Letters of Life

Realism, or The Line Between

Indian Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) at the Met...

In this excerpt from a short story by renowned fantasist Peter S Beagle called Professor Gottesman and the Rhinoceros, a Swiss-born professor of philosophy brings his niece to the zoo and finds himself being spoken to by an Indian rhinoceros.

“Professor, it was indeed I who spoke. Come and talk to me, if you please.”

. . . Professor Gottesman asked carefully, “Tell me, if you will — can all rhinoceri speak, or only the Indian species?” He wished furiously that he had thought to bring along his notebook.

“I have no idea,” the rhinoceros answered him candidly. “I myself, as it happens, am a unicorn.”

“Please,” [said the Professor], A rhinoceros, even a rhinoceros that speaks, is as real a creature as I. A unicorn, on the other hand, is a being of pure fantasy, like mermaids, or dragons, or the chimera. I consider very little in the universe as absolutely, indisputably, certain, but I would feel so much better if you could see your way to being merely a talking rhinoceros. For my sake, if not your own.”

It seemed to the Professor that the rhinoceros chuckled slightly, but it might only have been a ruminant’s rumbling stomach.  “My Latin designation is Rhinoceros unicornis,” the great animal remarked. “You may have noticed it on the sign.”

Professor Gottesman dismissed the statement as brusquely as he would have if the rhinoceros had delivered it in class. “Yes, yes, yes, and the manatee, which suckles its young erect in the water and so gave rise to the myth of the mermaid, is assigned to the order of sirenia. Classification is not proof.”

“And proof,” came the musing response, “is not necessarily truth. You look at me and see a rhinoceros, because I am not white, not graceful, far from beautiful, and my horn is no elegant spiral but a bludgeon of matted hair. But suppose that you had grown up expecting a unicorn to look and behave and smell exactly as I do — would not the rhinoceros then be the legend? Suppose that everything you believed about unicorns — everything except the way they look — were true of me? Consider the possibilities, Professor, while you push the remains of that bun under the gate.”

“If you are indeed a unicorn, what are you doing scavenging dirty buns and candy in this public establishment? It is an article of faith that a unicorn can only be taken by a virgin, in whose innocent embrace the ferocious creature becomes meek and docile. Are you prepared to tell me you were captured under such circumstances?”

The rhinoceros was silent for some time before it spoke again. “I cannot,” it said judiciously, “vouch for the sexual history of the gentleman in the baseball cap who fired a tranquilizer dart into my left shoulder. I would, however, like to point out that the young of our species on occasion become trapped in vines and slender branches which entangle their horns — and the Latin for such branches is virge.”

“Sophistry,” said the Professor, sounding unpleasantly beleaguered even in his own ears. “Casuistry. Semantics. Chop-logic. The fact remains, a rhinoceros is and a unicorn isn’t.” This last sounds much more impressive in German.    

                               —- From The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche, And Other Odd Acquaintances (1997)

And I wonder why I took a break from reading works of fantasy of this quality.


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2 Responses »

  1. There’s a lot more to be read, out there… as Tim Powers once wrote, “Much has been lost; and there is yet much to lose.”

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