Unicorns are for Beginnings: A Closer Look into Medieval Tapestries, an 80s Animated Film, and Implications of Gender

written in the fall of 2018 to cap off my undergraduate degree in art history

There’s a scene in Peter S. Beagle’s novel, The Last Unicorn (1968), that involves a woman named Molly Grue passionately chastising the protagonist for failing in her duty as a unicorn. When she has exhausted her frustration and sorrow, Molly wipes away her tears and decides to move on and be happy to encounter a unicorn at all. The two share a moment of unspoken mutual affection and understanding. “Unicorns are not to be forgiven,” interjects the unicorn’s friend, Schmendrick, a man whose pridefulness continually begets his insecurity throughout the story. Aside from his jealousy of this interaction, he believes being a magician grants him more knowledge about unicorns than she does. “Unicorns are for beginnings. For innocence and purity, for newness. Unicorns are for young girls.” (He references this in contrast to Molly’s middle age, attempting to delegitimize their instant friendship.) This concept that Schmendrick alludes to of innocence, purity, and girlhood, combined with its relationship to unicorns, actually is accurate, with historical precedents. This is exactly what I intend to examine in this paper, but equally germane is Molly’s rebuttal to Schmendrick’s assertion, if not even more important.

“You don’t know much about unicorns,” she says, with a wry smile. The meaning behind these words and much more will be explored throughout this paper. My belief is that the unicorn of Medieval lore was a wild beast drawn to feminine purity, whereas the unicorn of the film, The Last Unicorn, herself, was feminine purity taken to its most literal form. To begin making my argument, I’ll investigate what the expectations that Molly Grue had for the unicorn were, exactly. The explanation for that lies in some of the earliest recorded myths on the subject of unicorns, as far back as the Middle Ages.


Though the true origin of the Western unicorn can be traced to Ancient Greece1, the most prevalent and understood myths originate with the Medieval imagination. To the people of the Middle Ages, the name unicorn refers specifically to a small, graceful, and elusive immortal creature. Often likened to goats and deer with a single horn and usually white fur, it was said to live wild and free in the woods, a keeper of harmony between its inhabitants as well as their protector from external threat. The source of its power and healing magic was its horn, which could purify any water it touched and anywhere it walked, the environment would come alive to full bloom and ripened fruit. It was said that the unicorn was naturally drawn to innocence and purity, traits unambiguously associated with maidenhood. A virgin could lure a unicorn to become docile and lay its head on her lap. To be in the presence of the unicorn alone was an otherworldly blessing, but since mythical creatures were a rarity and therefore highly desirable by royal and noble hunters, utilizing the special relationship between unicorns and maidens would have been the prime strategy for capturing or even killing the unicorn for the use of its magic.

Annunciation as the Hunt of the Unicorn (unknown artist) - Oil on panel. German, c. 15th cen The Virgin and the Unicorn (probably by Domenico Zampieri) - Fresco. Italian, c. 1602

Various aspects of these myths were exaggerated and symbolized for different purposes -- for instance, in some parts of Europe the virgin maiden came to represent the Virgin Mary and the unicorn to represent Christ (and furthermore, drawing connections from the persecution and killing of the unicorn to that of the crucifixion)2. In other areas, the curative properties of the unicorn’s magic led to unicorn imagery being used on the signs of pharmacies and other medical institutions3, entries on unicorns showing up in pharmaceutical texts of the 17th and 18th centuries4, and what was thought to be unicorn horns (generally narwhal tusks or carved ivory) being used in testing food and drink for poison5. Unicorns would appear in heraldry (most notably in Scotland’s coat of arms even to this day6) to symbolize resistance to capture and subjugation. In later centuries unicorns would appear in portraits intended to call attention to the subject’s purity7. However, the original Medieval myth of the unicorn involving maidens and hunts is the most relevant to the purpose of this paper. With this in mind, we are thus led to a very famous image, perhaps the most ubiquitous image of a unicorn in art history.

