A couple months ago I finally read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and was pleasantly surprised. No gay/crossdressing pirate captains to be found in the original text – how uninclusive, right?
Another nice surprise was the inclusion of a lion and a unicorn fighting over a crown. I remembered this from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass; actually I remembered watching the story as part of the 1985 film Alice in Wonderland, years before I read the book.
I wasn’t sure if Gaiman’s implementation was a throwback to Carroll or to some older tale, though. After a little online digging, I discovered that the brawl between the lion and the unicorn actually goes back centuries and was referring to Britain and Scotland, with the former represented by the lion and the later the unicorn. Together, they represent the U.K.
The folk song/rhyme itself is usually recorded as:
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.
The story seems to date back to 1603, when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, unifying the two kingdoms. The two nations’ coats of arms were combined. In the rhyme, the lion wins out and can be seen in the U.K.’s heraldry wearing the crown. I’m unclear on exactly why the unicorn is depicted as losing here (perhaps because England became the superceding power).
Above is the U.K.’s coat of arms – an interesting bit of heraldry. You’ll note the crowned lion. The shield in the center displays the British lions in the red fields, the lion of Scotland in the yellow field, and the harp of Ireland in the blue field. Interestingly, the Scottish coat of arms usually either depicts a lion and unicorn that are both crowned, or else two crowned unicorns. Canada’s coat of arms is very similar, displaying the lion and unicorn and a variation on the shield pictured above, but with the addition of a fleur de lis for France and maple leaves for Canada.
The convergence and blending of history and fiction is quite fascinating. Historical events give birth to folk tales, which evolve into legends and all manner of stories children’s rhymes. The Lion and the Unicorn is a great example.