Of Horses, Horns, Wings, and Tails

Feb. 26th was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, so this seems a fine time for an adventure into the wilds of words and mythical beasts.

What do you call a unicorn with wings? The Oxford English Dictionary blog once posed that question. As a word nerd with a passion for mythical beasts, that fired my interest! The blog, sadly, was taken down, but it gave several possible answers. Since that venerable and wide-reaching source gave no one definitive answer, I have to conclude there isn’t one.

A search of the web similarly brings up lots of possibilities, including pegacorn, unipeg, unisus and other portmanteau combinations of unicorn and pegasus. I have to say to my eye and ear these seem rather inelegant and clunky, conjuring up images of flying pigs and peg-legged unicorns. Cerapter is a clever alternative, from the ancient Greek keras for horn and pteros for wing.* To me it has a sort of dinosaurian flavor, though.

And then there is Alicorn. This is a lovely and historic old word I first encountered in my copy of The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepherd.

Cover of the Lore of the Unicorn

He traces Alicorn back to 14th century Italian and later Arabic; he uses the term to mean the horn of a unicorn,** a most precious, almost sacred object. It was the sovereign antidote to all poison, and it could heal the sick, even of the dreaded Plague.

In the dark corner of a museum, I once had the privilege of seeing an Alicorn. Well, at least its mortal cousin.

Narwhal skull and tusk
A Mortal Alicorn

This is the skull of a narwhal, found in a whaling museum. I’d never seen one before, though I’d read about them. It gave me a shiver of pleased recognition to lay eyes on it.

Alicorn is a word of both elegance and substance to my mind. But since it already refers to something other than a winged unicorn (or horned pegasus), I’d suggest a slight variation. My proposal: alacorn, from the Latin āla for wing and cornū for horn. (Like cerapter, only without connotations of velociraptors and pterodactyls.)

Now for a somewhat related question: what do you call a sea-going unicorn?

For example, this magnificent beast:

Hipporn by Sarah Minkiewicz
Hippicorn by Sarah Minkiewicz

This incredible creature is the work of the artist Sarah Minkiewicz (bought for me as a gift from her Zazzle store).

It is called a Hippicorn, and since that name was given by its creator, there can be no more fitting title. Hippicorn is a doubly hybrid word, a portmanteau of hippocampus (from Greek roots) and unicorn (from Latin). More on that later.

Some might wonder what a hippocampus is.*** I’m so glad you asked! (Pretend you did, even if you didn’t.)

A hippocampus is a mythic seahorse, the equine equivalent of a mermaid. Sometimes it has a dolphin-like tail, sometimes a fishy one. Here’s a fine one found on Cape Cod. It seems to have a fondness for jewelry and scarves.

carved hippocampus in shop window
An Elegant Hippocampus

The name is from ancient Greek, hippos for horse, kampos for sea monster. It is, I think, a close cousin to the campchurch, which is another kind of sea-going unicorn, but rather different from Sarah Minkiewicz’s wild hippicorn. It has no tail, but webbed hind feet. Here it is where I first encountered it in one of my favorite childhood books.

illustration of campchurch
from Georgess McHargue’s Beasts of Never

Here the marine cousins are together:

illustration of campchurch and hippocampus
Cavorting Together

And here is another close relative, found in the same whaling museum as the alicorn, carved out of whale ivory.

whale ivory hippocampus pie crimper
Bicorn Hippocampus?

Because I am a word nerd, I wondered where the “church” in campchurch came from. Webster’s Unabridged dictionary was, alas, no help. Even the massive Oxford English Dictionary was silent on the matter. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon of Ancient Greek vouched for the antiquity of hippocampus, but had no trace of campchurch.

An online search brings up a lot of opportunities for worship while camping, but very little about sea-unicorns. I found one woodcut image of a campchurch from 1575 – walking flat-footed on dry land!

Could the “church” of campchurch have come from the modern meaning of house of worship? It seemed unlikely, but Webster’s and the OED do agree that “church” is derived from the ancient Greek kyriakon, and ultimately kyrios, lord and kyros, supreme power. Could campchurch mean something like the lord of sea monsters? I’m left to wonder…But Sarah’s hippicorn is certainly a lordly beast!

I also wonder what else might one call a horned hippocampus or marine unicorn? What about mericorn? (I think I kind of like that).

The truth is, if I should ever be so fortunate as to see any of these mythical beasts, I’m certain I’d be unable to call them anything at all, being struck dumb with awe and wonder!

If you, too, like mythical beasts – one of these creatures lurks in the pages of Running Wild Anthology of Stories V. 3! I won’t tell you which one, but the title gives a clue. Why not go explore? You’ll find several supernatural creatures hiding among those excellent stories.

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

Check back in a couple of weeks for another interview with one of my anthology colleagues!

