The Transfigured Hart, a 1975 novella by the talented Jane Yolen, was recently republished as part of Tachyon Publications’ Particle e-book imprint. It’s a lovely, evocative tale, juxtaposing fairy-tale-like fantasy and a contemporary rural setting.
Richard and Heather are twelve-year-old neighbors with vastly different personalities who barely know each other. Richard, an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle, is an introspective loner. A long bout with rheumatic fever has given him the habit of reading, and the habit has remained with him. Heather is an enjoyer of life and people, and she particularly enjoys going off by herself on adventures. But both Richard and Heather love the Five Mile Wood.
When his aunt and uncle think he’s leaving the home to play with friends, Richard is actually going to hide in the woods and read a book in peace (something I deeply identify with!). Heather rides her gray appaloosa horse Hop into the woods to explore. Richard and Heather each independently catches a brief glimpse of the white hart that spends most of its time by the hidden, crystal blue pool in the woods. Richard is convinced it’s a unicorn; Heather, more pragmatic, immediately determines that it’s an albino hart. But when boy and girl meet in the woods, they both understand how important it is not to share their secret with others, even if they don’t agree on what they saw. Heather wants to believe Richard’s firm opinion that they’ve seen a unicorn, though. And both agree that they want to see the unicorn again, and tame it.
Yolen takes the ancient legend of the unicorn and sets in our logical world. The sense of magical realism surrounding the white hart (is it a unicorn?) contrasts with the mundane concerns of the real world, like Richard’s social isolation at school and Heather’s teasing older brothers, avid hunters who she knows will shoot the white hart if they can.
The two main characters, Richard and Heather, are well-drawn, with distinctly individual traits. Their budding relationship appears entirely innocent and platonic, but Yolen weaves in meaning-laden symbols, like a wine-stained handkerchief and the unicorn itself. It may be a suggestion that all is not as it seems, or perhaps a hint of what lies in their future.
In between the chapters that tell the children’s story are brief interludes from the hart’s point of view. The Transfigured Hart has a bit of an edge to it, particularly when the hart is tracked down by a deerhound and a brief, bloody encounter ensues. It’s a brief, shocking scene, a reminder that death can cruelly strike at a moment’s notice.
What could one do with a unicorn? Look at it and long for it, and love it.