The Geomancer


Unicorns: Have they been mylittleponied into blunt four-color rainbows?

Every time James Enge pontificates about fantasy fiction, I am fascinated. Here, on the new Black Gate Group Blog, he pontificates about unicorns:
...unicorns have been used and imagined and reimagined so much that their emotional halo has been mylittleponied into blunt four-color rainbows. They’re overfamiliar. ...In a way, this is inevitable. Any symbol, if it penetrates deeply into a culture, attracts parody and appropriation—it’s one way you can start to actually see the thing again, as opposed to scanning past it and saying, “Yeah, I know what that is.” ...But it seems as if the poppification of the unicorn has gone beyond this, banalizing the image so that it is almost impossible to use it in a semi-serious context, even in fantasy where, one would think, an occasional unicorn might find an unspoiled field to roam in. Can the unicorn be saved? Or is the image just used up and does it need to lie fallow for a century or two before it’s usable again?
Now, "mylittleponied into blunt four-color rainbows" is just priceless.


  1. Anonymous4:13 PM

    The problem with fantasy, for me (and this is an area in which I write), is that just about every single trope has been mylittleponyised to death - dragons, elves, dwarves, the lot.

    These are supposed to be things on the fringes of the imagination, but they've now become as familiar as Walmart. Some areas of the readership have rules about how they are supposed to act - writers will get letters saying, "an elf wouldn't do that..." This is wrong!

    Some critics think it's easy being a fantasy writer - you just make stuff up! The truth is, the best writers have to reinvent everything right from the start to avoid that familiarity, because familiarity is the death of the fantasy.

  2. Now I want to see you guys on a panel together.

    Seriously, though, I have always viewed that as an advantage fantasy has over SF - in that you've got to teach your audience what the realities of your SFnal world is each and every time, but everyone has at least a base concept of a vampire, unicorn or dragon. So it's interesting to see it reversed as a liability. And, of course, everyone knows what a teleporter, starship, or ray gun is... I guess things are tough all over.

  3. Mark: I totally agree. Excavating one of these elements from people's expectations (and their reflex "Seen that!" contempt) is the hardest part about writing "deep genre" fantasy.

    Hey Lou: I see what you mean--on both sides--and I think that may be why so many sf writers are sticking closer to home these days (at least in short fiction). Building up a secondary world from scratch is tough, and the fact that some elements may be familiar only makes it tougher, paradoxically.

    Still, as a reader, I like bigger-canvas sf, with spaceships and new planets and whatnot. As far as I'm concerned, earth is not room enough.

  4. Fellas. A discussion close to my withered currant of a heart. Let me play devil's advocate for a moment - after all he pays so much better than the other team.

    I can't help thinking that familiarity, far from being the death of fantasy, is its very life blood, as (to a certain extent) it is of any genre. Would westerns be better off without six-shooters, stetsons, saloons and swing-doors? Would they be westerns at all? Deadwood has all these things in spades, but it's no kind of cliche. In fact much of its appeal is as a re-examination of those features we think we know so well. Would it work if it were, say, set in a Yorkshire mining village? Surely a trope is all in how you use it, and I can't help seeing every expectation as an opportunity. Does not the mylittleponification (love that phrase, by the way) of the unicorn only make it twice the shock when it shakes of its ribbons and gores the fairy princess on its horn ... if you see what I'm saying ...

  5. Anonymous8:27 AM

    Joe, your final comment actually underscored what I was saying - that fantasy writers need to be creative and/or re-invent. I wasn't suggesting throwing out all the tropes. They wouldn't really be tropes if you could dismiss them.

    However...the western is a *hugely* conservative genre and its rump of supporters often buy into it for that very reason. It's comforting. Some fantasy readers like this genre for the same reason. No problem with that. But a genre as broad, as inventive, and capable of attaining as much, as fantasy deserves to be so much more than dungeons and dragons-defined.

    It can be that, but it should also be more.

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  7. I tune out before I begin if it involves unicorns, dragons, dwarves.... It doesn't have a chance to get my attention at all.

    On the other hand, as much as I love the new, I have been overwhelmed when the author tries to teach me a completely new language. Use of real languages can be a problem because they don't just have 10 invented words but the whole bucket to pull from, and at times it's just too much, as I probably didn't speak swahili even a little bit - but I do incline towards the new over all.

  8. Hey Joe: I agree. There has to be a tension between familiarity and innovation, and without either there probably isn't a genre. Some of these things represent special challenges, though. Someone can pull out a gun in a western without any special justification. But no one can just whip out a unicorn (I apologize for that image) and expect people to take it seriously.

    On the other hand, as you say, it does offer the writer a chance to pull the rug out from under the audience.

  9. Mark,
    Well what's the point in having an internet if you can't use it to argue about things on which you basically completely agree?

    I'm always surprised when people just won't read a book that involves X. I've always felt the way it was written was a lot more important than subject matter. I mean, Black Beauty and All the Pretty Horses are both about horses, on one level, but they're not much alike...

    Well, the equivalent of the unicorn is probably, say, a huge white ten-gallon hat with a massive gold star saying, Sheriff. You've really got to work at making that one edgy. The equivalent of the six-shooter is something more like, say, a magic sword. I mean, no magic sword, no fantasy, right? Right?

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  11. I have read a lot of X, but unless I hear it's excellent or something else draws me in, I'm kinda done with elves and dwarves and dragons. Not really a 'won't read', more of a had read, that's all.

  12. Anonymous11:57 PM

    See, the thing is, though, if you can be that guy - that guy being e.g, Peter Beagle- you can take the cotton candy of fantasy (unicorns) and do something so fresh with it(The Last Unicorn) that it will resonate with a generation. TLU is not a mylittleponied unicorn; she is a Real Unicorn. And she looks at both mortal love and the numinous; that's the power of a unicorn.

  13. Hey Rene: I know what you mean, and I tend to agree. But I would point out that The Last Unicorn came out 40 years ago, half a long lifetime. Back then it was pretty hard to find a fantasy novel of any description; other genres ruled the book-racks. Things have changed a lot since then.