‘Unicorn’ is an experimental poem by Angela Carter that anticipates the themes of later work such as The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). First printed in Vision, the magazine edited by Carter and Nick Curry in 1963 while students at Bristol University, this rare edition was published by the Location Press in May 1966 in just 150 typewritten copies.
Studying medieval literature at university provided Carter with an abundance of allegorical sources. ‘Unicorn’ appropriates the myth of the unicorn and the virgin: a unicorn can only be caught when a virgin girl, alone in a wood, is used to lure the beast. Although the myth is commonly found in medieval bestiaries, Carter quotes a version written by the 16th-century author Thomas Browne, who was sceptical of such fables and fantastical creatures.
How does Angela Carter refashion the myth, and to what effect?
‘Unicorn’ transposes the myth into the modern age, setting it in a trashy, sleazy world of strip clubs and pornography where the voyeuristic male gaze is ubiquitous. The myth is not simply a Christian allegory or a quaint tale about imaginary creatures, Carter insists. Her poem exposes the gendered power dynamics that are at play.
Opening with the epigraph, ‘Let us cut out and assemble our pieces’, Carter emphasises that notions of femininity and gendered behaviour are purely cultural constructs. Some of the poem’s strongest lines – ‘Q. What have unicorns and virgins got in common? / A. They are both fabulous beasts.’ – capture how Carter uses myth to demythologise gender and sexuality.
As the unicorn approaches, the young girl speaks. Her song asserts female sexual agency and subverts assumptions around gendered victimhood, culminating in a celebration of the Freudian castrating power of the female genitals: ‘So I conceal my armoury / Yours is all on view / You think you are possessing me – / But I’ve got my teeth in you.’
Although ‘Unicorn’ contains startling violence and eroticism, it is also shot through with Carter’s characteristic wit. The poem closes with a patronising, colloquially British male voice – ‘“You can put your knickers back on in a minute, dear”’ – that secures the total collapse of the fabulous myth.
- Full title:
- Unicorn ... A Tlaloc print-out ... First published in Vision Magazine, Bristol
- May 1966, Leeds, Yorkshire
- Location Press
- Angela Carter
- Usage terms
© Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- Fantasy and fairy tale, Literature 1950–2000
The Bloody Chamber is a collection of modern fairy tales, many of which incorporate elements of Gothic literature. Greg Buzwell traces the Gothic influence on Carter's stories, from the Marquis de Sade to Edgar Allan Poe.
- Article by:
- Margaretta Jolly
- Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity
The women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s gave rise to a new era for women’s writing. Women also took over the means of production by setting up feminist printing houses such as Virago Press. Margaretta Jolly takes a tour of women’s writing, publishing and literary criticism of this period and explores the work of some of its key players.
- Article by:
- Fantasy and fairy tale, Literature 1950–2000, Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality
The last three stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber all feature wolves. Bidisha considers how these tales use wolves to explore sexual and gender politics, social violence and the possibility of liberation.