‘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.