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!
“[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).
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).
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?).
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.
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.
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.