Pharmacy sign in form of unicorn's head (unknown artist) - Bronze and ivory. Perhaps English or Dutch, 1700-1870 Scotland's Coat of Arms


Created by unknown hands in the Netherlands in the early 16th century, the series now known as The Unicorn Tapestries depicts each step of the mythical hunt of the unicorn in a highly engaging, cinematic way. The final and most famous scene, The Unicorn in Captivity8, shows a unicorn held captive and collared in a cruelly small enclosure, surrounded by the natural splendor its presence awakens. All around, spring flowers and summer fruits exist simultaneously, evoking an Eden-like feeling of beauty, abundance, and paradise. This image is so evocative in its beauty and tragedy that it appears today in countless mass produced prints, reconstructions, and parodies sold all over the world. It appears far more frequently than the rest of the series in pop culture and media, including, most famously, one of the Harry Potter films9.

The Hunters Enter the Woods (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

However, the story told in these tapestries begins with The Hunters Enter the Woods10, in which the young lord, his party, and their hounds have just commenced their hunt. These men are dressed not in hunting gear but instead courtly attire, demonstrating not only their status to the viewer but also emphasizing the fantastical nature of the scene. In the corner, a scout beckons to the lord to follow.

The Unicorn is Found (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

The reason is clear in the next tapestry, The Unicorn is Found11, as the unicorn is discovered purifying a fountain’s water for the various woodland creatures. The atmosphere is that of otherworldly peace. Natural predators and prey temporarily cease their struggle in reverence, gathering together to drink from the pool of pure water. The hunting party waits in awe and respect, unable to interrupt such a hallowed event.

The Unicorn is Attacked (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

The momentary peace is broken in the next tapestry, The Unicorn is Attacked12, wherein the hunters sound their horns, loose their hounds and ready their weapons. What follows is utter pandemonium. The woodland creatures have fled; the hounds, in their haste, trample the delicate flora underfoot; and the unicorn suffers injury, evidenced by the blood streaming down its flank. Within moments, the unicorn is completely surrounded.

The Unicorn Defends Itself (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

However, as seen in the following tapestry, The Unicorn Defends Itself13, the unicorn may be small and beautiful, but it is still a wild animal, unwilling to go down without a fight. Having leapt to meet its attackers, it rears up to deliver a kick to the man behind it, while goring a hound with its horn in front. The unicorn cannot be taken by brute force alone, and the hunters know this, so they employ another tactic.

The Mystical Capture of the Unicorn (unknown artist) - Tapestry fragments. Netherlandish, 15th cen

Though the following tapestry, The Mystical Capture of the Unicorn14, remains today only in fragments, in them we see maidens subduing the unicorn. One, whose hand is all we can see, rests gently on the unicorn’s neck, perhaps in affection, or perhaps with intent to restrain. The other sneaks a glance at the hunter and signals their success.

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

The fate that then awaits the unicorn is gruesome, told in two parts in the penultimate tapestry, titled The Unicorn is Killed and Brought Back to the Castle15. We see the successfully subdued unicorn stuck from all sides from the hounds’ teeth and the hunters’ spears. Blood pours from numerous wounds, and the unicorn’s expression is wrenched in agony. The dead unicorn is then loaded onto the back of a horse and carried back to the castle, met by a procession of nobles eager to see the spoils, gawking and whispering to each other. When looking closely, you can see that one of the hunters is even beginning to remove the magical horn from the unicorn’s head.

The Unicorn in Captivity (unknown artist) - Tapestry. Netherlandish, 15th cen

The scenario in the aforementioned final scene (The Unicorn in Captivity) may then seem peculiar. Despite the fact that the unicorn was killed, it is seen alive, whole, and unmarred in its tiny enclosure. This is a demonstration of the miraculous powers that the unicorn possesses, including the power to revive itself (likely due to its immortality). And thus ends the epic tale.


Centuries after the production of the tapestries, in the year 1968, Peter S. Beagle published The Last Unicorn, a novel following a unicorn’s journey to discover the fate of her kind, all of which but her have mysteriously disappeared. As she searches through the domain of men, precious few recognize her for what she is, and most of the ones that do intend to capture her to keep for public or private spectacle.

