Back when Fairy Pokémon were first introduced in X and Y and several existing Pokémon had their types retconned to Fairy or part-Fairy, one of the things we talked about a little bit here was which Pokémon weren’t changed to Fairy-types although they justifiably could have been – and one of the Pokémon on that list was Rapidash. Rapidash is a unicorn – a fairytale creature if ever there was one, full of mystery and magic. But Rapidash itself is… weirdly not very unicorn-ish; all of its powers are related to either fire or speed, and all of its lore (not just in the games, but in other continuities like the anime) is pretty heavily focused on its legendary speed and competitiveness. It’s not really a unicorn in the sense of Mediaeval European mythology – more of a horse that just happens to have a pretty vicious horn. And is on fire. But Galar has now given us an enchanted, divine Psychic-type Ponyta and Psychic/Fairy-type Rapidash, all pure white and sky blue and candy pink like a My Little Pony character, sweetness and light from head to hooves. And we’re gonna dig into it and figure out what makes a unicorn unicorn-ish, because that is apparently the path I have chosen.
Exactly where “unicorns” come from originally is difficult to pin down. Ancient Greek and Latin texts like Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, Ctesias’ Indica and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History refer to an assortment of one- or two-horned horse-like animals from distant lands that the authors had not personally visited, particularly India. The animals they describe are wild and potentially dangerous, not magical or sacred. These accounts might be referring to mythical creatures from the folklore of those distant lands, or they might be garbled images of antelopes or even rhinoceroses (Marco Polo, famously, saw rhinos in Sumatra and was devastated to report back to Europe that unicorns were actually extremely ugly). Unicorns later snuck into the Old Testament through a mistranslation of the Hebrew word re’em, which probably means “aurochs,” the ancestral wild bull that domestic cows were bred from. By the time the Old Testament was first translated into Greek, aurochs were extinct in the Eastern Mediterranean and the translators apparently didn’t know what they were – so re’em became the Greek monokeros, “unicorn,” ultimately leading to unicorns getting into the King James Bible. Rapidash’s design probably doesn’t have much to do with any of this, but I think it’s an enjoyable coincidence that the original unicorns were, like original-recipe Rapidash, just fierce animals that had great speed and strength but weren’t particularly magical or holy.
The unicorn we know is loosely based on those mythical animals of the Classical era, but really comes into being during the Mediaeval period, in bestiaries compiled in Christian Europe. Mediaeval Christian bestiaries are fascinating things, because they seem like books about the appearance and behaviour of animals, but in reality they’re more like collections of fables, where the animals symbolically provide examples (both positive and negative) for human moral behaviour (you can browse some interpretations of these, alongside excerpts from some key Mediaeval and Classical texts, here: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastalphashort.htm). It’s Mediaeval bestiaries that tell us that unicorns are too fast and strong to be caught by any hunter, but can be pacified and captured by a virgin girl (boys need not apply). In origin, this is probably some kind of allegory about the relationship between Christ and the Virgin Mary, but its legacy is that unicorns are associated with innocence and a vaguely-defined notion of “purity.” Modern interpretations downplay the literal sexual purity side (because… y’know, it’s none of the unicorn’s fµ¢£in’ business, frankly), and emphasise that unicorns trust and respect people who are pure of heart. Galarian Ponyta, according to the Shield Version Pokédex, can use their psychic abilities to Detect Evil on anyone who looks into their eyes, and will run and hide if they perceive any malicious intent (helpfully, both forms of Ponyta and Rapidash have the ability Run Away; the Galarian form’s hidden ability, Anticipation, is also useful for avoiding anyone who means them harm). Unfortunately, if you want to hold onto a unicorn for a while, it’s not enough just to be a young girl; you have to take it to the king’s castle, because only royalty can keep a unicorn captive. The divine right of kings comes with a few magical perks, I guess.