 

*I encountered this term here: https://mythicalmagicalbeastsandbeings.com/alicorn.html (2020-02-17). The other terms showed up several places, including Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_unicorn (2020-02-17).

** Lexico, the online dictionary authored by Oxford University Press, agrees with the usage if not entirely with the derivation.  https://www.lexico.com/definition/alicorn (2020-02.17)

***This post is about supernatural creatures, so we’ll leave aside the area of the brain, which got its name from the beast, anyway.

Christopher Paolini Book Signing

Here Be Dragons!

Saphira Banner for Christopher Paolini's B & N Tour
Saphira Banner

Christopher Paolini’s dragons at Barnes & Noble, to be exact.

Barnes & Noble is hosting an Author Residency Book Tour with Christopher Paolini over the coming months. And from what I’ve seen of it, it’s a lot of fun! The staff at the B&N bookstore I went to made it a great, smooth-running event. Kudos to them.

Now I confess I haven’t read the books (so many books, so little time! I’m a slow reader, and thick books can be daunting). But a dear friend who is an avid and discerning reader has enjoyed them, and that was good enough for me to think about getting the latest book, The Fork, The Witch, and the Worm, for my great-nephew who likes mythology and fantasy.

Cover of The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm by Christopher Paolini
My copy…for now

The Residency Tour is in only about a dozen cities, so I’m quite pleased that the only mid-Atlantic location was in my state! And dragons, like most mythical beasts, are dear to my heart. So I decided to go. My friend Aud Supplee also came, bringing another friend. And Aud has also written a blog about her perspective of the event, so check that out!

 

Crowd waiting for Christopher Paolini at B&N
The Waiting Crowd

My first impression of Christopher Paolini was how warm and unassuming he was, and genuinely delighted to be there. (A friend who works at the store and helped organize the event says he was great to talk to and super-nice behind the scenes, too.) He was content to blend in with the crowd while we were playing trivia with the B&N booksellers. One of the questions was something like, “What did Eragon get from his sister?” Christopher jovially called from the crowd, “More questions!” (Please forgive me, fans – you’ll probably know exactly what that question was, and if it wasn’t about his sister, I apologize! I can only plead ignorance and faulty memory; I wasn’t taking notes.)

Then Christopher took the mike to talk to us. He honestly seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience did.

Christopher Paolini Presenting at B&N
Christopher Presenting

With self-deprecating humor, he said, “Some of you may have noticed that it’s been awhile since my last book.” We all laughed. He explained how he started Eragon when he was 15, (1998), and he was still touring with the fourth book in 2012 – a huge chunk of his young life. When he was done he wanted nothing to do with dragons for awhile! Meanwhile, he’s been writing a big sci-fi book “with tentacles.” But he would wonder at odd moments, “What are Eragon and Saphira doing now?” Then he wondered what it would be like to write about a very old, angry, hungry dragon. “Like Smaug,” I think someone in the audience said. “Or like the dragon in Beowulf,” Christopher said. That formed the basis of the “Worm” story in his new book.

A fan once tweeted him, “What’s Murtagh doing?” Because Christopher was awake at 1:00 a.m. from too much coffee and feeling kind of snarky, he answered, “Fighting off foes with a magic fork named Mr. Stabby.” But then he wondered, Could I write a story like that? That, of course, became “The Fork” in the new collection.

His sister Angela had an idea for a story, and he told her to go for it. That became “On the Nature of Stars,” part of “The Witch.” As Christopher sat down to write the story that weaves together all these tales, he felt like he was returning home after a long journey. “Why did I wait so long?” The audience cheered.

Speaking more about inspiration, he talked about how a certain disappointing blockbuster movie made him think – how could I fix that? Human beings are born storytellers, he says – we know when a story doesn’t work. He talked at length at how flawed writing can inspire a writer more than perfect writing does – as you think about how you could fix things.

As a young boy, he was inspired by a book he loved, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville, about a boy who finds a dragon egg. It made him think about what kind of world a dragon would come from, which led to more questions. That’s how we write stories and build worlds, he said – asking questions and answering them as honestly as we can.

Then Christopher engaged briefly in a bit of what he called “shameless self-promotion.” His mother is a homeschooler, and she has published books to help others; he hoped any home-schoolers in the audience would check them out. Also, he mentioned the recent Barnes & Noble Exclusive Collector’s Edition of Eragon. It has a full-color map, (I love book maps), and under the dustcover is the insignia of Brom’s ring, designed by Christopher himself. Pretty cool! Though of course that’s promoting his first book, it’s also supporting Barnes & Noble, his hosts, and like all bricks-and-mortar bookstores they can use all such support. Pretty gracious “self-promotion” if you ask me!

