You may be reading A Book of Creatures, but have you considered reading other books of creatures? Perhaps you just finished reading The Crystal Witch’s Encyclopedia of Elemental Birds and Beasts and are wondering whether or not it’s adequately researched? Or maybe you’re just one of my annoying fans convinced that I have the last word to say about mythical creatures? (I do) Your sleepless nights are over, as today’s Wednesday Interlude brings us the recurring feature of book reviews. In the thorough ABC style you’ve come know and love, the reviews will address everything a monster hunter would find important. And what better way to start than with Carol Rose’s Giants, Monsters & Dragons? Check it out on Amazon, and on Alibris.

Do note that all comments on Giants, Monsters & Dragons apply equally to its companion book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins.

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Giants, Monsters & Dragons

by Carol Rose

Giants, Monsters & Dragons (GMD from here on) is about as close as you can get to a cornerstone of modern bestiaries. No other book is as influential, having served as the basis for countless pages of online information and leading to the popularization of many obscure creatures. It is not, however, without its faults, as we shall soon see.

Scope

GMD aims to cover a dizzying array of creatures, by and large “monstrous”, with the more humanoid entities covered in Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins. Rose outlines the criteria at the beginning as 1) the creature must not be divine or have divine powers, and 2) must be mythological, folkloric, or have some supernatural origin. Of course, no classification scheme is perfect, and this includes such entries for Titans (surely on the rank of gods?) and creatures from popular modern fiction such as Olog-hai – neither of which will make it anywhere in ABC.

What is undeniable is the vast amount of creatures on offer. The best-represented are English, Classical, and United States “Fearsome Critters”, but the book spans the globe, bringing in the Mi-ni-wa-tu and the Cheeroonear alike. For many of us, this is the first time we came across the Butatsch Cun Ilgs and the Carcolh, even if they were misnamed. Rose has done an amazing job putting this menagerie between two covers, and so the quantity – if not the quality – is exemplary.

Organization

GMD is organized by alphabetical order, which is a safe, standard choice for an encyclopedia. The entries are connected to the numbered bibliography and are amply cross-referenced, although some entries could do with a bit more referencing beyond “monster”. There are extensive appendices organizing creature by locality and general type as well, making GMD very user-friendly.

Text

Rose’s text is factual and academic, with little in the way of amusing asides or artistic flourishes. Entries start with “X is the name of a…” This is not a criticism; this format of writing, while lacking in poetry, is perfect for a serious encyclopedic volume, while other books overdo the florid descriptions.

Images

The illustrations are all black and white, copyright-expired type pictures. They are not especially evocative or interpretive, but do a good job of showing what people at the time thought. At their best when actually depicting the creature in question (e.g. the Aloés on page 14), they are at their worst when used as generics for something much weirder (e.g. “Sea serpents much like the fearsome Muirdris” on page 259, or the unicorn giant for the Aeternae on page 5). As with the text, I have no problem with any of this, and they work just fine for an encyclopedic work. What does bother me is the lack of attribution for the images beyond “Scala Art Resource” or the like, and the lack of original context.

Research

This is where my primary criticisms come in. As an English author, Rose is (as are most bestiary writers) necessarily biased towards English-language creatures. Non-English creatures can end up with butchered names, such as the retention of superfluous definite articles in “lou carcolh” and “al-mi’raj”, the use of “djinn” in the singular (and the separation of “djinn” and “jinn”), and the painful mangling of “angka”. Others are harder to pinpoint, such as “butatsch cun ilgs” becoming “butatsch-ah-ilgs”.

GMD’s bibliography clocks in at almost 200 references, but many are themselves compilation bestiaries, such as Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, Barber and Riches’ Dictionary or Meurger and Gagnon’s Lake Monster Traditions. In many cases, those bestiaries are the sole reference for an entry, and these can in turn pass on errors. The “Celphie” as reported by Barber and Riches is one such example, as are the multiple misattributions and jokes concocted by Borges. The “zaratan” entry is a particularly bad offender, not only passing on Borges’ misspelling but also misrepresenting the chain of literary events, mistaking the modern translator Palacios for a medieval author (“… the Zaratan has entered Arab and Islamic legends through the work of the ninth-century zoologist Al-Jahiz, later refuted by the Spanish naturalist and author Miguel Palacios in his version of the Book of Animals, and thence copied into a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon bestiary…”).

