Today, in the weekly grocery shop, I noticed another incursion of the unicorn into a familiar brand. Kellogg's LCMs now have unicorn line, joining the Coles brand unicorn icecream cones we've been scoffing in this house of late (though I prefer the mermaid flavour). Last year, unicorn hair colour was everywhere. Then there was unicorn toast. And frappacinos. Blow up pool toys (our neighbours have one). Make-up. In fact, I’m reasonably sure if you scroll back my insta feed you’ll find a unicorn biscuit there, too.
This infiltration of the unicorn into product brands is not new or narrow; it's a huge current thing as has already been noted in other pieces here, here and here (if you yourself had been under a rock and missed it).
These pieces point out what's fairly obvious – right-now unicorns are synonymous with rainbows, positivity, and whimsy that draws on a deep nostalgia from childhood – especially if you grew up with My Little Pony. The thing is, these unicorns aren't what I remember from my childhood.
I had two main sources of narrative as a child – the Story Time compendiums (Storyteller in other countries, I believe) and cinema. The two depictions of unicorns in my nostalgia vault are the ferocious beast variety who basically horn-skewered anyone who wasn't a virgin, and The Last Unicorn. Both align with more classical ideas of the unicorn – rare, mystical, elusive – but it's the latter that really burned their imprint into me.
The Last Unicorn is a book, but I saw the cartoon version. Incidentally, it’s another 80s animation in the anime tradition, like Astroboy, The Lost Cities of Gold, Belle and Sebastian, and this whole musing might have been sparked by an Insta post yesterday remembering another, Ulysses 31. I’ve only recently realised how many of my narrative exposure comes from them. But I digress.
In the story, unicorns have been disappearing from the world and their magic and life going with them. We follow the last free unicorn as she journeys to find what's become of her sisters, and discovers they have been driven into the sea by the (terrifying) Red Bull, the fiery agent of a privileged noble who enjoys watching them in the surf. Along the way, the unicorn makes friends, spends time as a human, and ultimately has to choose between love and a human life, and her true form. Definitely not a Disney movie.
Even as a child, I found the film full of yearning for better times past. It's all about nostalgia for when magic used to be real, in a world on the brink of forgetting. People of the world can't even see the magical creatures that still exist – they are blind to them without a glamour. The suspense of the story is between the hope that the world can be magical again, and the fear that the unicorn will be just like all her sisters – driven into slavery by the Red Bull. It absolutely haunted me as a story.
This same kind of yearning is what many commentators ascribe to the current unicorn incarnation – with a zeitgeist that worries about the fate of the world and sees dark and bleak signs, the rainbow fluffy unicorn is an antidote. It's fun. It's easy. It's the hot air balloon that lifts you away from the dark place.
The thing is though … I keep thinking about The Last Unicorn. In that story, the noble man strips the unicorns of their power in keeping them in the sea. The exist for his pleasure, at his direction. They are beauty and grace, yes, but they no longer keep forests alive. They no longer visit young women as a rite of passage. They have been stripped of function, reduced purely to aesthetic form. It's hard not to see unicorns on so many commercial products as similarly stripped of their power. To not see them as beautiful shells stripped of other functions by commercial machines.
I'm not against this unicorn-of-the-moment. I'm all for fun and whimsy (and the ice-cream is delicious). But there is something inside me that pales walking down the aisles of the supermarket. That says, unicorns aren't about rainbows and fun and antigravitas. Unicorns are questing creatures. They represent the moments of clarity, vision, tenacity, that come perhaps only a few times in our lives. And maybe that’s really what we need.
I'm trying to hold onto that idea, despite the inclination to ride the rainbow hot air balloon somewhere nicer. The dark bleak world of The Last Unicorn sometimes feels a lot like our world right now, as if my 80s childhood stories had come from writers who’d seen worlds like now before, and had survived to tell tales about them. And in this particular story, it was the facing down of the Bull that let the magic back in.
… and if you’ve never seen the movie, it boasts some big names as voice actors including Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee. Check it out.