Monday, 9 May 2011

Muse Monday – The Unicorn by Katherine Roberts

I don’t quite remember when my muse first appeared out of the enchanted mists – but I now realize he’s been there from the start. It just took me a little while to see him, as is often the way with magical creatures.

He was there in my first published story “The Last Maiden” (Dark Horizons, British Fantasy Society 1994), where he is a misunderstood creature hunted by the villagers for goring a baby to death… something he might or might not have done, as I leave it up to the reader to decide. Perhaps that’s how I felt about my writing at the time, since the fantasy genre appeared to be shunned by the literary establishment and generally misunderstood as being all about dragons and magic swords, ignoring its real range and power. This was before Harry Potter made fantasy trendy… though being trendy seems to have had the opposite effect, and now everyone thinks it’s all about boy wizards and millionaire authors... My unicorn shakes his mane in despair.

Shortly after this I won a competition for a short story. The prize was £50, my first real earnings from writing. I don’t remember the story or the publication, but I took my winnings into town to buy something to remind me of the achievement and spotted these unicorn bookends in the window of a local gift shop. They cost £35, which made them a luxury purchase for me. But even though they seemed a bit whimsical with their pink horns and gold stars, I took them home to prop up my favourite books. I think of them as unicorn foals, and they represent the childlike side of my muse… interestingly, this was before I considered writing for children, so maybe they were responsible?


Unicorns have certainly been adopted by children as magical pets. Here’s a fluffy pink one rescued from the bargain shelf of my local supermarket (someone had spilt yellow liquid over him – he only needed a wash!):


But unicorns are not always so sweet. My muse makes another appearance in my second book “Spellfall” (Chicken House, 2000). There he leads a herd of unicorn mares in the enchanted land of Earthaven, where magical creatures have fled from our technological world. When Earthaven is attacked, the unicorns use their horns to defend their home and their foals, but they also let the heroine Natalie and her friends ride them. So they are both fierce and loyal in this story for older readers.


This contradictory nature of the unicorn makes him an interesting muse. He can be mysterious and beautiful when it suits him, and obviously as a mythical creature he is very useful to a fantasy author because he knows a lot about magic and enchanted worlds. But it's a mistake to underestimate him, because in his adult form he is a powerful creature.

A few years later, browsing in Hay-on-Wye during the annual book festival, I came across this poster. I wasn’t actually looking for unicorns at the time – I was after dinosaurs – but I couldn’t resist him. He stayed rolled up in a corner through several house moves, before finding his way on to the wall of my office. Here he is handsome and noble and wears a charm around his neck, and he’s watching me write this with a glint in his dark eye.


The unicorn’s horse-like appearance appeals to my other great passion. Horses have always been part of my life, and my pre-author job was working with racehorses, so I’ve ridden (and fallen off and been kicked by) enough of them to have a healthy respect for a creature who is bigger than me with four solid hooves. Like a horse, he has speed enough to flee from danger when threatened, yet riding him can be harder than it seems. He also has a sharp horn, and creatures with horns can be dangerous when they are cornered or annoyed.

This fierce nature of my muse often surprises people, and in this incarnation my writing takes on a darker edge. I have been published in horror magazines and am the proud winner of the Grotesque Readers’ Award for “Fatstock”, a story about rearing humans for meat. So far my novels have not really shown this side of my muse – the closest is some of Alexander the Great’s escapades in “I am the Great Horse” – though this is often where things start to get interesting. The power of fantasy, remember?

Finally, of course, a unicorn can be tamed only by a maiden. He lays his horn in her lap and becomes gentle under her hand. In this guise, he is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, showing his spiritual side – another important thread in my writing.

Some people like to say the unicorn does not exist, and that he is actually a rhinoceros. I can hear my muse laughing right now. Sometimes editors try to cut off his horn and turn him into a common horse. Others would like him to stay a soft-horned foal forever. Too much of that, and he’s likely to disappear into the enchanted mists where he can stay true to his form. But treat him right, and he will continue to bring magical stories out of those mists.

In this brave new e-world, my Muse has embraced technology with this blog. He also Twitters, and has even published an e-book, proving that immortal creatures can be both wise and playful.

Thank you, Unicorn, for being my muse!

SPELLFALL, published by the unicorn, is now available as a Kindle e-book for just £1-71 from amazon.co.uk

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