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Fabulous Beasts

Malcolm Ashman and Joyce Hargreaves

There are two kinds of modern bestiary (and by bestiary I mean books of fantastic creatures, as opposed to real bestiaries which are books of creatures as moral lessons): the visual and the textual. They aren’t set in stone but fit on a spectrum. I should make a sliding scale graphical representation of it someday. Where was I? Oh, right. Long before a certain bespectacled wizard kid showed up, this was a top hit for beast-related keywords. It fits far on the visual side of the scale. And it is quite the piece of eye candy. Let’s have a gander!

It can be bought here and here.

Scope

“[F]antastic creatures of myth and legend… from every corner of the world”. The focus is, however, Classical and Medieval European as expected. In fact about half of the creatures covered are Greco-Roman.

It’s a bit broader in scope than ABC, including things like gods (Pan, Quetzalcoatl), transformed humans (Blodeuedd, Werewolves), transformed gods (Zeus in swan and bull forms), and ghosts of sorts (Herne the Hunter).

Organization

Some 50 creatures are divided into four sections: Birds, Dragons and Serpents, Half Human, and Animals (meaning Mammals). The divisions are basic but with a smaller number of creatures they do fine (even if you could argue that some creatures go in different categories; fabulous beasts always did defy classification).

Text

The text is by Joyce Hargreaves, and it’s serviceable. Does a good job of retelling classic tales, as well as things like Borges’ creatures.

There are some parts where there’s some disconnect between text and art – Typhon has a body covered with feathers apparently, but it’s not shown there (unrelated but this book seems to be the origin of the Typhon-with-a-donkey’s-head meme?).

Images

If you’re buying this book, you’re buying it for the illustrations by Malcolm Ashman. And oh, what illustrations they are. The Simurgh, the Nile Goose, the Lambton Worm coiled around rolling hills… they’re all colorful (pencil drawings excluded) and evocative. They’re definitely worth the price of entry, and stand up to repeated viewing.

There are some interesting takes on things. The Cyclops is made completely monstrous – I’m talking crocodile osteoderms on the legs here. The Lamia follows classic snake-tailed conventions but shares the book with a full-color Echidne. Two snake-women in one book? Why not? The Heavenly Cock, Rainbird, and Phoenix are all done up as golden pheasants and birds of paradise and are beautiful to behold. The Roc looks like an Andean condor, which bothers the ornithologist in me, but it looks awesome.

I’m also going to take the brave stance of saying that nobody, but nobody draws pervy animals like Ashman does. Check out his Europa’s bull and Leda’s swan. Zeus isn’t even trying to hide how lecherous he is for hot mortals. Seriously, they’re scary. Gah.

Research

No references, but as mentioned it visibly draws on Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings as well as the usual stable of giants, monsters, and dragons. Things like the Rainbird are practically illustrated Borges entries. The Peryton tale is retold with a straight face (again). The Simurgh follows Borges’ favored description, itself from Flaubert and originally not applicable to the Simurgh!

The main problem is that there really isn’t anything new to learn for the advanced teratologist. If you’re a regular reader of ABC, then you probably already know about things like the Nemean Lion and the Erymanthian Boar and the Manticore.

Summary

A beautiful, beautiful book that takes familiar creatures and makes them look good. Definitely recommended for the stellar illustrations, but don’t expect to learn anything new or find novel references. A solid rating of 4 in my opinion.

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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.

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Créatures Fantastiques Deyrolle

Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, Camille Renversade

Everyone knows Deyrolle charts. Well, a lot of people do. And even if you’ve never heard of them, the educational-chart-poster style will look familiar, as will the instructive anatomical layouts. And if you’ve been to Paris, you may have seen or walked by their place/museum. So what happens when you mix fantastic creatures with Deyrolle’s style (with their blessing, of course)? You get something like Créatures Fantastiques Deyrolle (CFD from now on).

If you have deep pockets, you can grab a copy here and here – they’re actually pricey, out of print, and not available on the publisher’s site anymore, but they’re going to get reprinted!

Scope

Global. While not as comprehensive as, say, ABC (yay self-promotion), it covers a wide range of creatures, from bestiary mainstays to literary jokes to cryptozoological darlings.

Organization

Broken up by general groups – reptiles, land mammals, creatures of the air, creatures of the sea, humanoids, and hybrids. Each entry of this large-sized coffee-table book is split in two halves – the left side is the text, the right side is the illustration. More below.