Not as much of a problem on their own, these research and linguistic errors have since propagated and have become hard to eradicate. They are straightforward to correct with the right sources, but without them it is all too easy to take them at face value.

Summary

Giants, Monsters & Dragons has some concerning research issues, and lacks eye-candy artwork, but for a complete encyclopedia of a lot of mythical creatures you can do no better. While I would suggest not taking everything in it for granted, this remains an unavoidable milestone of the genre. Besides, I’ve read it a lot so I’ve got a soft spot for it. 4 out of 5 gigelorums, down to 3 if you’re a strict rater, research errors bother you, and you have no access to primary sources.

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As part of the Wednesday Interludes, I will also be including paeans to certain creatures I believe are woefully underrated. These will all be fairly modern, pop-culture creatures, and so will not be part of ABC, but I’ll be darned if I don’t give them a deserving moment in the limelight. There will be no particular rhyme or reason to them, but a fair few of them will be from BD (that’s Franco-Belgian comics to you, you uncultured swine), which are less well known in the English-speaking world.

What better way to start than with the nameless Giant Purple Slug? This monster is quite possibly my favorite pop-culture monster of all time, and was responsible for some of the most wonderful, pleasant dreams I had as a child. It is the primary “antagonist” of the 1972 Tif et Tondu book Sorti des Abimes (“Out of the Abyss”, more or less). A bit of background… Tif et Tondu is a Belgian BD by Will and Rosy that follows the adventures of private investigators Tif (the bald guy) and Tondu (the hairy guy, amusingly enough). Their tales fall mostly on the science-fiction side. Today the series is mostly remembered for introducing Monsieur Choc, the urbane, well-dressed, knight-helmeted international criminal mastermind.

But in Sorti des Abimes, it is not Monsieur Choc but a gigantic gastropod that causes consternation for our heroes. The adventure is set in the docks of London, where their friend the Countess Amélie “Kiki” d’Yeu is looking for her confiscated Great Dane. She finds him in a pound, along with something big, tentacley, and drooling green slime. (All art by Will, buy his books!).

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The “thing” escapes its confines and slithers into the Thames, where it is sighted swimming through the canals and generally making the most delightful floppery ooshy sounds.

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Of course, Our Heroes (O. H.) find out about this and won’t have any of it. I mean, the slug does eat its way through the Thames, chews through a few ship hulls, and drives a steamer aground, but what’s a few fish and ships between friends? Nonetheless, they find out that it’s an abyssal slug brought to the surface by a misguided biologist at the pound. Turns out that, having never seen the light of day, ultraviolet rays cause the slug to grow out of control. O. H. track it down to a dock, where – have I mentioned how much I love/am terrified of the dark outlines of huge things under the water?

 

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The slug is making a water-based beeline for the sea, and crushing everything along its path. After O. H. try to kill it with a WWII-surviving Junkers Stuka (!), the slug decides it’s had enough and hauls its mass out of the water, looking for all the world like an adorable purple cross of Aplysia and Glaucus.

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It’s not malicious or anything, it just decides to take a more direct route for the sea – a route that leads it to noted landmark Tower Bridge.

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Fortunately for Tower Bridge (what would the Queen say?), O.H. realize that if ultraviolet rays make it grow, infrared rays must clearly have the opposite effect (ignore the spectroscopic and biological problems here, this was a 70s BD). They pelt the poor slug with IR radiation…

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… whereupon it melts into black slime.

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All it ever wanted was to return to the sea…

As promised, this is going to be the first in a hopefully long-running series of official Wednesday Interludes. Due to popular demand, these will be covering a number of behind-the-scenes topics, including research, bestiary reviews, and my favorite obscure pop-culture monsters.

The first Digression will be a simple one. I have often been asked* “where on Earth do you find these things?” My answer is, inevitably, I follow the breadcrumbs. As any academic will tell you, references are everything, and every claim should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Uluru**. An unreferenced book is practically useless, but as long as there’s one reference, I can follow the trail of literary references back to its estranged home. Often there’s only one ultimate origin from which all the others sprung.

Google Books and Hathitrust have been a godsend in this regard, as has access to a university library*** and fluency in three languages. I have also had a number of wonderful friends and acquaintances (you know who you are) who helped in translating different texts**** where I couldn’t. But, once again, it all involves following the breadcrumb trail to its source, even though some breadcrumbs end up taking on a life of their own.

