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The Unicorn Hunters

They’re drawing a bead on unicorns and the imagination. Shots come from many directions, and some of the nastiest originate at the fringes of Fundamentalism.

Author and editor Jane Yolen, addressing the Society of Children’s Book Writers, deplored a rising tide of attacks on fantasy fiction. She observed that alarmists such as the widely-published Texe Marrs “insist that much of children’s literature–especially fantasy –is designed to encourage devil worship.”

Books, films, cartoon characters, games, and toys are denounced almost at random: Walt Disney fairy stories, the Smurfs, the Muppets, Dark Crystal(absurdly identified as a filmed version of The Lord of the Rings), the Care Bears, She-Ra and He-Man, the Star Wars trilogy, Rainbow Brite, The Secret Garden by Frances Hogsdon Burnett, Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe, and works by C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Bruce Coville, and works by Jane Yolen herself.

Leading the charge are Texe Marrs’s Dark Secrets of the New AgeMystery Mark of the New Age, and Ravaged by the New Age—plus Berit Kjos’s Your Child and the New Age and Joanna Michaelson’s Like Lambs to the Slaughter.

The critics are armed with malevolent misinformation. For instance, in Ravaged by the New Age Texe Marrs excoriates the children’s cartoon show My Little Pony because it depicts unicorns, “a potent symbol of the third eye and the Antichrist, the little horn. Also note the double zigzag (‘SS’) near the pony’s tail. This represent the seig rune, the pagan symbol of Satan.” (The word is spelled Sieg and means in German “victory,” and sometimes a zigzag is just that: a wavy line.)

This attitude turns up in books which don’t directly touch on fantasy literature. Even Catholics suffer from it. The prologue to Randy England’s The Unicorn in the Sanctuary “proves” the unicorn evil by mere assertion: “This mythical animal has often been associated in literature with both Christ (wrongly) and with Lucifer. It is not the cute and gentle creature popularly portrayed . . . but a symbol of tearing and trampling, breaking and crushing.”

Wrongly associated with Christ? By whom? England doesn’t say. Although a ghastly demon unicorn cribbed from Henry Fuseli’s masterpiece “The Nightmare” appears on his cover, unicorns aren’t mentioned in the body of England’s text. Their image is exploited as an attention-grabber for a thinly-researched book decrying New Age infiltration of the Catholic Church.

Although the unicorn is the favorite quarry, any mythical creature is fair game. Marrs fulminates against L’Engle’s critically and commercially successful fantasies because their covers depict a Pegasus-unicorn (A Swiftly Tilting Planet), a rainbow and a centaur (A Wrinkle in Time), and what he describes as a bird-man covered with eyes (A Wind at the Door). In the last case Marrs seems curiously unacquainted with cherubim, Ezekiel’s fourth living creature, or the traditional symbol for John the Evangelist. The texts of L’Engle’s books go unexamined, yet she’s attainted with guilt by association for having worked at the avant garde Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Do these darts strike home? The public library of Fort Wayne, Indiana is reported to have issued a cautionary statement about L’Engle. Christian Book Distributors, a mail-order firm serving Evangelicals, finds its customers will buy other books by L’Engle, a devout Episcopalian, but not her fantasies. A few of its customers have questioned C. S. Lewis’s orthodoxy, presumably on the basis of attacks like Marrs’s.

These zealous anti-New Age critics argue that all pre-Christian and non-Christian symbols represent demonic evil and must be purged ruthlessly from Christian consciousness. It’s no accident that Michaelson scrupulously calls Easter “Resurrection Sunday.” (“Easter” has its etymological roots in the name of a pagan spring festival.)

This is emphatically not the traditional Catholic position. From the beginning, the Church has borrowed or “baptized” alien imagery for its own use. Hostility toward the fantastic bespeaks wider disagreement with basic Catholic attitudes toward works of culture.

A case in point: The much-maligned unicorn, which came to Western attention around 400 B.C. as a curiosity among Indian fauna, turns up in the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James, and the Douay translations of Scripture in contexts that connote glory, majesty, power, strength, and untamed freedom.