However, though there’s a lot to be said about the original form of this story, I wish to shift focus instead to the adaptation made in 1982 to animation. Other than the narrative and thematic elements that relate directly to the original unicorn myths that are present in the source material that is the novel, it’s in this film that we see numerous visual callbacks to not just Medieval art in general, but The Unicorn Tapestries specifically.

The film opens in a lush and tranquil forest, following a hunter, his son, and their hound. The hunter tells his son to tread lightly in this particular forest, as it’s the sacred domain of a unicorn; the very last. The son retorts in disbelief, saying that unicorns exist only in fairy tales. Despite this, we see the unicorn watching them, just out of sight. The hunter asks his son why he never wonders how this forest exists in eternal spring bloom. They decide to hunt elsewhere, but before leaving, the hunter calls out to the unicorn, imploring her to stay in the forest, where she can be safe.

All around in the backgrounds of this scene, from the colors, to the shape of the trees, to the curving stems of the flowers -- it all harkens back to the aesthetic of the tapestries. Every inch of every shot is covered in detail, just like the source. In addition, the unicorn’s blessing of eternal bloom is present both in the expository dialogue and proven in the scenery.

Still from the film The Last Unicorn (Jensen Farley Pictures, 1982)

What follows is possibly the most explicit reference to the tapestries in the entire film. The opening credits sequence is accompanied by a tranquil musical number and the visual demonstration of tapestries coming to life. The lions roar, the pheasants flutter their wings, water flows from the fountain, and flowers sway in the breeze. The unicorn, now given personification from the context of this movie, rears up and proudly revels in her freedom. There is no doubting the fact that this scene in its entirety is drawn directly from the look and layout of The Unicorn is Found, the second in the tapestry’s sequence15.

Much of the rest of the film follows its own visual direction with subtle influence from Medieval sources, but during another musical sequence, we are given even more direct references to Medieval art. For the sake of context, at this point in the story, the unicorn (with Molly Grue and Schmendrick the magician, whom she picked up along the way) finds herself led by her quest for the unicorns to a grim castle, stuck in human form and losing her immortality and memories of her true self. She sings a lament to Molly about this, wandering around in a chamber decorated with tapestries and frescoed ceilings, all of which depicting unicorns. But among what serves as mere set pieces in the background contains two direct allusions to this film’s aesthetic origin: not only a corner of a tapestry that contains the same lions from the opening sequence that were drawn straight from The Unicorn is Found, but also a portion of The Unicorn is Attacked, in unedited form, is seen hanging on the wall.

And hence we see how heavily The Unicorn Tapestries factored into the aesthetic conception of the film. But in what ways do the two works differ? To answer that I’d like to return to that passage I mentioned at the beginning about Schmendrick the magician telling Molly Grue what unicorns are for, with which she disagreed. If his assertions about innocence, purity, and girlhood are so clearly backed by the source lore, why does Molly disagree?


What Molly realizes upon meeting the unicorn, I argue, is that the reality of this fictional universe doesn’t match the lore. The expectation, even in the fiction, is that unicorns are attracted and tamed by innocent beings, but the reality is that unicorns are the innocent beings, independent from humans altogether. It’s their immortality and isolation from the world outside their forest that gives them their innocence. It doesn’t necessarily stem from gender either, though in the case of the unicorn protagonist, gender does factor a lot more deeply, especially where traditional associations are concerned. (And this will be addressed in greater detail shortly.)

This is to say, instead of being a genderless immortal creature, the main unicorn is female. It’s made clear from her voice and the pronouns ascribed to her that she is, in fact, a she. For the first half of the movie, this has no bearing on any interactions she has with others -- those that treat her with respect and awe do so because of her nature as an ethereal being, just as they would any other unicorn. Those that degrade her do so because they don’t recognize her; their souls, ranging from ordinary (i.e. simple peasants) to tainted (i.e. minor antagonists), deprive their ability to see her as anything other than a pretty white horse. Remarkably, it’s seen that not even maidens can naturally recognize a unicorn. The ones who do recognize her are ones who have magical ability (such as Schmendrick the Magician and one of the minor antagonists, a swindling old witch named Mommy Fortuna), those who have held fast to their love for and belief in legends (such as Molly Grue), and those who have encountered unicorns before in their youth (such as the main antagonist, King Haggard, who became obsessed with capturing unicorns after seeing one for the first time).

