Meeting with Monsters
by Jon Baldur Hlidberg and Sigurdur Ægisson
This time around the book I’m reviewing is less mainstream than the previous ones. While Rose’s and Dubois’s encyclopedias cover a wide range of material around the world, this exquisite little tome focuses entirely on non-humanoid folkloric creatures of Iceland. Is Meeting With Monsters any good for what it does? Let’s find out!
MWM is hard to find in general bookstores, even online. I got my copy from this specialty store, and there are probably other places it can be found too.
As mentioned above, only non-humanoid Icelandic creatures are covered, with the authors asserting that humanoids will be covered in a later volume. While this is a narrow field for someone looking for an Encyclopedia of All Creatures, it is no less than a godsend for research. It’s hard to find academic books focusing on creatures from a single, less-commonly discussed region, and yet this one does it – with pictures too!
I’ve reached the point where I can’t get myself to buy books like 100 Animal Facts or Uncle Greasebeam’s Big Book Of Scary Dragons. This specialty, academic-friendly approach is just what the doctor ordered.
They’re all Icelandic, so no divisions by country. Instead, the book is in two main halves, the first covering the land and the second covering the sea. All creatures get at least one full-color painting and a full text description. It’s clear and straightforward, nothing surprising here.
The text has been translated from the original Icelandic (if you’re reading the English version), so I can’t verify whether it loses anything in translation (do I have any Icelandic followers?). It is, however, lucid, clear, and relatively jargon-free, with some amusing tongue-in-cheek comments here and there.
Besides the main text written by the author, text boxes with direct quotations are interspersed throughout the margins, giving you details straight from the horse-whale’s mouth. It’s a clever touch, and one I appreciated.
Glorious. The images are color paintings on a white background (much like a certain blog devoted to cataloguing creatures), with additional black and white sketches and silhouette scale comparisons of each creature. (I swear I had started ABC long before I knew this book existed).
The illustrations are field-guide caliber, clear, detailed, and biologically sound. While not alluding to it, the authors have made sure that all the creatures look like they could plausibly have evolved from something. They do engage in some speculative biology, but read on…
Complete fabrications are the bane of my existence, but MWM manages to dodge that bullet as well. The authors provide a good deal of biological speculation – the horsewhale and redcrest have serrated spines laced with bacteria, the skate-mother is actually a predator of skates that looks like an aquatic bat, and so on – but these embellishments are kept to marginal descriptions of the images, not in the actual text.
The authors have done a lot of research, and it shows. While the exact sources for each creature are not given, there is an extensive bibliography at the end for further reading (hope you know Icelandic). The creatures on display include well-known ones such as the horsewhale and obscure, hard-to-find ones like the shell-monster. All in all, the book is a treasure, a compilation of information on Icelandic creatures. In English, no less. And the references have led me on to other sources.
By now you’ve probably realized that I really like this book (my love of Icelandic creatures is probably also a giveaway). It has everything one could want from a bestiary: thorough research, marvelous art, and tasteful embellishment. The only thing keeping Meeting With Monsters from being on the shelf of every serious teratologist is its scarcity. But even with that, I have no reservations about awarding it a perfect score.