He confirmed (to much audience excitement) that there is a fifth Inheritance book in the works, which will answer a lot of questions. Then the audience asked fun questions, like what fantasy would he like to insert Eragon into. “Does Hunger Games count as fantasy?” His favorite movies? He has so many, including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Terminator” and “The Little Princess (1995)”. Yep, an odd juxtaposition, that! Some of his many favorite books include The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison, pre-Tolkien fantasy of Tolkien caliber, and Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peak, the gothiest book ever, according to Christopher.

When someone asked what he wished he’d known about publishing at the start, he answered: mistakes are part of the process. A bad sentence, paragraph, even a bad draft doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. When something makes you uncomfortable, the things you know you’re not good at, push into them. That’s what will make you grow as a writer, and a person.

He read a little from all four books, including an Elven blessing, (he claims he has an awful Elven accent) and something from a very angry Dwarf (he says he has an excellent dwarf accent, because he trills his rrrs with his uvula!) When he read from “The Worm,” (in normal English), it struck me it had a fine, old-epic tone.

If you check out Aud’s blog, you can hear a bit of Christopher speaking, even in the Dwarf language!

Then it was time for the book signing. Even waiting and standing in line was fun – we got to talk to very friendly fans (who didn’t seem to mind my ignorance). Christopher took time to talk to everyone who came up. He was as warm and friendly up close as he was from a distance. And early-comers got a cool Inheritance pin, compliments of Barnes & Noble.

B & N Inheritance Pin for Christopher Paolini signing
B & N’s gift for early comers

Thank you, Barnes & Noble, for hosting such a fun event. Readers, if you’ve enjoyed the books, check out his tour and see if he’s coming anywhere near you.

And thank you, Christopher Paolini. You’ve made me a fan! Even though I bought the book as a gift, and I really shouldn’t, I might just have to peek inside for a read…

 

Into the Wild of Words

Now for a brief journey into the wilds of word exploration, on the trail of a unicorn. Along this path are two very talented women artists.

The unicorn’s name is Hillingar.

Hillingar; sculpture: Sarah Minkiewicz; photo: Susan B. Young

This fantastic beast is a sculpture you can hold in your hand, the work of the greatly gifted Sarah Minkiewicz.

Sarah creates amazing equine (and equine-related) art; I’ve been very fortunate to have been given a number of pieces from her Zazzle store.

This post is meant to be about word exploration, but I must spend a little time on the unicorn himself. Hillingar is an incredible creature, most definitely not just a horse with a horn, nor even a horse with horn, cloven hooves, and a lion’s tail. No, this beast is very much his own creature. He is sinewy, powerful, fiery, somehow almost dragonish. Kudos, Sarah!

I got to hold this magnificent animal because my dear friend, Susan Bensema Young, was one of the fortunate few who possesses one of this limited edition. Sue, herself a very gifted artist, is a miniaturist who builds exquisite model horse tack. On her blog she wrote about receiving and unwrapping Hillingar.There you can see more views of this remarkable unicorn. You can also find posts on many things, including how she builds her tack, and a link to her website full of her own beautiful work. I hope you’ll explore some of these.

To return to the path of words. It was Sue who told me that Hillingar’s name is Icelandic and means “a mirage, a fata morgana.” I pondered the mirage part. It fits in the sense this unicorn might leave you wondering if you can believe your own eyes. But on the other hand, this sculpture is so vibrant, so vivid, so present, it does not seem like anything diaphanous or ephemeral.

But fata morgana startled me. I thought the phrase meant “Morgan le Fay.” Here I turned to one of my trusty guidebooks for adventures in word-tracking. Not exactly a pocket fieldguide – it’s Webster’s Unabridged (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged, to be precise). Webster’s led me true: indeed, fata morgana is defined as a mirage. Webster’s further illuminates the mystery, especially online: ‘Fata Morgana is the Italian name for Morgan le Fay (meaning “Morgan the Fairy”), a sorceress of medieval legends… sister of the legendary King Arthur…Among her powers, say some versions of the legend, was the ability to change shape, and she has been blamed for causing complex mirages over bodies of water, especially in the Strait of Messina. Today we know that such optical illusions are really caused by atmospheric conditions, but we still sometimes use “fata morgana” as a synonym of “mirage.”’

Aha! Revelation. (And this is particularly fitting as Sue has meteorological connections). This led me to wonder, as I have before, why Morgan le Fay translates as Fata Morgana in Italian. Trusty Webster’s to the rescue! It traces fay (meaning ‘a fairy; an elf’) as the word winds its way back in time: through Middle English, back to Old French, and ultimately to Latin: “fata, a fairy, fatum, fate.”

Wow. So Morgan le Fay (or Morgan le Fey) is distantly related to the Three Fates, at least etymologically. (I had wondered). And as Sue says of Hillingar, “What an amazing creature. The word that comes to me is fey.” Which brings us around full circle. And it makes perfect sense to me, that this unicorn connects to a being of powerful magic.

Thank you to both Sarah and Sue for allowing me a glimpse of this fantastic beast!

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