April 24, 2020

U is for Unicorn

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn, all around the town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown,
And some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.

        Unfortunately, giving them cake only served to reinforce negative behavior.
        Okay, this one really does have a historical origin: the lion is England while the unicorn is Scotland.  They are the two heraldic supporters of the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, but there has been rivalry and enmity between the two that particularly came to a head during the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century, as well as the Acts of Union in 1707 that made England and Scotland one kingdom.
As a political statement this rhyme seems to indicate an attitude of being tired of the whole squabble.  I know of no particular explanation for the bread and cake, however.
        Most of the older illustrations are pretty straightforward and show the two animals rampant on their hind legs fighting, with a crown on the ground between them.  The first one here is obviously of that type.  So is the second, which I included because it’s a particularly handsome example.  (It’s another copper engraving printed intaglio, but oh well.  I forgive it because of the lovely textures and shading.)  Not until later, after the era of common wood block prints had passed, do we tend to get views of the two troublemakers being drummed out of town, or illustrations in which there are any visible injuries as a result of the fighting.
        The third illustration sticks with the same iconography, but with a more modern carving style.  Instead of trying to reproduce the look of an ink drawing, as earlier wood block prints usually do, this 20th century artist is having a little more fun with some of the unique properties of wood block printing.  She’s got more white lines on black, more interesting textures (such as the ground), and more look of carviness.
        The final illustration is interesting because it shows the unicorn employing a more horse-like fighting style.  I’m not sure what your best strategy might be when you have the ability to kick like a horse behind, or stab with a horn in front, but it’s reasonable to suppose that you might do some of both.  I appreciate that this artist is treating the unicorn and lion as if they are real animals, not just heraldic symbols.
        Do you think one of them will eventually win the fight, or do you think they’re really just rough-housing, with no intention of ever actually ending it?
        A final note for impressionable children: Constant bickering may well get you drummed out of the company of others.

[Pictures: Wood block print from Vocal Harmony, or No Song, No Supper, c 18o0 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Copper engraving from Songs for the Nursery, printed for Tabart & Co, c 1808 (Image from Internet Archive);
The Lion and the Unicorn, wood engraving by Enid Marx, 1939 (Image from The JC);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Quarto of Nursery Rhymes published by McLoughlin Bros., nineteenth century (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

14 comments:

Deborah Weber said...

I had no idea unicorns were associated with Scotland - now I'm in love with the country even more. That third block is really fabulous, and I love their very long regal tails. I'm an advocate of no fighting, but plenty of plum cake.

Lisa said...

I know this one because of Through the Looking Glass. I would expect, barring a well placed kick, the lion would be able to slash open a unicorn. Or, at least a female lion would, she's the hunter of the pride! I just see the males eating or lazing around waiting.
But, the unicorn will be back, being eternal. They can't be totally killed, can they?

Kathe W. said...

Poor Unicorn really took a beating in real life. I am enjoying your theme and posts! See you tomorrow!

Tui Snider said...

Symbols are my jam, so this is such a goodie! I'm embarrassed to confess that I didn't know Scotland was associated with unicorns! I only knew about the thistle. I've seen unicorns on a few headstones... Now I wonder if this indicated they were of Scottish descent? Great post!

~Tui Snider, @TuiSnider TuiSnider.com - Historic Cemeteries & Symbolism from A to Z

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, you are so right in favoring cake over violence! ("Cake or death?!?")

Lisa, good point that female lions do most of the work, while lions in heraldry definitely tend to be males.

Kathe, it's true, and at many points throughout history the head unicorns, as it were, made the poor decisions that led to the suffering of the common unicorns. Isn't that always the way it goes? =(

Tui, unicorns are very rich in symbolism. One on a gravestone could indicate Scottish ancestry, but my guess is that it would be more likely to be the fact that the unicorn is a symbol of Christ's incarnation (because it tames itself to lay its head in a virgin's lap = being born to Mary; and that's how it is caught and killed by the hunters = crucifixion.) That said, I'm not sure I've ever seen a unicorn on a gravestone.

Frédérique said...

A new one for me. Great illustrations!

Jade Li said...

I echo what Frederique said.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

This motif actually shows up in folktales as well! Sometimes it's a dragon and a lion. Lion usually wins. Go figure.

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

I first came across this rhyme when I read Through The Looking Glass, but I was about eight or nine at the time, so the politics escaped me. Once you know, it becomes so obvious!

Thanks for sharing those fabulous prints!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Zalka, I feel like there's no way a lion could beat an actual dragon, but from the standpoint of traditional symbolism, the lion is the "noblest" beast and the dragon symbolizes evil, so of course the lion has to win!

Sue, I'm guessing that despite the origins of the rhyme, there was no political content in Lewis Carroll. I assume he was just referencing a nursery rhyme, along with all the others: Queen of Hearts, Tweedledum and -dee, and so on.

Shari Elder said...

I love the images and history of these. I found it fascinating that countries are represented by mythical and/or non-native animals rather than local fauna. People and their stories are fascinating. This is a great one.

Jenny said...

I know giraffes can be dangerous to lions because they kick really hard, but I'm not sure about unicorns!

JazzFeathers said...

Ah, I don't think the fight will be over anytime soon.

@JazzFeathers
The Old Shelter - Living the Twenties

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Cute illustrations :-)

An A-Z of Faerie: Werehyena