I have talked before about my love of Shel Silverstein’s poetry. Most people don’t know that he is the poet behind the Irish Rover’s international hit, “The Unicorn Song.” It’s hard to resist the Celtic charm of this lilting classic, but I encountered it first between the covers of Where the Sidewalk Ends. My mother gave me this book when I was very little, coming home one night from a business trip of some kind and sharing with me the joy of a new book.
The poems of Where the Sidewalk Ends were also an essential part of my son’s childhood bedtimes, including “The Unicorn Song.” The moral lesson in the song is pretty thin, and intentionally so. Why do we not see unicorns in our enchanted forests and suburbs anymore? Because they missed the boat, too busy frolicking in the great wilds. And not just any boat. Growing up on an island we were always attuned to the rhythm of the daily crossings to the mainland, aware that if we miscalculated we could be waiting for hours–even overnight. These poor adventurous souls, however, missed the boat of boats, Noah’s ark, the last refuge for antediluvian creatures. The rains fell and Noah’s ark sailed while the played.
Despite this lesson, we still missed the boat from time to time, and I have never stopped looking for unicorns in the enchanted realms I inhabit.
The Irish Rovers were not the first to sing about the lost unicorns, and neither was childhood poet laureate Shel Silverstein. And checking my booklist dates, I see that Peter Beagle wrote The Last Unicorn in the late ’60s, just as “The Unicorn Song” was lilting across the airwaves for the first time.
Before all of these folk artists–an Irish band, a Jewish poet, and a fantasy author–shared their unicorn stories, C.S. Lewis thought about the loss of the unicorn. And just like Shel Silverstein, he pinpointed Noah’s ark as the critical moment. In “The Sailing of the Ark,” a poem published in Punch in August 1948, Lewis anonymously shared a funny little tune about Noah’s lazy and belligerent sons, and how the unicorn finally was left behind. Unlike Silverstein’s legend, we find out from C.S. Lewis that it may not have been the unicorn’s fault after all.
This war of the poet legend-makers should also give us a little caution about how we make links between authors. There is little–I would say almost no–chance that Silverstein knew of Lewis’ version. It is highly unlikely that Silverstein ever came across this edition of Punch, a popular UK humour magazine, but not one with sticking power. “The Unicorn Song” was written by 1962, and Lewis’ collected poetry didn’t appear for another half-decade.
It seems most likely that this legend of the unicorns missing the boat popped up independently and was played with by two popular poets of the 20th century without mutual influence. Both of the authors asked where the unicorns went, and both suggested they missed Noah’s ark.
I think we underestimate this phenomenon. Some ideas just beg for air and will find their way to the surface through one genius or another. Which civilization invented music? or poetry? or art? Why should we choose? I think that some things are simply essential to the human social space. One of those, in the west, is the idea that the unicorns missed a chance to get on Noah’s ark.
Of course, there may be a source behind both these fine fellows. And we also must remember that it is only a legend, a fun play on cultural ideas. Thus, I am not saying that a unicorn isn’t haunting a bookshelf or neighbourhood near you.
The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,
And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.
The beasts were in, but Japhet said “I see one creature more
Belated and unmated there comes knocking at the door.”
“Well, let him knock or let him drown,” said Ham, “or learn to swim;
We’re overcrowded as it is, we’ve got no room for him.”
“And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,” said Shem. “Its feet
Are hard as horns and O, the air that comes from it is sweet.”
“Now hush!” said Ham. “You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see
What’s at the door it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.”
Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below:
“Some animal is knocking. Let it in before we go.”
Ham shouted back (and savagely he nudged the other two)
“That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.”
Said Noah “Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.”
Said Ham “Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.”
Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head.
His face grew white, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said
“Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight—
Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!
O noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;
In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?
O golden hoofs, O cataracts of mane, O nostrils wide
With high disdain, and O the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!
O long shall be the furrows ploughed upon the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,
And dark and crooked all the roads in which our race will walk,
And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower on broken stalk!
Now all the world, O Ham, may curse the hour that you were born—
Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.”
And here is Shel Silverstein doing his own rendition, which I have never heard before.
Ah, the poor Unicorn. It’s fertile soil for writers, this idea of who or what missed the Ark…or who or what might have been a stowaway, only to be revealed at a later time… 🙂
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Elizabeth Goudge wrote a wonderful children’s story “The Little White Horse”, with the horse transpiring to be a mysterious unicorn and a huge shaggy dog a lion! Maybe the unicorn survived the floods by magic? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_White_Horse)
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A favorite book of J.K. Rowling, I believe – perhaps feeding into her use of unicorns in the Harry Potter novels?
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I didn’t know that. Very cool. The unicorns are beautiful in HP.
Thanks for the tip, Hannah. I didn’t know that book and will look it up.
I thoroughly enjoyed it (though so far only in Dutch translation!). She seems very Inklings-complementary in general (and her autobiography is interesting for Inklings references – and tantalizing for leaving me wishing she had said more, as she lived in or near Oxford as their contemporary!).
I can’t give you a citation or source, but I’m pretty sure that in a class on Middle English the idea of the unicorn missing the boat was mentioned as a commonplace of belief dating back at least until then. Maybe in Gower? CSL was a huge fan of Gower’s, and reading _Confessio Amantis_ I was convinced it was the most fundamental building block of CSL’s mature style. I don’t know about Silverstein.
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I believe it–particularly in the biblical epics of the early middle ages. Lewis might know….
