“Lavers keeps his intellectual detective story passionate and suspenseful.”
— Washington Post Book World
From Biblical stories about virgins to adventures with Harry Potter, unicorns have enchanted people for millennia. In the endlessly fascinating The Natural History of Unicorns, author Chris Lavers ingeniously traces the legend of this mysterious creature to the real people, places, and animals that have influenced its story.
In an inspired iteration of a cluttered genre-world-history-through-innocuous-topic-U.K. natural historian Lavers (Why Elephants Have Big Ears) rattles off a history of the mythical unicorn that "binds... the earth's natural history to our own." An object of fascination for at least the last 2,000 years, the unicorn was described in 398 B.C. by the Greek Ctesias as "wild asses as large as horses... white bodies, their heads dark red" with a horn that, when used as a drinking glass, protected men from epilepsy and poison. Ctesias became a source for Aristotle and Pliny, who shaped European beliefs for 1500 years. Wending its way into (and possibly out of) the Old Testament (Ctesias's ass was, "like the Hebrews' totemic reem, real strong, horned, indomitable and, crucially, not a cow."), unicorns are incorporated into Bible translations and the Physiologus bestiary (in its time, almost as big as the Bible), and one-horned creatures have even been found drawn on the walls of African caves. Laver's tongue-in-cheek delivery maintains its charm throughout while turning up a good bit of knowledge about natural history and how it's been artfully embellished by those recording it.