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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.

4

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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.

4

anotuw

A Natural History of the Unnatural World

by Joel Levy and the Cryptozoological Society of London

 

The world of teratological books can be a minefield at times. It’s hard to extricate serious research from complete fabrication, and sometimes supposedly serious books (Borges and Dubois’ works notably) have bogus myths that then get parroted by other works as true. Then there are cryptozoological books which generally are separate from myth and folklore… except in this case.

A Natural History of the Unnatural World (ANOTUW from now on) has a special place in my heart for being one of the first books that really got me into mythical entities. Presented as a cryptozoological book written by the ersatz “Cryptozoological Society of London”, it is actually more of a tongue-in-cheek book that treats legendary beasts as cryptids. Oh, and there’s some actual cryptids in there like apemen and the Loch Ness monster, but otherwise ANOTUW is neither fish nor fowl nor alectrocampus. In fact, even the publishers seem to have realized that and reprinted it under the name Fabulous Creatures and other Magical Beings. A much more sensible name, if you ask me, but as I have the original version I will be reviewing that. If you don’t trust my judgement and want to buy it for yourself, you can get it here and here.

Scope

Going by the title you’d think this was a book about cryptozoology, but no self-respecting cryptid manual that I know of has sections on chimeras, simurghs, fairies, basilisks, and griffins. Instead this book covers the wide range of legendary creatures you’d expect from a mythology book. The only actual cryptids are giant invertebrates, lake monsters, the chupacabras, and apemen. Also included are various spotlights on mythical characters who encountered those creatures: Atalanta, Jack the Giant-Killer, Sindbad, and so on. Definitely very broad in scope, which may not be what you’d want as an advanced teratologist. On the other hand, a cryptozoologist would find little in the way of useful knowledge, as the cryptids covered are merely the best-known ones. Besides, lumping them with mythical creatures might be a bit insulting.

Organization

ANOTUW is laid out somewhat haphazardly. The creatures are divided by morphology: Invertebrates, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Hybrids, Manimals (that’s human/animal hybrids), and Hominids. The entries themselves are in several different styles: CSL Reviews (magazine entries, the most “serious”-looking ones), Field Reports (field-note style papers and sketches), Letters (correspondence sent to the CSL), assorted document clippings, and large double-page spreads of mythical hero art.

Text

The text makes it clear that the book is not meant to be serious, with plenty of jokes, puns, and stereotypes. The Thunderbird entry is a newspaper clipping from the “Hangman’s Gulch Herald”, complete with an ad for “Dr. Boardman’s Patent Tonic Remedy” and “Pastor’s Dog Has Fleas” in local news. The Phoenix entry is titled “C’mon Baby, Light My Pyre”. The Gremlin entry is especially memorable – I don’t know who started the trend of making gremlin entries seem like they’re falling apart, but I fully condone (and have added to) it. The Black Dog entry is adorable. Other entries offer rational explanations for irrational things – retrovirus origins for lycanthropy, for instance.

It’s all great if the book was a lighter look at mythology, but it’s not billed as such. It would be fine if the book pretended to be mythical creatures explained in a believable way, but it doesn’t claim to be. It’s certainly not a cryptozoological book – at least, I don’t think so. It’s all over the place, and it depends on whether you find it funny or not.

The glossary at the end is a two-page infodump of  loads of mythical creatures, many not covered in the book, which makes a good springboard for further reading.

Images

Images are mostly stock photos and archival images, with relatively little original illustration. I do like the sketches sprinkled throughout. The main goal was to try and depict mythical creatures as plausible animals, and ANOTUW largely succeeds. The catoblepas stands out as an image The manticore, chimera, harpy, basilisk, kelpie, chupacabras… all look believable, as though they were field sketches of actual animals. There is all too little of those sketches, which is a shame really.

Various photos of actual animal anatomy are labeled as belonging to mythical creatures. A turtle skull is an amphisbaena’s, shark jaws are a manticore’s… it kind of falls flat if you know your anatomy, but it’s cute none the less.

Research

Pretty good. Almost all the creatures are “actual” mythical creatures, taken and then embellished upon. The book is not meant to be taken seriously and so hasn’t been copied by others repeating the same mistakes. So, for instance, with the kelpie described as a giant salamander, it’s not so much of a problem because it’s easy to tell that that’s interpretation. At least, I think so…

One problem is that the actual information can be hidden under all the extra stuff. Field notes, for instance, could have just one paragraph with legendary information in it, with the rest being accounts of the expedition across two pages.

The other major problem is the reference section. Namely, there is none. Nada. Nil. Zip. Zilch. Not a sausage.

Summary

ANOTUW is a fun, silly book that I have fond memories of, but teratologists will find themselves wanting actual information, while cryptozoologists may well be offended at the treatment of cryptids. I give it 3/5 gigelorums for creativity, design, illustration, and general quantity of creatures, most of which I hadn’t heard of when I first read it. The rating can be raised or dropped one gigelorum, depending on your tolerance for the jokey style.

