ABC Reviews: Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were

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Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were

Michael Page and Robert Ingpen

The Encylopedia of Things That Never Were (EoTTNW for short) is one of the big books of creature reference. And by big I mean it’ll be one of the tallest books on your shelf. It’s not only about creatures either, but it was my introduction to a lot of the more famous and somewhat obscure monsters out there. Is it worth a gander? Let’s find out.

You can get it here and here if you so desire.

Scope

Vast. This has the broadest appeal of any book I’ve reviewed so far. It doesn’t just have creatures, it has gods, heroes, places, esoteric procedures, and literary allusions. You can read up on alectromancy, masks, rattles, swords, and voodoo as well as wizards, dragons, manticores, and gnomes. EoTTNW is an encyclopedia and it’s worthy of that title.

Organization

Six main chapters. Of the Cosmos is gods, heroes, creation myths, and astral beings. Of the Ground and Underground covers terrestrial entites. Of Wonderland discusses places real and imagined. Of Magic, Science, and Invention is about, er, magic, science, and invention. Of Water, Sky and Air does the same for non-terrestrial beings, and Of the Night is about ghosts and vampires and other evil beings.

Each chapter has entries arranged alphabetically, encyclopedia-style in three columns, with artwork taking up to a whole page.

Text

Straightforward and lucid, as befits an encyclopedia. Doesn’t try to be too academic or too flippant, which is good. The pre-chapter essays are nice and atmospheric. A lot of the entries tell a story, too – check out, say, Satan, or Wendigo, or the retelling of the entire Dorian Gray story under “Drawings, Paintings, Portraits etc”.

If you’re just in it for the creatures, those are mainly in chapters 2, 5, and 6. This isn’t a creature book though, more of a big overview of myth and imagination.

Images

Quite lovely and masterfully done. Often somewhat abstract and mood-setting, such as a shapeless Grendel lurching out of the darkness at Beowulf, a tiny ship lost in the Mare Tenebrosum, or a creepy doll-house of omens. There’s the familiar abatwa-and-pet-ant, a sea serpent drowning a whale, Sakarabru looming over a village, the bunyip and the whowie… They’re detailed, colorful, evocative, and sometimes quite spooky.

One problem I do have is the rampant art copying, which is acknowledged off-handedly at the bottom of the very last page. It’s just weird seeing Boticelli’s Venus standing in for the Nereids, or a faithful reproduction of Tenniel’s Jabberwock among the dragons (minus waistcoat, alas). The yakkus on page 84 are copied in the triad on page 218. Stuff like that. It’s not… wrong, I guess, but I’m sure the artist could have done better.

Research

Confusing. There are references at the end (yay!) but not attached to individual entries (boo!). And there is some dodgy research. I’ve mentioned the Acheri thing before on this site, for instance. But why is the ahuizotl a generic lake monster with no mention of its defining traits? Why are the notoriously touchy, poison-arrow-shooting Abatwa described as shy and “not a warlike race”? Why is the Wendigo based entirely on Algernon Blackwood’s version? And where on Earth did the barbegazi come from? I’ve been unable to find them in anything that doesn’t directly come from this book.

Those are, of course, creature-specific complaints. I didn’t see anything especially wrong in other fields but scholars of those may well have their quibbles.

Summary

A great, beautiful, and impressive book, with just enough mistakes and inaccuracies and art issues that I can’t give it an entire 4 gigelorums. It’s still a perfect introduction to fantasy staples in general. While I can’t recommend it as a cornerstone creature reference, it is an outstanding encyclopedia of the fantastic.

3

2 Comments

  1. I LOVE this book! It’s very special to me as my mother gave me a copy in the mid 1980s and it was one of the favorite possessions of my childhood.

    In 2006, shortly after a divorce, my original copy was destroyed along with a third of my personal library when the basement of my friend’s house flooded where I had most of my stuff stored. Later that year, I’d meet the woman whom I’d later marry in 2008. I spoke of it and lamented it’s loss just once in conversation with her… and as a lover of books she hunted high and low to surprise me with a near-mint copy complete with a dust jacket! It was in far better shape than the original I had lost was, and she had restored its magic back to me.

    Now it’s my doubly special tome and treasure. 😉

    Like

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