Interesting questions as to influence, tradition, allusion, intertextuality… I used to read Punch in America in my youth (a good generation younger than Shel Silverstein) at the public library – maybe he had the chance to do the same, growing up in Chicago?
If they were right, where did all the unicorn lore come from – antediluvian records or oral tradition? (I had no idea until I read Andy Orchard’s great Critical Companion to Beowulf (2004) about the astonishing old literature of Ham as an evil magician inscribing magical stuff on rocks so it could be recovered after the Flood…) Speaking of which, Odell Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn (London: Allen and Unwin, 1930) is delightful – and I wonder which Inklings knew it (I have mistakenly asserted in the past as a fact that Williams knew Shepard – but it is a possibility)?
Tonke Dragt (born about 6 weeks after Silverstein, and still active) and, if I’m not mistaken, a fan of Tolkien and Lewis – as well as, according to her English Wikipedia article illustrator of “work by Paul Biegel, E. Nesbit, Rosemary Sutcliff, and the novel Elidor by Alan Garner” – wrote a delightful little book about unicorns and the Flood published in 2007 as a ‘Children’s Book Week’ present), Wat niemand weet (‘What nobody knows’). It is definitely eucatastrophic, but I will avoid any spoilers in case the success of the Netflix adaptation of her most famous book leads to her unicorn book getting translated into English, too:
I had forgotten how subtle – and subtly eucatastrophic in its own, different way – Lewis’s poem was!
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Great comments, David. The Letter For The King isn’t released in Canada Netflix, yet. I look forward to it.
There’s a very well written book about the Ark by Geraldine McCaughrean, which also has a theory about what happened to the unicorn.
And I can’t resist mentioning Bill Bailey’s sketch about the Ark where Noah is plates by Sean Connery and God is played by James Mason. Sean Connery makes the Ark into a speed boat and puts all the dogs along the side so that their ears will flap in the breeze.
Noah is PLAYED by Sean Connery. Darned autocorrect!
Thanks for the tips on both!
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Hmm… seeing the reference to Not the End of the World (2004: hitherto unknown to me even as title) makes me realize that, funnily enough, none of us have yet mentioned Madeleine L’Engle’s antediluvian and delightfully unicorn-rich Many Waters (1986).
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Yes, I should reread Many Waters! An appropriate sentence from Wikipedia: “It soon becomes apparent that the boys have been interpolated into the story of Noah’s Ark, shortly before the Flood. Both Noah and Lamech receive mysterious instructions from God (known as El) concerning the building of the Ark. The twins come to understand that unicorns who can traverse space and time, live in the oasis.”
I just found this blog post with loads on unicorns: https://www.stevewinick.com/unicorns by Stephen D. Winick (oa on Lewis’s poem “The Sailing of the Ark”)
Wow – well found! A fine, rich, and, as far as I’ve read and browsed, delightful resource!
And, my first checking the Internet Archive for something in his list of Books – Brown, Robert. The Unicorn: A Mythological Investigation. London: Spottswoode & Co., 1881 – found scans of three different copies, and of a contemporary review!
Yes!! Did you already know of Robert Brown’s writing, or was it because of the title, that you checked it? Sounds great as well!
Come “to stable and to manger once again” – Merry Christmas (on its Third Day)! The title – maybe Odell Shepard mentions it, in The Lore of the Unicorn, but if so, I do not remember that.
But now you ask, it occurs to be to click the links to his name with the scans, etc. – and I find the Internet Archive has scans of several more of his books, including the interesting-sounding Semitic influence in Hellenic Mythology, with Special Reference to the Recent Mythological Works of the Rt. Hon. Prof. F. Max Müller and Mr. Andrew Lang (1898), Researches into the Origin of the Primitive Constellations of the Greeks, Phoenicians and Babylonians (Vol. I, 1899, Vol. II, 1900), Poseidôn: A Link between Semite, Hamite, and Aryan (1872), Eridanus: River and Constellation (1883), The Great Dionysiak Myth (Vol. I, 1877) – and “John Leland in Cornwall” with lots of Arthurian references, in Mr. Gladstone as I knew him: and Other Essays (1902). I wonder how many of those might have interested the young Inklings, if they encountered them? (And, I wonder if any of them did encounter any of these books?)
From the Winick’s blogpost: Interesting medieval rivalry between lion and unicorn (in a letter of 1165), “which gained particular importance in Britain, when the lion came to represent England and the unicorn Scotland. With the ascension of the Scottish monarch James I to the throne of England in 1603 this rivalry … was reconciled …, and the lion and unicorn appear as supporters of the shield on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.” They still do so, with the unicorn at the left side of the shield in the Scottish version (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_coat_of_arms_of_the_United_Kingdom)
Lots to think about with heraldic animals, here – perhaps as related to talents and patrons, too. I wonder if Williams had that lion and unicorn fighting in mind with his own use of heraldic imagery in his poem. ‘The Crowning of Arthur’?
I happen to be reading a very interesting book in part about that reconciling by James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England (and Wales) as well: The Steel Bonnets (1971) by George MacDonald Fraser, about the history of the Border region between England and Scotland. (It also has glimpses of the development of badges and banners, but I have not run into any lion and unicorn references, yet.)
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That book sounds fascinating! There is loads of info on the net about why and when the unicorn became Scotland’s national animal, ao being mythical and powerful! And the Scottish Coat of arms first had two unicorns, until James exchanged one of them for a lion.
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