We also learn from Mediaeval texts that a unicorn’s horn, or “alicorn,” has the magical ability to detect and cure poison. Purported “unicorn horns” sold for this purpose were often narwhal tusks, whose spiralling shape probably influenced the spiral-grooved horns seen in artistic depictions of unicorns, including Galarian Rapidash. Fairy Pokémon are normally weak against Poison attacks, and Rapidash’s Psychic dual-type unfortunately doesn’t exempt it from that, but it does have the unique Pastel Veil ability, which confers immunity to the poison status on both Rapidash and its allies. It can even cure poison when Rapidash enters the battlefield. We’re also told that a touch of Galarian Ponyta’s horn can heal wounds, and accordingly you’ll find both Heal Pulse and Healing Wish on its level-up list. More generally, Galarian Ponyta and Rapidash are associated with the magic of life and nature. They live in the enchanted Glimwood Tangle in western Galar, where according to the Sword and Shield website they “were exposed to the overflowing life energy of the forest over many generations.” Pokémon is… deliberately vague about how “life energy” works, and it seems like there are multiple types that use it as a source of power (as we discussed when Galarian Ponyta was first revealed), including both Fairy and Psychic, but it sounds like Ponyta and Rapidash gain their healing powers from living in a place where there is a lot of excess “life force” floating around, which they can “soak up” and store. Oddly, the horn doesn’t seem to be the main conduit for their magical abilities; instead they store life force in their luxuriant, colourful manes, which grow brighter and even glow if they’re in a place where life force is particularly abundant. To be fair, the manes and tails are easier to work with than the horns in terms of creating visual interest. The horns are distinctive (and give Galarian Ponyta the wonderfully punny species designation “the Unique Horn Pokémon) but it’s the bright flames of Kantonian Ponyta and Rapidash’s manes that immediately grab the viewer’s eye, and it makes sense for the Galarian form’s design to follow suit.
Unicorns are the national animal of Scotland, making them particularly appropriate for Sword and Shield given Galar’s British inspiration. No one really knows for sure why, though. One popular folk theory suggests that it’s because unicorns and lions – the animal emblem of English royalty – are mortal enemies in folklore (see, for instance, the Lion and the Unicorn fighting over the White King’s crown in Through the Looking Glass), but that motif probably became popular after the unicorn was established as a Scottish symbol. It might have pagan Celtic origins, but reading about Celtic mythology on the internet is kind of a minefield of bull$#!t, and I haven’t seen anything about Celtic unicorns that passes my personal bull$#!t detector beyond the occasional offhand comment. Of course, that could still have influenced the depiction of Galarian Ponyta as closely attuned to the fundamental energies of nature. I also don’t believe some claims I’ve seen that the Scottish unicorn goes all the way back to the royal arms of William I (r. 1165-1214), which would put it right at the beginning of the European tradition of heraldry. William’s arms are not preserved, but he was known as “William the Lion,” and the arms of his son Alexander II displayed a red lion, so… well… take a wild guess. No; the unicorn probably becomes an emblem of Scotland in the 15th century. James I (r. 1406-1437), for reasons that have not been passed down to us, added unicorns to the royal arms of Scotland, and James III (r. 1460-1488) issued Scotland’s first gold coins, which were known as “unicorns” and bore the image of a unicorn on the obverse side. After the 1603 “Union of the Crowns,” James VI of Scotland – who was now also James I of England – replaced the red Welsh dragon in the royal arms of England with a silver unicorn. It’s still there today, opposite the golden English lion. Pride is a minor theme for Galarian Rapidash, and it’s a theme that’s shared with the Kantonian form anyway, but it also makes a lot of sense for a royal Pokémon to be “brave and prideful.”