One good example of this process was brought to me by notable monster hunter Fredrik H., who suggested:

And I wonder if you know something more about … that five-legged Celphie bovine.

Now there’s a start! A strange creature – the beginning of our breadcrumb trail. What is this Celphie*****?

Like the vast majority of creatures you can find online, the Celphie comes from Carol Rose’s Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. I will reserve my thoughts on it for the official review, but suffice to say that it’s the progenitor of most online information of this kind. And sure enough, page 71 informs us:

This is a monstrous hybrid creature in the traditions of medieval Europe. It was described as having a body resembling a cow but with five legs, each of which was human from the elbow down to the hands… said to inhabit the wastes of Ethiopia… (Rose, 2000)

That is definitely monstrous. Where is it from? Rose provides a single reference – Barber and Riches’ A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. Following that trail gives us:

Curious Ethiopian beast which had man’s hands for its five feet; its hind-legs from the ankle to the top of the calf were also human. The rest of its body was that of an animal similar to a cow. (Barber and Riches, 1971)

Curiouser and curiouser. There is no mention of medieval Europe – and sure enough, the solitary citation directs us to The Excellent and Pleasant Work of Julius Solinus Polyhistor, translated by A. Golding in 1587. That breadcrumb is as follows, just pretend I put a [sic] after every word:

Almost about the same time also were brought from thence monsters called Celphies, whose hinder feete from the ancle upp to the toppe of the calfe, where like a mans legge, and lyke-wyse hys forefeete resembled a mans hande: notwithstanding, these were never seene of the Romaines but once. (Golding, 1587)

So apparently the good folks of Rome****** got to see Celphies brought back from the wilds of Aethiopia. Note now that Celphies have legs like a man’s legs up to the knee, and arms like a man’s arms in the same way. There is no mention of five legs, a cow’s body, and human hands everywhere. Something must have been lost in the adaptation, the breadcrumb must have crumbled somewhere along the way. But the description is getting clearer. It couldn’t be…? But there’s one more ancient, dusty breadcrumb to tackle – the original Solinus book, De Mirabilibus Mundi. There we get our final hint (with apologies for bad Latin transcription):

…exhibita monstra sunt cephos appellant quor posteriores pedes crure & uestigio humanos artus metiut, priores hominum manus referut… (Solinus, 1473)

Another translation quirk? The original Latin refers to Cephos instead of Celphies, and now it all falls together*******. Human-like limbs, taken from Africa… Celphies are unspecified primates! As further verification, Topsell provides an additional, delicious breadcrumb:

The CEPUS, or Martine Munkey. The Martin called Cepus of the Greek word Kepos, which Aristotle writeth Kebos, and some translate Caebus, some Cephus or Cepphus  or more barbarously Celphus… such being alwayes the most ingenious imitators of men… The games of great Pompey first of all brought these Martines to the fight of the Romans, and afterward Rome saw no more; they are the same which are brought out of Aethiopia and the farthest Arabia; their feet and knees being like a mans, and their forefeet like hands, their inward parts like a mans, so that some of us have doubted what kind of creature this should be… it having a face like a Lion, and some part of the body like a Panther, being as big as a wilde Goat or Roe-buck, or as one of the Dogs of Erithrea, and a long tail… (Topsell, 1658)

And there you have it. The breadcrumbs got weirder and moldier the farthest we went from home, starting with a monkey and ending with a five-legged-cow-thing. Sometimes my research does the opposite, though, and the original ends up stranger than the modern conception!

Either way, it’s all done citationally, my dear Watson.

*By people I’ve hired to ask.
**My claims too! Go out there and do your own research! Correct my misteaks!
***Disclaimer: the author no longer has access to a university library.
****Disclaimer: the author no longer has access to those friends.
*****It’s not an awkward photo of yourself, leave me alone!
******Or a bunch of lettuces. You never know.
*******I hate asterisks too. 😦

References

Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Solinus, G. J. (1473) De Mirabilibus Mundi. N. Jenson, Venice.

Solinus, G. J.; Golding, A. trans. (1587) The Excellent and Pleasant Worke of Caius Julius Solinus. Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, Gainesville, Florida.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.