Saw this post on Peter S. Beagle’s Tumblr yesterday, which references a debate I’ve seen played out on sites with fantasy and anthro art. In short, what do unicorns look like? (Although really, the question is better phrased as what they’re “supposed” to look like.)
This usually starts up because an artist has dared to portray a unicorn as a horse with a horn, or without cloven hooves, or with the ‘wrong’ kind of tail, or this or that or something else, and the viewer has gotten unreasonably ticked off and decided to act superior about how “it can’t be a unicorn if it doesn’t have (whatever),” and this is therefore not a Real Unicorn.
I hate to be the one to have to say this, but…
*drops voice to a whisper*
They’re not real.
At least, not in the way that, say, Sumatran tigers and snapping turtles and monarch butterflies are real. And what that means is, nobody — no, not even Peter S. Beagle — gets to define exclusively what a unicorn is or isn’t. It can look like a white horse with a horn (or a black horse, or whatever equine color variations you want to use). It can look more like a goat, or a deer, or an alien giraffe. It can use some combination of the classical elements described in various texts — or none at all. It can be a creature of purity and innocence, a fierce warrior, or a predatory monster.
And you know what? You can still call it a unicorn.
So to all the creative types reading this, I hereby give myself, and you, permission to write about, draw, paint, sculpt, imagine, and otherwise do creative things with, whatever kinds of unicorns can be dreamed up. I’m tired of the Fantasy Creature Police. If vampires can be everything from charming counts to sparkly pretty-boys to basically-pretty-much-zombies, then other fantasy creatures get the same leeway.
And yes, audience, you get to have preferences as to what you like in your fantasy creatures. I happen to like gryphons (or griffins, whichever; not getting into that) with four lion paws instead of having talons in front, which isn’t typical, but that’s what I personally like, so that’s how I picture them and how I’ve written them (or will write them, if I ever finish that story someday). But I don’t go to the comments section of everybody’s gryphon art and rant about how they’ve somehow gotten it “wrong” just because they’re not matching up to my combination of criteria. So if you’re going to bitch to artists, visual or otherwise, for not doing the cloven hooves, or the lion’s tail, or whatever else, I hope you have a skeleton in your closet — a unicorn skeleton, that is, or preferably a complete preserved specimen — because that’s the only way you’re ever going to be “right.”
[Postscript: I know the typical response to this boils down to “well, if you don’t have some guidelines for what it’s supposed to be, then you could just draw a dragon or something and call it a unicorn, and then the word unicorn becomes meaningless.” Well, yeah, I guess technically it is meaningless, anyway, because it designates something that doesn’t exist in the physical world and is therefore open to interpretation. I don’t get why unicorns are so much of a target for this. People don’t seem to get so bent out of shape about artists or writers reimagining dragons or vampires or zombies or werewolves or ghosts or anything else with no physical proof. (Okay, strike that — I have seen recent complaining about werewolves being drawn “just” as anthro wolves, so maybe every creature has its devoted band of nitpickers.) For myself, I’ve read a book with Pegasus portrayed as almost reptilian with bat-like wings, and another where they have vestigial hands as part of their wing structure. Both took a little mental acclimation, but it was interesting. In the end, your only limitation is what your audience is willing to accept and how much they’re willing to stretch their preconceptions.]