Unicorn

Sir Geraint Lies Asleep

Unicorn

CreaturesBackground Essay Author: Kara L. McShane
The Unicorn is described as fierce in the Bestiary tradition, but it is also said to be symbolic of Christ (Clark 126).  Because only a virgin can be used to capture a unicorn, "thus our Lord Jesus Christ is spiritually the unicorn" because he was born of a virgin mother (126).
 
Unicorns appear less commonly than one might expect in medieval Arthuriana; however, the appearance of a unicorn in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival suggests the author's familiarity with other writings circulating at the time.  In the story, the title character encounters a knight-hermit who tells Parzival of the efforts to heal the Maimed King.  The knight-hermit explains that the court used two animals to try to heal the king.  First, they obtain a pelican's blood to attempt to heal the king, but this fails. Second, the court obtains the heart of a beast called Monocerous, or unicorn, but this method of healing the king also fails. (245).  Both these creatures are often figured as symbols of Christ in the bestiary tradition; the name used for the unicorn here – as well as the court's sacrifice of it for healing – reinforce the connection to bestiaries.  The unicorn's appearance in Parzival is thus particularly appropriate in the context of a Grail Quest.
 
The French romance The Knight of the Parrot recounts an episode about a dwarf and his infant child being cared for by a unicorn, which is described as being "a marvelously large animal, as big as a large horse, and who had a horn in the middle of the forehead as sharp as any razor in the world" (88).  This unicorn provides milk for the infant and eventually kills a deer by...

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