Text

A lot of research has gone into the writing, which is fluid and fun to read, with wry interpretations and commentary throughout. There are citations from the sources, which is always nice. It’s informative and low on embellishment, knocking spots off Dubois’ florid style.

It’s also in French, make of that what you will.

Most importantly, the text has the actual research and what is known about those creatures. Then when you’re done with that, you check out the art…

Images

Lush. There is plenty of artistic interpretation, but not more than I’d deem acceptable. The dragons entry, for instance, has lovely butterfly-esque versions of the Graoully, Grand’Goule, Gargouille, Grand Bailla, Drac… which are entirely the illustrator’s designs, but considering the lack of established iconography (unlike, say, the Tarasque) you can’t blame them. The basilisk is in its eight-legged form, but unlike the detestable lizardlike version common today, it does look like eight plucked mutant roosters mushed together.

Everything gets mock-scientific names, and anatomical cutaways are everywhere. Want to see a sea-serpent’s skeleton? An x-ray of the Loch Ness Monster (represented by a Heuvelmansesque long-necked seal)? What about a comparison of Cetus species (as gigantic anglerfishes) or unicorn species? There’s even fossils of the orabou and the Sarmatian snail discussed at length!

All of the “artistic license” is in the art, so if it bothers you, you can focus on the text and leave out the illustrations (but why would you?)

My only regret is that their version of the coquecigrue is so perfect, I won’t be able to come up with something better.

Research

References are not listed for each entry separately (as in ABC) but are all available at the end in a bibliography. Citations from original texts are cited appropriately. A variety of sources are consulted for a broad view of differing viewpoints. As mentioned, the text is straight-up research, while the art takes more liberties.

The authors have shown their work in spades. There are loads of obscure animals discussed, including a couple even I haven’t heard of!

My only real qualm is that the seps is described as rotting and melting its victims, but the art says it “preserves” its victims…

Summary

Another five-star review? Already? It was bound to happen though. CFD is ridiculously good – well-researched, well-illustrated, with a bibliography and clear separation of fact and artistic license, all wrapped up in a fun faux-scientific retro look. The only thing keeping all teratologists from owning a copy is price and availability. No, it being in French is not a problem. Learn it. Buy this book (when prices are reasonable). Feel good.

5

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A Chinese Bestiary

Richard E. Strassberg

The Shan Hai Jing is the seminal Chinese bestiary, in fact one of the most creature-packed creature books in existence! (It’s also where Borges got his Chinese fauna from) And if you’re in the unfortunate position of being unable to read Chinese, like myself, you’re going to need a translation. This is where Strassberg’s A Chinese Bestiary (ACB) comes in, and it delivers in spades.

You can get your grubby mitts on it here and here.

Scope

It’s the Shan Hai Jing. Need I say more? I do? Oh. It’s an English translation of the Guideways, with ample commentary and the original illusrations.

Once more, this is not a complete compendium of mythical creatures nor does it pretend to be. Its narrow focus is what makes it good.

Organization

Introductions and Notes frame the Shan Hai Jing translation, which is the meat of the book. The text is broken up by region and by creature, with each notable creature having its own number to identify it in the illustration and (in most cases) commentary. Straightforward and easy to use.

Text

It’s a translation of a classic Chinese text. And I don’t read Chinese, so I can’t comment on how good of a translation it is (Chinese-reading ABC readers should feel free to chime in with opinions, if any). But it’s written clearly, thoroughly referenced and footnoted.

Images

Black and white and simple enough, but most importantly they are the original illustrations. So what you’re seeing is what people at the time (or at least, one artist at the time) thought those creatures look like. As opposed to, you know, some teratologist with delusions of competence presenting a subjective interpretation…

Research

As mentioned above, there are references and notes for just about everything. As the Shan Hai Jing is itself an ur-reference, there is little need for more – but there is more! These range from folklore notes to Guo Pu’s commentaries and everything in between.

If it’s not academic enough for you, there’s always the massive Mathieu translation, which is extremely academic. Also it’s in French.

Summary

I can’t really sing the praises of this book enough. It’s good. Like Meeting with Monsters it has a (relatively) narrow subject and it uses that to excellent effect. Another must-have book for anyone with a passing interest in Chinese teratology.

