And what they represent.
The unicorn is an enduring myth. The mystical beast has tantalized the imagination of humanity for centuries. In the East, a creature akin to the unicorn, named the kirin, exists. The kirin punishes criminals by rooting them out of their hiding places, delivering instant justice by piercing their hearts with his or her horn.
Introduced in the Western World in the 4th century B.C., via the written observations of a Greek doctor named Ctesias, the unicorn pranced into the myths of the West, and has not left. The national symbol of Scotland is a chained unicorn, as when free, the legendary unicorn was quite a dangerous beast. The fact that that the English Crown feared a free Scotland as much as a free unicorn is arguably one of the most metal things in the history of existence. That being said, with the Western unicorn comes the burden of traditional female gender roles in regards to purity and virginity.
Although the unicorn was impossible to be tamed by man, the unicorn could conceivably be tamed by a woman. Traditionally, only a virgin sitting naked underneath a tree could capture a unicorn. The unicorn, due to their insatiable craving for purity, would rest their head in the lap of the maiden, and during those moments, a male hunter could capture it. Attempting to hoodwink a unicorn came with a great price. If a woman was presenting herself as a virgin, and was not, the unicorn would tear her apart. The coloring of the unicorn is typically white, further aligning the mythical equine with images of purity, chastity, and virginity.
In modern-day fantasy, women are constantly held to that same standard of indomitable purity when interacting with the mythical beast. The best examples can be found in Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.
In the opening scene of The Last Unicorn, two hunters stroll in a forest that is evidently protected by a unicorn. After sharing a story about his grandmother's encounter with a unicorn (like the traditional fables state, a unicorn fell asleep in her lap when she was a young maiden), the Hunter turns to the forest. The Hunter bellows that the unicorn should remain where she is, as she is probably the last, before adding:
"Pay no mind to young girls, for they never become anything more than silly old women. And good luck to you."
This conflict of the concept of womanhood, and the loss of purity, permeates the novel. Later on, the Unicorn and her magician companion, Schmendrick, encounter a woman named Molly Grue. Most of the time when traveling, the Unicorn does so covertly. The Unicorn is mistaken for a white mare, arguably because there are so little humans that are wise enough to recognize a unicorn when they see one. This fact is best exemplified when Momma Fortuna, a sorceress, captures the Unicorn for her traveling carnival. She places an enchantment on the Unicorn, so that the layman or laywoman may see the Unicorn for what she is. A false horn on a real unicorn is the only way the majority of humanity can accept what is before them.
Regardless, Molly Grue knows what she sees. Yet Molly despairs. Sobbing, Molly asks the Unicorn:
"Where have you been?....And what good is it to me that you're here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?"
Molly, through her tears, eventually forgives the Unicorn. Schmendrick, in a magnificent example of "mansplaining," condescendingly informs Molly:
"Unicorns are not to be forgiven...Unicorns are for beginnings, for innocence and purity, for newness. Unicorns are for young girls."
Molly retorts, after drying her tears on the Unicorn's mane:
"You don't know much about unicorns."
The consequences of becoming a woman and falling in love are also dire for the Unicorn herself. On a quest to find the rest of her kind, and to save her from an monstrous red bull that had been pursuing her, Schmedrick turns the Unicorn into a beautiful female maiden. Going by the name "Lady Amalthea," she soon becomes the love interest of Prince Lir, the son of the evil King Haggard. Finally, the motley crew realizes that King Haggard is keeping the rest of the world's unicorns in the sea, and is using the red bull as their warden. Eventually, the group makes their way down to the coast. But having spent so much time as Amalthea, the unicorn is ready to throw away both her true self, her immortality, and the freedom of her people, for love; echoing the hunters earlier warning that women turn from young girls to "silly old women." The Unicorn, as Amalthea, begs the Prince:
"It is good that everything dies. I want to die when you die. Do not let him enchant me, do not let him make me immortal. I am no unicorn, no magical creature. I am human, and I love you."
Of course, it is a man, Prince Lir, that talks some sense into the unicorn. This is because Prince Lir is a male hero, and one cannot simply abandon a quest. Prince Lir says as much:
"Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story...Heroes know about order, about happy endings-heroes know that some things are better than others."
Rising to the occasion after being told what to do by a man, the Unicorn frees her people. Yet she is different from her people once they are freed, as she is the one unicorn to know both love and regret, from spending her time as a woman. In that way, the Unicorn is sullied.
Although many a young woman adores the unicorn in her youth, the Western incarnation of this mythological equine has been used for centuries to perpetuate purity myths and typical gender roles on young women. There are some examples of unicorns being reclaimed as feminist symbols as their mount of choice to trample the patriarchy. This should be encouraged. Unicorns do not need men telling them what to do. Unicorns are not solely for women who are virgins. Unicorns are not for women who are "untainted" from loving another. Unicorns are for everyone.