The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes

“It was alive, glimmering under the rosebush, sitting on its haunches with its one spiralling horn and its long, white, silky mane. It turned its beautiful head and looked at him.” (The Lion and the Unicorn, by Shirley Hughes, Bodley Head, 1998)

Children’s books written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes never seem to go out of fashion. At 93 years of age, she has experienced and witnessed many different types of childhood; from a vulnerable one during the war years and the hardships thereafter, through to the ‘entitled’ generation of the 21st century.

During this time she has carried some of her most popular characters with her, such as Alfie, Lucy and Tom, and her illustrations from Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister series. Unlike the Harry Potter books, however, where the characters grow as the years pass by in real-time, Hughes’ characters remain in their infant phase of life, presenting a challenge seeing as over the space of almost a century, childhood has changed a great deal.

In interviews with the media, regarding a celebratory exhibition of Hughes’ work in 2017, at the age of 90, she argued that the themes of childhood are timeless and therefore her characters, although perhaps painted in a more idealised existence, never read as old-fashioned. Whilst children today may have televisions and iPads to play with – her most popular creation, Alfie, would never have known such a thing when he first made the page back in 1981 – the little crises of children are still the same; they still want to play in the garden and get covered in mud, and they cry if they can’t find their favourite toy.

This is Hughes’ greatest strength, sticking to the simple little things that mean so much to children no matter what age they grow up in, what gender they are, or where in the world they are from. It is said that Hughes finds her inspiration by sitting quietly in her communal garden in Notting Hill with her sketchbook and watching children play, and in this it is easy to understand how she can pick such universal truths about what is important to young minds.

One significant aspect of childhood that is particularly different, she observes, is the speed at which children have to process things due to the volume of ‘stuff’ they have at their disposal. They need to ‘slow down’, she says, in order to fully develop their imaginations.

This is where Hughes’ skills as an artist as well as a writer becomes useful, because her pictures take as much time, if not more, than the text does to explore, enjoy and comprehend. She told journalists in 2017 that she wanted to allow children to take their time and linger over the pages of pictures and guess what might come next.

Feeding the imagination, rather than having everything handed to them in a barrage of flickering images, is at the heart of Hughes’ The Lion and the Unicorn. Set during World War Two, when there was no such thing as tablets and mobile phones, her central character, Lenny, has to find his own amusement as he is sent away from his mother to a large country estate as a child evacuee.

His imagination is both his undoing and his salvation, as his mind fills his attic bedroom with fearful thoughts of lions on the hunt in the shadows of the estate, but also the possibility that a real-life unicorn exists in the walled garden of the house, ready to protect him from harm. It is in the walled garden, a place of refuge from the other evacuee children and the bullies at his new school, that he first encounters the statue of the unicorn, along with Mick, an amputee war hero.

The unicorn reminds him of the badge that his father gives him of the UK’s royal coat of arms – a lion and a unicorn. The lion symbolises bravery, his father tells him before he leaves for the army, and the unicorn is a gentle and magical creature that Lenny comes to realise stands for courage.

These are attributes needed in war, his father says, but Hughes points out that bravery, for a child, is not about facing the bigger adult world, but the little things they encounter everyday, such as the fear of being the new kid in school, sleeping in the dark, and being on your own.

After daily bullying at school, feeling homesick, and lack of friends, Lenny starts to crumble, wetting the bed and running away to the garden to cry in silence. Only Mick seems to understand him, and when Lenny learns his story, he finds that he is not failing in the lion-heart bravery that he promised his father, and that heroes can be scared and upset too.

It is the unicorn, however, that both Mick and Lenny identify more closely with. “There are different kinds of courage” Mick tells Lenny, and when one night after fearing his mother may never come for him, he sees the unicorn in the garden as a real-live creature. His night-fears drive him to a place of sanctuary with the unicorn, and in bringing him to life he finds a calmness that he hadn’t had since leaving his mother behind.

This plays into Hughes’ ambition of giving children that quiet, calm time, to slow down and not be forced to react to every little thing around them, but instead sit and focus on just one thing. Lenny’s ‘unicorn moment’, is just that – it focuses him and washes away his anxiety. Following the experience, he no longer cares what the bullies think, as the safety of his family is more important than anything they can do or say to him.

This magical encounter leads directly to the return of his mother and the realisation that bravery doesn’t mean that you can’t be scared sometimes, it is about finding little pockets of courage when you can and being kind to yourself in moments of weakness.

His father’s badge contained a different kind of magic than perhaps the one originally intended – the power of imagination to bring about real development. The imagined unicorn of the gardens defeats his night demons of a killer lion, but also slows him down and stops him from running away from his adopted home, just in time to see his mother return.

And isn’t this what Hughes wants children to take from all of her books – to slow the mind down long enough to allow for a bit of magic?

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes, Penguin Random House, 2000.

Recommended for a reading age of six onward.

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