The scene the notable passage regarding what unicorns are for, mentioned at the beginning of this paper and referenced afterward, occurs during this first half of the movie -- the unicorn and Schmendrick find Molly living a joyless life with her husband and his band of brigands. Though she seems tired and cynical, we very soon see her love and excitement for legends, having never stopped believing in them. As mentioned before, this is why she can see the unicorn for what she is, and consequently why she becomes so angry with her at first. She can’t believe that a unicorn has come to her in the state she’s in -- in middle age, long past her years of innocent maidenhood. She demands to know why she hadn’t come to her then, like unicorns are supposed to, but she calms her rage and forgives her. It’s not explained in the movie, but it seems to me that she had realized that mortals couldn’t possibly understand the wills of magical beings, and that unicorns (at least in this fictional world) have nothing to do with humans and their contrived values. She instead appreciates the remarkable honor of encountering a unicorn at all, and joins their quest.

However, everything changes when the unicorn is faced by the very thing that caused all the other unicorns to disappear. In this moment of panic, Schmendrick uses his powers to turn the unicorn into a human, as a last ditch effort to protect her. Suddenly we’re reminded of what unicorns are typically associated with, only in a way never explored before; the unicorn has become a maiden. Though Schmendrick is thrilled by his extraordinary achievement, Molly is consumed with fury and sorrow. In saving the unicorn from a terrible fate, he had done something considerably worse -- he placed an immortal soul in a mortal body, condemning her to die like any other. The unicorn is shocked and distraught, but continues her quest to save her kind in this form that she detests, though it matches her true one in ethereal beauty. She takes on the name Lady Amalthea when they enter the castle King Haggard, under the guise of looking for work. She, however, quickly loses her memories and her will to continue the longer she is trapped in the wrong body. She sings her lament to Molly with these words:

    Once, I can't remember
    I was, long ago, someone strange
    I was innocent and wise
    And full of pain

    Now that I'm a woman
    Everything is strange

Notably, she uses the word “woman” instead of “human”, and describes herself as being innocent before her transformation. Despite this, Amalthea more or less follows the script for your typical pure maiden, by human standards. She initially spurns the attention of Prince Lir, the only man in the movie to show romantic interest in her; the trappings of mortal desire holds no appeal. But as soon as she understands that his feelings for her run deeper than physical attraction or mere infatuation -- that he truly wants to be by her side as support while she struggles -- she reciprocates his affection and they fall in love. This love doesn’t threaten her status as pure because the love is chaste, like the tales of courtly love of the Middle Ages. The most physical contact these two have with each other beyond holding hands is a single embracing kiss. The rest of their love is demonstrated through words and brave acts. (Interestingly, this concept is taken even further by the book: that is, Amalthea and Lir don’t touch even once. Their chaste love is as chaste as it can possibly get. Had the movie decided to follow this aspect more closely my point would be proven even more strongly.)


Both these tapestries and the film have a lot of visual commonalities, and this was a very purposeful direction taken by the artists behind the latter. The natural scenery is lush, the unicorns are ethereally beautiful, and where the direct visual homages are concerned, everything is laid out with careful deliberation. However, their thematic elements have a very crucial divergence. Both works do heavily engage conceptually with the unicorn’s relationship with maidenhood, this is clear. But where traditional unicorns have a natural gravitation towards innocence, these unicorns are the innocence. And, furthermore, maidens are a companion to the traditional unicorn and are thus separate entities, whereas the maiden of the film herself is the unicorn. I posit that this was also deliberate, but by the intent of the original writer, Peter S. Beagle, who wanted to play with tradition and ties with gender.

That said, the film’s portrayal of Amalthea doesn’t necessarily challenge any traditional presentations of maidenhood in terms of appearance, behavior, and role, aside from her increased agency in the story and the power of choice given to her where relationships with men are concerned. But I think this only helps solidify connections to the source material, so I choose to believe this to be intentional as well. In the end, both works serve as interesting counterparts to contemporaneous understandings of purity and womanhood and how these concepts interact with the world around them.


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