This natural history of unicorns is not a work of dark and devious wit like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; it really does trace the unicorn, in many guises, from cuneiform script through to the Hebrew Bible, Greek versions of travellers’ tales, the Septuagint, the second-century Physiologus, medieval bestiaries, religious and secular art, at last refining in the fourteenth century to the image now familiar to us, the prancing, white, fabulous palfrey with its single horn. These tangled threads resemble a page from a children’s puzzle book, a dense web where you’ll reach the end if you stick to the right line. But here you don’t really reach the end. The author promises something and it doesn’t happen. Nonetheless the journey is enjoyable and you learn a vast number of interesting and useless facts and lots of good words too – astragal, rhinocerine, alexipharmic, osteodentine (‘which has an attractive porridge-like appearance’).
The very important thing about the unicorn would appear to be its single horn. Funny, that. Or not, for after all, that’s what the Latinate word means, as does its Greek precedent, monoceros. ‘Who or what was the unicorn?’ is the central question, and the contenders are countless