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R.I.P.: Enge, Unicorns, etc.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

You know that guy, Austin Tappan Wright, who spent his entire life writing a massive utopian novel Islandia, a fantastic work in every sense, which only saw print after his death?

I hate that guy.

Not because there was anything wrong with him, a fine person by all accounts, or his masterpiece, a cleanly written and intensely imagined fantasy. No, it’s just that one tends to hate what one fears and for a long time I feared a minor-league version of his fate. I often envisioned someone, after my death, clearing away my papers (or data clouds, or whatever we’ll be using for documents in the distant, I say distant, future) and finding references to someone named Morlock. “Did Enge write fiction?” they’d say in my recurring nightmare. “I thought he just killed undergraduates with humiliating questions about gerunds and Zeus’ sex life.”

Now, anyway, that won’t happen, thanks largely to the two people editing Black Gate. John O’Neill bought a few Morlock stories from me back in 2004/2005, and Howard Jones took a couple more when he was editing the e-zine Flashing Swords in its first and greatest iteration, and on the strength of the Morlock series I eventually got an agent and this summer signed a two-book deal with Pyr Books. The first book, Blood of Ambrose, is due out in April 2009. I don’t say success is imminent, certainly not with the financial crisis casting a shadow over publishing along with every other field of endeavor in the US, but my obituary will probably have occasion to mention my fiction when it appears in the county newspaper (or neural nanotransmitters, or whatever we’ll be using for news-media in the distant, I say distant, future). So: thanks, John and Howard. I owe you.

It’s not to repay the debt, which can’t be repaid, that I accepted their invitation to group-blog here. It’s that, when given a chance, I’m constitutionally unable to refrain from running my mouth about stuff on my mind, whether I know anything about it or not, and fortunately this is one of the three great purposes of the internet (along with pron and lolcatz).

The thing on my mind at the moment is unicorns. It started with the announcement of the upcoming anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns (edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier), which struck me as a brilliant idea. (I had half a thought or so about it which I blogged here.)

Then last night, as synchronicity would have it, I read a W.B. Yeats play about players and pretenders, “The Player Queen”, in which unicorns loom large, although they never actually appear. Rumors of unicorns tag the local ruler as a witch; one second-hand report even has the unicorn and the reclusive queen doing the nasty. A drunken poet named Septimus defends the unicorn from any charge of impurity, but as the play goes on (and he sobers up?) he starts railing against the “violent virginal creature”:

If we cannot fill him with desire he will deserve death. Even unicorns can be killed. What they dread most in the world is a blow from a knife that has been dipped in the blood of a serpent that died gazing upon an emerald.

I’m not sure what half the stuff about unicorns in the play means, but it’s clearly a powerful symbol of otherness and hope. Since then unicorns have been used and imagined and reimagined so much that their emotional halo has been mylittleponied into blunt four-color rainbows. They’re overfamiliar. “They had their day but now they’re passé.” “That old preacher character don’t make me laugh anymore.”

In a way, this is inevitable. Any symbol, if it penetrates deeply into a culture, attracts parody and appropriation–it’s one way you can start to actually see the thing again, as opposed to scanning past it and saying, “Yeah, I know what that is.” Consider the million-and-one parodies of the Mona Lisa. They don’t diminish the original.

But it seems as if the poppification of the unicorn has gone beyond this, banalizing the image so that it is almost impossible to use it in a semi-serious context, even in fantasy where, one would think, an occasional unicorn might find an unspoiled field to roam in.

Can the unicorn be saved? Or is the image just used up and does it need to lie fallow for a century or two before it’s usable again?

I don’t know, but it’s a more important question than it might seem at first. The unicorn is just one instance of a larger trend where the tropes of fantasy have become so familiar they are almost toxic. Naturally the genre needs to go on finding new tropes (and it seems to me to be having a little trouble with that), but it would also be good if we could somehow detoxify the old ones, remake them, reforge those broken blades. If so, maybe even the sickly unicorn can take new life.

And if not–what were those ingredients again? An emerald, a snake, a knife…

10 Comments »

  1. Never let it be said I would leave you commentless on your first day!

    Comment by peadarog - November 26, 2008 10:31 am

  2. I nominate “mylittleponied” as the most useful new word of the current lunar phase.

    “That RPG guide mylittleponied Cthulhu into just another wandering monster.”

    “Dude, don’t mylittlepony Bob’s advertising plan.”

    “Yeah, I hit on her, but she mylittleponied my leather jacket so harshly that I had to split.”

    It would take a powerful writer indeed to take on a unicorn and lend it the power and grandeur it deserves. Probably best to let the creature rest a while and outgrow its mylittleponification.

    Comment by John Hocking - November 26, 2008 11:00 am

  3. I’m with you on the mylittleponied Unicorn. Too bad, because they’re supposed to be one of the all-powerful guardians of the light.

    As for zombies, there is a great push for residentevilizing zombies right now, but I kind of wish it would end too. I mean, zombies were cool, even in the old days when they shuffled menacingly with body parts barely clinging by a patch of skin. The current trend of ultra-fast, intelligent grave-risers is really stealing the vampire’s thunder.

    And that’s an entire other conversation, the romanticizing of one of mythology’s greatest threats to life. Vlad, Dracula, whatever, is rolling over in his grave right now with all the MTV punks trying to steal his show. Bring back the menace, the hypnotic charm, and the blood sucking!!

    Can I get an Amen? lol

    Comment by NewGuyDave - November 26, 2008 12:13 pm

  4. Hey Peadar: I was just about to say that. Thanks.

    John: I didn’t anticipate the word being so useful, but think mylittleponification may work by the application of subnuclear mylittleponitrons that can infect any object or concept with mylittleponitude. So I think we need some kind of cure or shield.

    You may be right about the unicorn; its recovery may not be possible. The problem is, when I decide some writing task is impossible I keep wondering how to do it anyway…

    Hey Dave: I have to admit, I think the fast zombie of recent years makes for a more exciting zombie movie (like 28 Days Later–maybe not so much the sequel). But I totally agree about vampires: I think they need remonstrification treatments stat or their undeadness will die.

    Comment by James Enge - November 26, 2008 4:25 pm

  5. You’re probably right about the new zombies, faster is more dangerous, and thus more tension, but the push for zombie flicks and lit lately has gotten a little crazy.

    I want blood, more blood. Oh wait, I only meant that from a very pro-vampire point of view.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - November 26, 2008 5:49 pm

  6. “Blood– Blood — BLOOD!”

    Oh, wait a second–that’s a pirate movie.

    Pirates, vampires, zombies, werewolves–all of them fighting over the island remains of Atlantis. There’s a story crying to be told.

    Comment by James Enge - November 27, 2008 2:23 am

  7. After I write about my Jedi Viking Ninjas, with Lucasfilm’s permission of course.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - November 27, 2008 11:25 am

  8. […] pretty well done. There are some interesting beast fights, including one against (I kid you not) unicorns. But these are not civilized, law-abiding unicorns; they’re more like the savage creture […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Sword Against Slug: Robert E. Howard’s Almuric - December 3, 2008 7:01 pm

  9. […] http://www.blackgate.com/2008/11/26/rip-enge-unicorns-etc/ Posted by Blue Tyson 3.5, study, t non-fiction, z free sf Subscribe to RSS feed […]

    Pingback by Free SF Reader - March 17, 2010 10:38 am

  10. […] http://www.blackgate.com/2008/11/26/rip-enge-unicorns-etc/ […]

    Pingback by Free SF Reader - March 17, 2010 10:39 am


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