5

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Les Animaux Fantastiques

Claude-Catherine Ragache and Marcel Laverdet

I seem to be stuck on sumptuously illustrated books recently. I mentioned this some time back and I thought I’d talk about it here. Les Animaux Fantastiques (LAF) is one of the first books on the subject of mythical creatures that I’ve read (came out 1997). It is also out of print, and has the misfortune of sharing a name with Fantastic Beasts in French. An English translation exists but I’ve never seen it. What’s so special about it then? Let’s find out.

You can purchase the book at extortionate prices from here. Hopefully elsewhere at better prices and/or in English as well.

Scope

LAF is a children’s storybook, to sell it short. It’s a collection of short stories that can be read by or to children, and they are all illustrated in beautiful color by the underrated Marcel Laverdet.

It also happens to be part of a myths and legends storybook series, each centered around a type of legend – Arthurian, Celtic, Egyptian, Greek… In this case, all the stories are about fantastic beasts in one way or another.

This is not a compendium of creatures, does not claim to be one, and is not being reviewed as such. But it does have a wide variety of worldwide creature stories.

Organization

Random. Creature stories all over the place. There’s no real organization to the book.

Text

Easy reading in French, and presumably in English as well. The stories aren’t that startling or spectacular, but they read well and are nice retellings. Some of them are quite obscure too. They range from retellings of stories (Bellerophon and the Chimera), dramatizations of creature accounts (Boongurunguru), short accounts of various creatures, and so on.

Images

The paintings are the main selling point of LAF, and they deliver in spades. They’re colorful, detailed, sometimes cartoony… In fact, I’ll break with ABC review tradition and let a modest sample of illustrations do the talking.

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Tiddalik the frog (not explicitly named as such) about to explode.

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An underwater lion of Africa. Incidentally, this tale inspired some research into odd-colored lions in folklore, but the original folktale collected by Frobenius and Fox in African Genesis (1999) makes no mention of the lions being blue. The blue color is an authorial addition, sorry to say.

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The dreaded Boongurunguru of the Solomon Islands and its demon horde of boars.

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A Ziph (Ziphius) attacking a sea serpent.

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A Trolual, with a giant Scandinavian lobster lurking off-camera.

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Creature overload! Phoenix, Unicorn, Vouivre, and… Chipique? Chipekwe, maybe? Odd spelling, and even odder artistic license employed – the text describes it as having the head of a crocodile on a snake’s body!

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The Malebete or Troussepoil, getting, erm, what-for.

Research

 

There’s a lot of obscure creatures in there, but no literature cited. Which means that I had to grow up knowing those things but not where they came from, and which led me in turn to finding a lot of great sources. There are also some strange interpretations (blue lions, tengus as firebirds…)

Good for a children’s book, less so for research.

Summary

Lovely, lovely, lovely. I love the pictures in this, I would definitely rate it as one of the creature books that got me into creatures. But it’s not particularly academic, does not cite sources, and makes some errors. I give it 4/5, commutable to 3/5 or 5/5 depending on how strict or generous I’m feeling. Great introduction to the world of fantastic beasts though.

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Inventorum Natura

Una Woodruff

Inventorum Natura (IN from now on) is a strange and wonderful book. It is a coffee-table book with ancient pseudoinformation that has in turn been treated as genuine. Half of it is in Latin. It translates an ancient document that never existed. It has a tri-triceratops kraken. Confused? Read on.

You can purchase the book from here and here.

Scope

IN falls firmly on the “Pretty Pictures” axis of Bestiary Classification. Purportedly a translation of a lost manuscript by Pliny the Elder, it covers the animals, plants, cultures, and places encountered by the Roman historian. It is not a comprehensive creature encyclopedia, but provides a broad selection of creatures from across the world, including an economical description of horse-unicorns and rhino-unicorns within the same page.

Organization

The text follows Pliny’s travels around the world. As such it’s narrative and not clearly divided, but can be roughly separated by region, such as Africa, India, China, and Hyperborea. If you’re looking for something in particular, there is a table of contents.

Text

Readable both in Latin and English, the text is a joy to read through, especially for Latin scholars brushing up on their skills.

This is where I need to issue a disclaimer. The text of IN is entirely fictitious and written by the author. Pliny never visited China, or sailed to Hyperborea, or encountered krakens. This may seem obvious, but the text is written and treated as though it were a genuine never-before-seen discovery being revealed for the first time, and kayfabe is maintained all through the book. To avoid repeating myself, I’ll address further issues under the “research” heading.