By A.D. 200, Tertullian called the unicorn a symbol of Christ. Ambrose, Jerome, and Basil agreed. The late-antiquity bestiary known as Physiologus popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn tamed by a maiden stood for the Incarnation. This became the basic–and universal–medieval notion of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art.

The unicorn also acquired positive secular meanings, including chaste love and faithful marriage. (It plays this role in Petrarch’s Triumph of Chastity.) It was a heraldic motif, appearing on the national arms and coins of Scotland. The royal throne of Denmark was made of “unicorn horns” (actually narwhal tusks). The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn’s horn was believed to neutralize poison.

In more recent centuries alchemists made the unicorn represent “spirit.” It’s hard to see why this minority opinion renders the unicorn evil. If it does, why don’t the critics denounce the stag and the lion, which stand for “soul” and “body” in the same occult system?

As for other fabulous beings, Jerome’s Life of St. Paul the First Hermit includes a friendly centaur and a God-fearing satyr. Dante’s Divine Comedy shows a griffin drawing the triumphant chariot of the Church. The monster-slaying Bellerophon mounted on Pegasus was an early Christian symbol of Christ’s victory over Satan.

Dragons adore the Christ Child in a fourteenth-century French treatise, The Life of Our Blessed Savior Jesus Christ. The infant Jesus blesses them for honoring the divine command “Praise the Lord from the Earth ye dragons” (Ps. 148:7). Mermaids, giants, sphinxes, chimeras, and other fabulous creatures from pagan myth and folklore have decorated churches and other vehicles of religious art.

And let’s not forget the four creatures which traditionally have represented the four Evangelists: a winged man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an ox (Luke), and an eagle (John).

If the unicorn hunters know any of this, they aren’t saying. Not only are they ignorant of such artistic basics, but they’re deficient in understanding how symbols mean. They assume each sign has a simple and unchangeable meaning which carries power in and of itself.

Some symbols are purely arbitrary: In a computer program such as the one used to compose this magazine, a dollar sign can indicate where a footnote is to appear. Other symbols have a more direct connection with the meanings they evoke: Water suggests cleansing, refreshment, fertility. Symbols are culturally conditioned and change with time. A swastika didn’t mean the same thing to an Aztec or an ancient Celt as it did to a Nazi–or as it does today to a Buddhist.

Since they wear such blinkers, it’s no wonder vigilantes attack fantasy haphazardly. Books by Marrs, Michaelson, and others make no effort to survey a representative sample of children’s literature, past or present. If books featuring magic and mysticism are always and everywhere evil, how can we permit children to touch stories by that atheistic, anti-Catholic Freemason and Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling? KimPuck of Pook’s Hill, and Rewards and Fairies are stuffed with Eastern thought and paganism. And how about medieval romances, popular ballads, fairy tales, The Arabian Nights? Should impressionable high schoolers be exposed to Chaucer, Macbeth, or The Faerie Queen?

The ambivalence is evident in Berit Kjos. He’s willing to admit a nostalgia for traditional fairy tales, yet he condemns The Secret Garden for calling the protagonist’s cure “magic.” His seeing a dark design in Bunnicula, a comedy about a bunny which “vampirizes” vegetables, shows that Kjos’s capacity to interpret literature is not the only thing that is defective–so is his sense of humor.

Marrs’s paranoid, but profitable, jumble of misinformation deserves no serious attention. (He’s an ex-Air Force officer who’s built a prominent career as an evangelist trumpeting the bizarre allegation that all New Agers are part of a conscious, Satan-directed conspiracy bent on exterminating every Christian on Earth by the year 2004.)

Poor scholarship also undercuts the credibility of England (who relies heavily on the writings of the virulently anti-Catholic and sensationalism-rich Dave Hunt) and Michaelson’s complaints about New Age infiltration in schools and churches. Michaelson doesn’t cite Marrs yet copies his choice of targets, arguments, references, and even mistakes (for instance, calling the Egyptian sun-god Ra a goddess).

