Fantastic Books and Where to Find Them: Building a Cryptozoological Canon
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There’s a lot of fervour and anticipation as we embark on the five-film series of J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Many of us will be diving back into our well-thumbed copies of Harry Potter, excited for the expansion of Rowling’s magical universe. However, there’s plenty more reading you can do to in the meantime. If you’re looking to get to the heart of the matter, finding those fantastic beasts, we’ve got you covered. Here is a selection of some our favourite stories of finding and discovering magical beings, as well as some of the best bestiaries that catalogue the creatures you encounter on the way.
Lewis Carroll: The Hunting of the Snark
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are iconic for their wondrous creatures and characters. But if we’re going in search of fantastic beasts then we could do worse than joining Carroll’s crew of misfits in search of the mysterious Snark.
The Hunting of the Snark recounts, in Carroll’s famous nonsense poetry form, the tale of nine tradesmen and one beaver as they set out on the seas to hunt the elusive creature known as the Snark. Carroll’s absurdist poem is a delight to read, full of playful language and imagery as can be seen in the repeated instructions for catching Snarks:
"You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care;
You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
You may charm it with smiles and soap—'"
("That's exactly the method," the Bellman bold
In a hasty parenthesis cried,
"That's exactly the way I have always been told
That the capture of Snarks should be tried!")
Marie Brennan: A Natural History of Dragons
The first in a thrilling fantasy series set in an alternate Victorian world, the protagonist of A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella, Lady Trent is cut from the same magizoological cloth as Fantastic Beasts’ Newt Scamander. The book is written as her memoirs of her career as a dragon naturalist. Isabella recounts the story of how she overcame societal conventions to become the pre-eminent scientist in the study of dragons.
The story of her exploits and adventures is blended with her research and illustrations of her scientific drawings, which gives the book a sense of scientific verisimilitude. This story is a wonderful meeting ground of fantasy and science, perfect for anyone who was dying to attend Care of Magical Creatures classes.
Walter Moers: The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear
If you’re looking to find a whole new world of beings and creatures, Moers’ absurdist but incredibly creative books are always filled with fantastical creations. The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear recounts the adventures of Bluebear as he explores the island of Zamonia. These adventures, which amount to the first half of Bluebear’s 27 lives, lead him to encounter a range of outlandish beings. These ingenious creations from Moers' imagination range from talking waves called Babbling Billows to the seven brained Nocturnomath called Professor Abdullah Nightingale.
Bluebear’s escapades are interspersed with excerpts from The Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs by Professor Abdullah Nightingale. There are few stories which have such a variety of wondrous characters, all captured in Moers’ fun and quirky illustrations.
H. G. Wells: The Island of Doctor Moreau
Moving from fantasy to science fiction, Wells’ classic novel is festering with dark and unsettling monsters. Shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself stranded on a mysterious island, where he meets Dr Moreau, a disgraced surgeon who had been cast out of London for his repulsive experiments. Prendick find that Moreau has continued these experiments in the privacy of his own island, creating a race of human/animal hybrids.
Where previous recommendations offered creatures which were a source of fascination and even delight, here they are terrifying creatures which might have been best left unfound. Still, this short and compelling classic, which looks at the nature of monstrosity and morality in science, is a must for anyone with a fascination in the monstrous.
These stories are inarguably filled with exciting stories of magical creatures, however there’s probably no better place to find fantastic beasts than in bestiaries. Here are just a few of our favourite catalogues of creatures, real and imagined.
It’s hard to underestimate the role bestiaries once played in culture. In the Middle Ages, these books were second only to the Bible in their popularity. It was a means of discovering the world and its inhabitants. The form was taken seriously as a source of both information and in fact moral instruction. Sadly, they soon fell from fashion. The first to resurrect them for the English language was the acclaimed author, T.H. White. Creating the first translation of a Latin bestiary into English, White also set a high standard to beat. Not only is the translated text fascinating, with its curious and forgotten views of animals and earthly beings, but White supplements this with his own enlightening and entertaining footnotes. Filled with charm and wit, these footnotes explore the historical views and misconceptions of the animal world.
If you would like to get a closer look at the original texts which inspired White, Aberdeen University has a wonderful resource here to explore a beautiful medieval bestiary manuscript, and it's incredible illuminations.
Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings
Another author who turned their hand at bestiaries was Jorge Luis Borges. His Book of Imaginary Beings is a wonderful branch of his exploration of ‘irreality’.
Rather than translating a medieval text, Borges created a bestiary for modern times. In his 116 descriptions of fictional creatures, Borges includes classical beings such as centaurs and basilisks, right up to modern inventions such as 'An Animal Imagined by Kafka.’
While Borges thought of the book as something to be dipped in and out of, his style is captivating and likely to keep you turning through the pages of this imagined menagerie. The joy of this book stems from the author’s understanding of the importance and power of these imaginary beings. As he notes in the book’s introduction:
We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster
Our final entry is a bestiary that tells you, not only where imaginary creatures were thought to be found, but where you can find them today, in literature and film. The history and context of the creatures is followed up with commentary on how these magical beings are represented currently in popular culture.
Each entry is surrounded by beautiful and colourful illustrations, echoing the illuminated manuscripts of medieval bestiaries. It's a gorgeous example of how traditions change and evolve over time to respond to their context and audience. We are a long way from the zoological information and moral instruction of the medieval counterparts, and yet there remains a fascination with monstrous beings and their place in our world.