Images

All of the journal entries are illustrated by at least one gorgeous full-page color painting. Una Woodruff is a talented artist who excels at painting plants, and it really shows – a lot of the most memorable creatures in the book are plants. The animals on the other hand have a strange not-quite-realness to them, a sort of uncanny valley that makes them even weirder.

In fact, even if you don’t read Latin, and even if you don’t want another reference for your bestiary bibliography (bibestliography?), the art alone makes it worthwhile for teratologists of all stripes. Besides this is the only book I know of that gives the kraken three triceratopsian heads.

Research

Here’s where my main beef with IN comes in. There are no references whatsoever, but it owes a lot to Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. In fact, I’d argue that more creatures are from IN than are from anything Pliny wrote! It’s great for an entertaining read, but anyone looking for scholarly research should look elsewhere.

Some of the fabricated information has been used (without citation) in other books. Information laundering, if you will. The description of the pyrallis as a dragon-insect comes from IN. Page and Ingpen’s Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were uses the description of Hyperborea, especially with the two-headed frogs. And of course the Peryton’s in there…

Summary

A beautiful book, written and illustrated so skillfully that it has fooled a nonzero amount of people. I like the book, and I love the art, but its scholarship problems give me pause. 3/5 if you’re like me and get irrationally annoyed by teratological embellishment, 4/5 if you don’t mind.

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The Book of Beasts

Angela Rizza and Jonny Marx

Today’s book review was suggested by Nick M., and it’s an unusual one compared to what I usually cover. It’s called The Book of Beasts (TBB henceforth), subtitled Color and Discover (or Colour and Discover on my copy… #oldworldthings) and it’s a coloring book if you hadn’t figured it out yet. Apparently coloring books are all the rage these days, even where I live, and this is the only coloring book I know of that doubles as a bestiary. Well, okay, there’s Crayola Color Alive: Mythical Creatures which was xmas-gifted to me by one of the most awesome people in existence, but that doesn’t count.

It can be bought online here and here.

Scope

TBB is first and foremost a coloring book, meant for the reader to fill in with colors of their own choosing and colorize their worries away. It is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of mythical creatures nor does it claim to be. It does have “over 90 creatures”, which is pretty impressive, and while they include the usual suspects from Classical/European mythology, there are still a good amount of worldwide creatures: Impundulu, Ahuizotl, Kongamato, Baku, Ifrit, Mongolian Death Worm… Even if you’ve given up on “mainstream” teratology books, TBB makes its own niche by being a DIY bestiary.

Organization

Earth, Wind, Water, Fire – these were the ingredients chosen to make the perfect little girl four broad chapters, with creatures sorted based on the classical elements. It’s an arbitrary classification scheme but it works. TBB doesn’t have to worry about categorizing hundreds of massed monsters, and the elemental division makes it tempting to hew to specific color schemes. Besides classifying things as “fairies”, “demons”, “spirits” etc. is arbitrary anyway. No complaints here.

Text

Each page has creature images on one side and text explaining them on the other. Not too detailed, but just right for a coloring book. That also prevents the text from getting too egregiously inaccurate, but the Peryton is still in there as a “real” thing. Sigh.

I haven’t tried coloring anything yet (I’m sure my readers would much rather I stick to coloring creatures for ABC), but going by Amazon reviews marker coloring will bleed over and mess with the text side of the page, so stick with coloring pencils or other nonwatery media.

Images

Lovely line art by Angela Rizza, with plenty of detail and greebles to keep colorists happy for hours. Rizza’s work is excellent, with some really good takes on some of the creatures – I especially liked the footballfishesque Charybdis, the serpentine Cherufe, the bestial Ifrit, the various wonderfully reptilian dragons… I am, however, going to quibble about the Ziphius, which clearly looks more like a Trolual. The final quality of the images depends on how good you are with coloring pencils.

The cover is a very pretty foiled gold, but it seems to be coming off on my fingers as I hold it. Handle with care.

Research

No bibliography, no shoes, no service.

Summary

This is a book that will live and die as a coloring book. If you have no love for coloring books, then you should probably look elsewhere. If you are looking for a coloring book and like mythical creatures (and if you’re reading this, you probably do), then TBB is a fine addition to your collection. If ABC doesn’t kill me I’ll be coloring my copy in someday.

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