Amalthea and Aslan: My lions and my unicorn

By Hannah


It always seems entertaining to me that the lion and the unicorn are so associated with one another. Connected through a poem and their symbolism of Britain, they also make up the title of a children’s literature journal. Yet for me, whilst I

have deep seated attachments to both lions and unicorns in literature, I have rarely witnessed the two together. For me, they have different, but no less special, associations with my childhood. The major collaboration of the two, of course, is the poem that Carroll quotes in his wonderful book Through the Looking Glass:



The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:

The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.


It was not the poem that excited me, but the bartering between Alice and the Unicorn regarding one another’s existence. ‘If you believe in me then I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’ the Unicorn demands of Alice. I was tickled by this exchange, and the need the characters had to verify themselves by the other, because for me the talking lion was just as believable as the unicorn – very.


Because my greatest literary attachment as a child was Narnia’s Aslan. I was absolutely besotted. Sniggers regarding bestiality aside, this was probably the closest thing to a ‘crush’ I had at that young age. But then, why not? At age six I was hardly forming my attachments based on physical attraction, after all. And Aslan was and is the true masculine ideal. Brave, strong and loyal with a sense of right and wrong, and capable of delivering the happy ever after; rescuing girls and turning them into princesses. Added to this, he was soft, furry, and wonderful to cuddle. I had a savage sense of jealousy reading the chapter following Aslan’s resurrection, where Lucy and Susan play with him on the hillside, and Lucy cannot decide ‘if it was like playing with a kitten or a thunderstorm.’ Aslan was the original hero, and I resented the Jesus allegory when I heard of it.


But Aslan wasn’t my only important lion. Even putting aside my beloved Simba and sticking to the books, I still had my Cowardly Lion and my Butterfly Lion. Michael Morpurgo’s white lion cub was absolutely enchanting to me, as was the beautiful image of the breathing lion formed from butterflies, and carved into the hillside. What was even more important to me was the friendship and devotion between Bertie and his lion. I adored the idea of a companion who waited for you, no matter how long the time period, and forgave you for parting from them in the first place. Bertie too, who had always calmly known that he would find his friend, and that it was only a matter of time before he did. The Cowardly Lion of course, was the least cowardly character in Oz. It was he who showed me that true bravery comes from facing fears, not being unafraid in the first place. The lions of my childhood were figureheads of steadfastness, loyalty, kindness and protection.


But what of the unicorns? In honesty, there was only been one special unicorn for me. Unicorns appear in various stories, but always as elusive and pure, moving through the background, saving and preserving. In Harry Potter, we witness the horror of seeing someone kill a unicorn to keep himself alive, which repulses us despite the fact that so few of us are vegetarians. In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Gawaine and his brothers also kill a unicorn, in the hope of impressing the mother whose love they crave so deeply. All the horribly gruesome scene shows to us is what can be destroyed in effort to be something we aren’t, when trying to please someone else. The unicorn was a sacrificial figure, showing us our faults.


But Amalthea was different, and you only need to have a short conversation with me about Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, to know what an impact she made on me as a child, although I found her long after Aslan. Amalthea is the last unicorn, who goes to find the rest of her kind, befriending on the way a wizard and a lady who had given up on finding the unicorn she hoped for in her youth. Amalthea must be turned into a human to save her kind, but in doing so loses the detachment given to her by her immortality: she falls in love. This love can never be fulfilled as Amalthea must change back, but it is an immortal love because Amalthea will always, always remember Prince Lir. The joy of this story is that Amalthea is so much bigger than the plot she finds herself in, and Schmendrick the wizard realises that she is more real than the fairy tale. As a human she is forced to play the part of the princess and is marred by the taint of mortality; and when she is transformed back, she not only denies the standard happy ending with the prince, but is forever damaged: ‘I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet…no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do.’ Amalthea is a paragon of holding love beyond all hope, and recognising the joy that be found even in the painful.


If Aslan was my ideal man, then Amalthea was my ideal incarnation of the feminine. Sexist, you may claim. But Amalthea is strong, and Aslan more compassionate than she; they aren’t stereotypes. My point is, in fact, is that England had it right, combining the two to represent England. My lions and my unicorn encompass the best of the sexes, and the best of the different sides to every person.

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3 comments

  1. Wow what a great article. Very interesting. I can't remember being fascinated by either lions or unicorns. And significantly, they're not a symbol of my country of birth. I wonder to what extent attachment to such symbols is constructed by a country's imagery.

    Like

  2. Peter Beagle is an American though, so even if Carroll and Lewis, and even T H WHite (although I think he was thinking of older myths) were thinking of British symbols, then Beagle certainly wasn't.

    So it's possible I pulled the two together because of Carroll, but I think they were quite separate loves, initially.

    Like

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