3

mwm

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.

Scope

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.

Organization

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.

Text

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.

Images

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…

Research

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.

Summary

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.

5

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La Grande Encylopédie des Lutins/Fées/Elfes (The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries; The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and other Little Creatures)

by Pierre Dubois, illustrations by Claudine and Roland Sabatier

The three encyclopedias written by Pierre Dubois and illustrated by Claudine and Roland Sabatier are a bit of a special case. As of writing this, there are 3 volumes, covering goblins, fairies, and elfs (respectively), but they are relatively little-known in the English-speaking world. Passable English translations are available, but the books have had an influence on French bestiaries in the same way Rose’s books have had in English – and that includes the mistakes too. I have a soft spot for these books – again, I read them cover to cover back in the day – but do they stand up to scrutiny today? Let’s find out.

Can be bought from Amazon in French here, here, and here, and in inferior English here and here.

Scope

The encyclopedias cover all sorts of magical beings but leave out the more “prosaic” creatures such as bonnacons and leucrotas. There is a marked tendency to favor humanoids above everything else, even when the creature in question isn’t humanoid (more on that below).

Otherwise, they cover a broad range of cultures across the world, with a strong focus on French creatures, giving them a niche that sets them apart.

Organization

Goblins, fairies, and elfs, but the distinction is vague and hazy at best. “Fairies”, for instance, includes basilisks and codrilles, valkyries and nagas. Chapters are by habitat: those of the Earth and caves, those of woods and forests, and so on.

The distinctions are arbitrary at best, but then that’s the author’s prerogative. Considering Dubois’ views on scholarship and classification, his categories come across as somewhat ironic.

Text

Florid, long-winded, pompous, purple, and fluffy. Dubois is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and creatures with summary descriptions are given extended biographies. For instance, the Duphon – literally the eagle owl, except it’s blamed for typical fairy behavior – is made into a sort of Knight Templar of the mountains by Dubois, with extended descriptions of its hunting habits and suicidal recklessness. None of this is corroborated in the primary literature.

Each creature gets a summary of vital statistics (size, habitat, food, activities, etc.) in the margins, which gives the book a further encyclopedic feel. These vital statistics are also often completely fabricated.

Dubois’ embellishment can take on rather uncomfortable tones. We really did not need to know what the pubic hair stylings are for the skogsra (thick) or the makralles (shaved). Nor is there an explanation for his alteration of some stories: the original tale of the girls and the pilous, for instance, ends with the girls shutting up and the pilous leaving, but Dubois makes the pilous stomp into the room, strip the girls naked, and force them to dance until exhaustion. There is no mention of the fact that vouivres get slain same as any other dragon. These modifications have no basis in the literature, which is cause for concern – not just for bad scholarship, but because they also say quite a bit about Dubois.

Images

There have been complaints that the drawings are “childish” and “comic-booky” and “not serious enough”. I on the other hand have no such problem. The ink and paint drawings by the Sabatiers are easily some of the best selling points of the books, often conveying a setting without even showing the creature front and center. There are interesting takes on some creatures (the Yara-ma-yha-who and the Gremlin come to mind).

Any inaccurate depictions are ultimately Dubois’ fault, and I would not blame the Sabatiers for them.

Research

This is where I reserve most of my criticism, although it overlaps a bit with the text complaints. The fact that most of what Dubois writes about is obscure gives him free rein to invent anything he wants, and a lot of his inventions have been parroted by later authors, making it even harder to separate myth from, er, modern man-made myth. Dubois has also made it clear that he has nothing but scorn for research, study, academia, books… And it shows.

Creatures that are non-human are changed to become humanoid, often losing their best features in the process. The beefy-armed water-horse Mourioche becomes a goblin in a jester’s hat. The shapeless pilous become anthropomorphic dormice (to be fair, I liked that look enough to keep it for my pilou. I am part of the problem). The tourmentine and parisette plants become a goblin and fairy respectively, complete with backstory. The Rabelaisian coquecigrue bird becomes a tiny snake-fairy. The Breton tan noz will-o’-wisps become goblins. The list goes on and on.

Other creatures are fabricated out of whole cloth. The H’awouahoua has found its way into less critical bestiaries, even though this purported Algerian bogey has meaningless gibberish for a name. The Processionary, the Fougre, the Danthienne… The list of dubious creatures goes on, made worse by the difficulty of finding primary sources.

Dubois has also used a pseudonym, Petrus Barbygere (“Peter the Bearded”, i.e. himself), which he uses as a source for a number of citations. Whether this is amusing or not depends on who you ask, but it only muddies the mixture further.

Summary

There is a lot to fault in the Dubois encyclopedias, foremost being an attitude to research similar to that espoused by Attila the Hun. Once again, however, I can’t bring myself to lower the grade too much, as those books have nice drawings, obscure creatures, and helped set me on the track to finding out more.

3