De Natura Unicorni Summary
'"The unicorn,'" Brother Bartholomaeus said, "'is a right cruel beast.'" Brother Bartholomaeus was a real person who wrote about unicorns in the thirteenth century. Although Yolen regards Brother Bartholomaeus' disquisition on unicorns as "boring," she takes his opening phrase and uses it as her story's opening phrase. Her version of Brother Bartholomaeus turns out to be an extraordinary blowhard who never stops talking, lecturing endlessly about his research into unicorns and their behavior; even so, he establishes a few important points about unicorns, particularly that they are more than one species of animal with each type having unique characteristics.
For the story as a whole, the notion that "An unicorn is a right cruel beast" (as Brother Bartholomaeus originally phrased it) is foreshadowing that creates suspense. The exact form of the cruelty of a unicorn is debatable throughout. Gregory seems to catch on to the tricky nature of the animal when he remarks, "The unicorn is a right cruel beast indeed. Cruel enough to keep out of sight." The unicorn of "De Natura Unicorni" is a trickster, a kind of figure traditional in folklore, and like the traditional figure, its true nature is ambiguous. Is it a moral being or a sinister one? Or does it exist somewhere outside of the moral universe, something the hunters can barely glimpse but cannot capture, even in their dreams? Even the notion of cruelty gets turned on its head, for it becomes unclear as to who is truly cruel, and it becomes unclear as to who is truly the victim.