Her complaint about unicorns coyly alludes to “decidedly impure and unvirginal activities,” misrepresenting data from her source, Man, Myth and Magic, a popular but scarcely authoritative encyclopedia of the occult. Without justification or explanation, she prefers obscure uses of the unicorn and other symbols to their popular, public ones.

The unicorn hunters like to argue through inference and association, as when Michaelson speculates about the deep Hermetic learning of “kidvid” script writers or claims that the “shockingly violent and occultic role-playing game” Dungeons and Dragons is supposedly “based on Tolkien’s famous ‘Ring Trilogy,’ and has adopted a similar theme and feel.”

Michaelson apparently uses either the closest book or the one that gives the slant she wants. It’s difficult to image what possessed her to follow Marrs and base her treatment of Mesopotamian religion on Alexander Hislop’s anti-Catholic diatribe The Two Babylons or the Papal Worship (1853) or its recent rehash, Ralph Woodrow’s Babylon Mystery Religion (1966).

Hislop maintains that ancient Babylonian religion revolved around the worship of Nimrod and Semiramis and is perpetuated in Catholicism. Woodrow adds inane discussions of Mithraism.

In their relentless pursuit of the unicorn, the critics tend to take definitions or information from New Age sources at face value. They cite the New Age best-seller The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, but not the standard academic survey, Shamanism by Mircea Eliade. Or they quote The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets without correcting for its radical feminist agenda. They seem to be unacquainted with basic handbooks of myth and folklore.

Content is all that counts–never context. Any book that so much as mentions magic is suspect, even those by Christian fantasists Lewis and Tolkien. (It’s probably just as well the critics don’t seem to have heard of Lewis and Tolkien’s far more mystical colleague Charles Williams.)

Marrs accuses Lewis of “weaving truth and untruth,” foolishly identifying him as a specialist in “New Age metaphysical fiction.” Lewis’s work as a scholar and Christian apologist goes unmentioned. Marrs calls The Lord of the Rings “demonically energized.” Never mind that all the witches in Narnia are evil (the only “good magic” there is divine) and that the wizards of Middle Earth are a kind of incarnate angel.

Michaelson is gentler but suggests that a friendly faun in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe betrays Lewis’s “lifelong fascination with the occult.” She cites The Satanic Bible, of all things, as proof that a faun is equivalent to Pan, “an alter-ego of Satan himself.” (This cliche, usually argued not by Fundamentalists but by neo-pagans, is utterly false.) Why didn’t Michaelson check what Lewis himself says about fantasy creatures in his literary study The Discarded Image?

The stalwart unicorn hunters are curiously feeble in cultural knowledge, seemingly unaware of the classics of the Christian past. What would they make of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was edited and translated by Tolkien? Since the hero of the poem is an Arthurian knight whose emblem is the pentacle and who learns a lesson in virtue from a denizen of Faerie, is the work Satanic?

These misguided attacks on the fantastic reveal a fear of the imagination, especially the visual imagination. Marrs is so radically iconoclastic that he warns against pictures of biblical scenes, even in the mind.

He would banish the cross itself from Christian churches and objects to representations of it within a circle as being a Satanic/New Age symbol of limiting Christ’s power. (In fact, the enclosed cross in the form of the chi-rho is one of the most primitive Christian emblems.) It requires no acute mind to determine what Marrs and many of his fellow hunters think of Catholic statuary and symbolism.

Behind all this is a fear of human creativity, perhaps even a dread of human nature that inverts the New Age’s exaggerated confidence in human nature. Satisfied they have all important answers, the unicorn hunters don’t want Christians asking, “What if?”

They don’t want them, in Tolkien’s words, “sub-creating” a secondary world of fantasy for “recovery, escape, and consolation.” They can’t see that fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings don’t need an explicit Christian message to point readers toward goodness–and toward God.

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