the medieval pharmacopoeia and Christian fables of sacred virginity. His quest takes him from ancient natural scientists such as Ctesius and Aristotle to the Islamic scholars who preserved those worthies' learning through the Dark Ages. Then he takes us along on exciting 19th- and 20th-century expeditions into jungle and veldt. Real animals who contributed to the unicorn or its potent horn include the yak, narwhal, oryx, rhinoceros, okapi and the now extinct auroch.

Determined, Lavers pursues his quarry wherever it leads. When he reads in one source that the interior of a purported unicorn horn resembled a cucumber peeled lengthwise, he peels a cucumber himself and compares it with animal horns until he finds a resemblance. The answer: The ancient source was describing walrus horn.

Wit enlivens many pages. Surveying medieval commentary on the unicorn, Levers remarks, "The full breadth of the Christian imagination was let loose on the problem of the meaning of a creature that was of the utmost importance to God (it was in the Bible) but which otherwise did not appear to exist."

Lavers keeps his intellectual detective story passionate and suspenseful. Illuminated by his erudition, symbol-rich scenes that have darkened to opacity over time turn translucent again. We see through museums' carved horns and faded tapestries and into the world that inspired them. Lavers shows us the parade of beasts wild and tame, familiar and exotic; the unforeseen side-effects of co-opting other culture's stories; the mistranslations and deliberate distortions; and most of all, in a world tormented by ignorance and violence and disease, the yearning for magic.

-- Michael Sims bookworld@washpost.com

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