The Lion and the Unicorn are symbols of the United Kingdom. They are, properly speaking, heraldic supporters appearing in the full Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. The lion stands for England and the unicorn for Scotland. The combination therefore dates back to the 1603 accession of James I of England who was already James VI of Scotland.
The traditional legend of enmity between the two heraldic animals is recorded in a nursery rhyme which has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 20170. It is usually given with the lyrics:
- 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 legend of the two animals may have been intensified by the Acts of Union 1707 and it was one year later that William King (1663–1712) recorded a verse very similar to the first stanza of the modern rhyme. This seems to have grown to include several other verses. Apart from those above only one survives:
- And when he had beat him out,
- He beat him in again;
- He beat him three time s over,
- His power to maintain.
This rhyme was played upon by Lewis Carroll, who incorporated them as characters in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Here, the crown they are fighting for belongs to the White King, which, given that they are on the White side as well, makes their rivalry all the more absurd. Carroll subverts the traditional view of a lion being alert and calculating by making this particular one slow and rather stupid, although clearly the better fighter. The role of the Unicorn is likewise reversed by the fact that he sees Alice as a "monster", though he promises to start believing in her if she will believe in him. Sir John Tenniel's illustrations for the section caricature Benjamin Disraeli as the Unicorn, and William Ewart Gladstone as the Lion, alluding to the pair's frequent parliamentary battles, although there is no evidence that this was Carroll's intention.
References in popular culture
The popularity of the rhyme can be seen in its use in a variety of cultural contexts, including:
- An 1899 book of this title by Richard Harding Davis.
- "The Lion and the Unicorn" was an essay written by George Orwell in 1940.
- The Lion and the Unicorn: Historian's Testament is a 1969 book by Arthur Bryant.
- In Out of This World, a 1993 Science Fiction/Fantasy novel by Lawrence Watt-Evans, the Lion and the Unicorn are seen as an emblem of the Galactic Empire.
- The rhyme appears in Neil Gaiman's Stardust (1998).
- The Lion and the Unicorn (2007) was a study of the rivalry of William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli by Richard Aldous.
- In the Anime OVA Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010), the unicorn and lion are referenced by the mobile suit Gundam units RX-0 Unicorn Gundam and RX-0 Unicorn Gundam 02 "Banshee" respectively.
- Harold Shand's pub in The Long Good Friday (1980) is called the "Lion & Unicorn".
- In Batman: The Animated Series Alfred uses "The Lion and The Unicorn" as a password on a weapons platform.
- The "Unicorn and Lion" are referenced in the XTC song "Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)".
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 442-3.
- ↑ Picture Origins - Lenny's Alice in Wonderland site
Baker, E.D. Dragon's Breath, 162-3. New York: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (2003).