The Scottish unicorn is normally shown wearing a golden crown over its neck and bound by a golden chain, in reference to the wild, dangerous nature of unicorns and the idea that only a king would be able to keep a unicorn in captivity. That doesn’t really tell us anything about Galarian Rapidash, whose unicorn motifs are all related to magic, innocence and purity. But… weirdly, there is another Pokémon this sounds like, to me: Glastrier/Spectrier, the “loyal steed” of the legendary Pokémon Calyrex, ancient king of the Crown Tundra (a.k.a. Poké-Scotland). Only Glastrier, the Ice-type steed, has anything resembling a unicorn horn, but Calyrex controls both of its royal mounts with a set of magical reins (admittedly not golden in colour), which embodied the faith of its people. In the story of the game, Calyrex also has to rely on the help of a child, the protagonist (gender unspecified), to tame its steed. There’s other stuff going on with Calyrex, including what feels like an allusion to the Arthurian “fisher king” and maybe even a Macbeth reference, and we’ll have to get there when we get there, but I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that the royal Scottish unicorn is also part of its design. But we should get back to Ponyta and Rapidash.
Galarian Rapidash has exactly the same statline as the Kantonian form, heavily emphasising speed and physical attack power. However, by virtue of its Fairy/Psychic type combination, it has completely different weaknesses and resistances, as well as a very different movepool. Galarian Rapidash learns no Fire attacks except for Mystical Fire, instead picking up a range of Fairy and Psychic moves. The disadvantage of this is that, whereas Fire gets the terrifying Flare Blitz attack, Fairy and Psychic don’t traditionally have strong physical moves. Play Rough has respectable power but slightly iffy accuracy and no secondary effects, while Psycho Cut has a high crit rate but weak base damage. It still has most of the same secondary attacks as Kantonian Rapidash, though: Megahorn, High Horsepower, Wild Charge, for some reason Throat Chop. The main things it’s missing are Smart Strike and Poison Jab, which aren’t from particularly useful types anyway, and Solar Blade, which only makes sense if you’re building a sun-themed team (and in that case you should be using the Fire-type Rapidash anyway). The weaker primary attacks are a big dent in Galarian Rapidash’s usefulness, and it’s also not clear to me that the Pastel Veil and Anticipation abilities are a particularly strong selling point either (they’re not bad, but Flash Fire on Kantonian Rapidash is generally better). Galarian Rapidash does have a slightly better support movepool, but given its stat profile the idea of playing support with this Pokémon isn’t exactly inspiring. Heal Pulse, Misty Terrain and Psychic Terrain probably need a tankier user; Trick Room makes little sense on such a fast Pokémon. Healing Wish is situational but nice if you can make it work. Hypnosis and Morning Sun are on both forms’ egg move lists, but are useful enough to deserve mention anyway. Both get Baton Pass, Swords Dance and Agility, but only Galarian Rapidash gets Calm Mind. Unfortunately, its special movepool is no more inspiring than its physical, with Dazzling Gleam and Psychic as its main attacks, and as a pure Calm Mind Passer there are just better choices out there. All in all, it’s… look, it’s just not a great Pokémon, frankly. It’s not the worst possible Swords Dance sweeper I can think of, but it’s certainly not the best one either.
What I like about Galarian Rapidash is that it’s a Pokémon that clearly belongs in its region, as did most of the new Pokémon introduced in Alola, and it draws on modern portrayals of unicorns to create something with distinctive powers that fits neatly into the Pokémon world (although it does always leave me a little cold that “life force” seems quite important in Pokémon while being extremely vague in what it does and how it works). The much-hyped event that revealed Galarian Ponyta – a 24-hour-long video stream of an empty clearing in Glimwood Tangle, which Pokémon fans all over the world stared at unblinking for an entire day, searching for glimpses of new Pokémon – was a bizarre stunt from a video game studio, but honestly pretty true to the experience of ecological field work… or of hunting for a unicorn when you don’t have the proper “credentials” for it to trust you. On the other hand, I would really have liked to see more of the specifically Scottish royal unicorn in Galarian Rapidash – the iconography of the crown and chain, the reputation for not just elegance and innocence but danger and power, the tradition of rivalry with the English lion; it doesn’t have to be super literal, but some kind of greater reference to the significance of this Pokémon’s place in its region would have been nice. And… y’know… the poor thing could use a signature move or a more powerful ability; Rapidash was hardly top tier to begin with.
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