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August 1999
 
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The Unicorn with Silver Shoes by Ella Young, 1932

Celtic mythology produces many favorites in modern fantasy—mostly Welsh, with the Mabinogion a convenient source for Kenneth Morris, Evangeline Walton, Lloyd Alexander, and Katherine Kurtz, et al., or Scottish (some dozen Tamlins alone from the Child Ballads). For Irish mythology, however, there is no single convenient source, and Irish-based fantasy is rarer.

Ella Young (1867-1957) was a folklorist by profession. Her original fantasy, The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (illus. Robert Lawson), was the product of years of research. When the 1923 edition of Celtic Wonder Tales (illus. Maud Gonne) appeared, she had already begun extrapolating from her sources. The Wonder Tale "A Good Action," became the first chapter of Unicorn. In both, the protagonist is Balor's (or Ballor's) Son—King Balor in the myths was a monster, and his Son a cipher needed to report his decree (retold by Young in The Wonder Smith and his Son, 1927; illus. Boris Artzybasheff). But it was Young's own idea to give the young prince a will of his own, and a longing for faery beauty—also comic incompetence in trying to achieve it. His Good Action wins him a golden apple, but he eats it before he can show it as proof of his exploit. By the time he has learned to shoe a unicorn with silver, the unicorn has faded out of existence. In short, Young found that a monstrous Fomorian was, after all, an image of what it means to be a human, and longing to be more.

(The Unicorn is long out of print, but the Tales, the Smith, and Young's 1929 retelling of the Finn McCool tales, The Tangle-Coated Horse), illus. Vera Bock, were reprinted in 1991 by Floris Books of Edinburgh, with a U.S. outlet in the Anthroposophic Press, RR4 Box 94 A1, Hudson NY 12534.)

—Ruth Berman

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