The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn – John Williamson

The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn: Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries
John Williamson
HarperCollins, 1987
260 pages

This book is a must-read for neopagans. Williamson details a large portion of medieval symbolism that, while superficially Christian, is at the core Greek, Roman, or Northern European in origin, shown through the multilayered iconography of the seven Unicorn tapestries.

He draws from sources thst are generally respected, if sometimes somewhat dated–Frazer, Campbell, Eliade, Graves–as well as lesser known scholars like Ananda Coomeraswamy. This is academic work, not neopagan, though the writing style is incredibly accessible.

Of particular note are the ways the author traces the nonmedicinal meanings of herbs and other plants and why those traits are applied to animals as well. There are some definite surprises–even the Unicorn represents a multitude, from Christ to other dying vegetation deities, from the Sun to the Moon. He weaves in the cycle of the Oak King and the Holly King, supported by the constant presence of those plants in the tapestries at key points. This is sure proof of that particular motif so beloved by many neopagans.

My only complaint is that he recycles quotes throughout the book, but this is an incredibly minor stylistic detail compared to the solidity of the text. This book is essential for those curious about the origins of herbal and animal properties from medieval times, as well as proof of the Oak King/Holly King symbolism as something older than the 20th century.

Five pawprints out of five.

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