Illustrated by Peter Sís
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe (Penguin)
Translator: Andrew Hurley
Pages: 236 including notes – plus introduction (Paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, Mythology/Folklore, Bestiary/Encyclopedia
“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. . . . It is, one might say, a necessary monster.”
The Book of Imaginary Beings is Borges’s whimsical compendium of more than a hundred of “the strange creatures conceived down through history by the human imagination.” Imbued with Borges’s characteristic wit and erudition, this unique contribution to fantasy literature ranges widely across the world’s mythologies and literatures to bring together in one delightful encyclopedia the fantastical inventions from the Kabbalah, Homer, Pliny, Confucius, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Kafka, and C.S. Lewis, among others. Here, readers will find the familiar and expected Dragons and Centaurs, Unicorns and Gnomes, as well as the less familiar and altogether unexpected Animals That Live in the Mirror, The Elephant That Prefigured the Birth of Buddha, the Lamed Wufniks, and the Hairy Beast of La Ferte Bernard. Throughout, Borges’s cunning and humorous commentary is sheer delight.
For this new, illustrated edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings, Penguin has paired Andrew Hurley, the acclaimed translator of Borges’s Collected Fictions, with award-winning illustrator Peter Sís, whose original drawings appear throughout the book. The result is a wonderful gift – an Alice through-the-Looking-Glass menagerie, which should appeal to fantasy fans of all stripes and ages.
Phew, and if you’ve got through that massive blurb you’ll see I barely need to write a review for this one! But I will anyway, just a few quick thoughts on my personal opinions because that description basically does my job for me.
I’ve been sitting on this book for quite a while actually, trying to establish just what I thought about it and how much, really, I enjoyed it. It’s an odd little beast; part encyclopedia, part literary-analysis, and part extracts from other works. Unlike most modern encyclopedias of mythological creatures, it’s a book to savior and enjoy, rather than use purely for reference and research – the entries contain not just the plain facts (such as they are) but an authorial voice and expression of opinions that’s both refreshing and, occasionally, thought-provoking. But equally, Borges is right in his foreword the 1967 edition when he states ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings has not been written for consecutive reading. Our wish would be that the curious dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope’. It’s not a book to read straight through, it’s a book to keep on your shelf and dip into every now and then as the fancy takes you. Even reading at the slow, disjointed pace of one entry a night, I think I took the wrong approach and ended up hampering my own enjoyment.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did, very much – but that it would have probably elicited stronger and more fond feelings had I read it in bits and pieces like Borges’s kaleidoscope metaphor. So it’s with that in mind, and my constant unsureness on how to rate non-fiction, that it receives a four rather than five stars from me. That said it is certainly a book I will return to, in the way it’s intended, and one I can see myself growing to truly love. I’m a sucker for mythology in a really big way so there’s absolutely no way this is going to sit forgotten and, in smaller doses, I think the unique charm of a lot of the entries will shine through a lot better.
So onto the entries themselves. They vary in length from a single paragraph to three-four pages and cover a wide range of mythological and legendary beasties from all around the world. The blurb up there’s already done a pretty good job of illustrating just how wide this range is so I’ll limit myself to mentioning some of the highlights. The dragon, of course, puts in an appearance in both its western and eastern forms (as does the unicorn) and contains some of the most interesting analysis in the book about the creatures prevalence and symbolism as well as prompting questions about just what ‘dragon’ (or ‘unicorn’) actually means if these two quite different creatures are both classified as them. Or maybe that’s just my own reading; I got into a fascinating discussion on just that subject with a number of other museum volunteers, during last ‘Chinese New Year’ day at the Ashmolean. Also a standout for me is the Zaratan – a marine creature large enough to be mistaken for an island that will sink beneath the waves once sailors have landed on it. It’s a concept I’m familiar with from a number of stories but the (Muslim) name was new to me and the extracts from numerous chronicles around the world describing it were a really nice touch. It’s extracts like that, as well as Borges tone, that set this book apart from other ‘mythological encyclopedias’ that only reference the titles or use very short quotes. That said the entries that were just extracts from other works always came as a bit of a disappointment – An Animal Dreamed by Kafka/C.S. Lewis/Poe are all interesting descriptions, but without Borges commentary they lacked a certain something of the other entries and didn’t quite seem to belong in the collection. Again, that’s something probably rectified by dipping in and out of the book, however.
My favourite entry, though, had to be The Animals That Live in the Mirror – a foreboding little creation story about the ‘mirror world’ that I hadn’t heard before but really got my mind juices flowing. It’s an idea that could be expanded on to make something really creepy and wonderful and I would love to read a book with this concept.
So…onto the bad. According to the translator’s note Borges researched a lot for this book, but never cited these sources properly in footnotes/endnotes or a bibliography. Which for the most part is fine because it’s not an academic book and for the intended audience an ‘as the chronicle of ____ says’ is all that’s needed – but if you want to track down any of these sources yourself, you have to rely on the translator’s incomplete list of guessed sources in the endnotes. As I said, this isn’t something that would bother most people and in fact the translator’s list of guesses, though welcome isn’t strictly needed – but I would really have liked a reference for the claim that a medieval woman was burned in England on the accusation of being a ‘Valkyrie’. Not because I don’t believe it but because it’s a fascinating sounding incident that follows a completely different pattern to the early-modern witch trials that I studied in university (witches in England were more commonly hanged than burnt, unlike the majority of the rest of Europe) and is a precursor to these witch hunts that I hadn’t heard of before. Neither Borges, nor his translator, however offer a reference for this fact.
But that’s a geeky note from a history student. As a reference book on mythological beasties it’s more focussed on story, symbolism, and usage than the ‘facts’ of the creatures it’s describing, but as a book of mythological anecdotes to be dipped in and out of it’s a delight. The illustrations in this edition by Peter Sís are a wonderful compliment to the text (my favourite is the elephant-like Leveler) – well worth the extra few pounds for the ‘deluxe’ edition. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in myths, legends, monsters, or the imagination in general – on the proviso they don’t try to read it in one go – and I think it would also be a wonderfully addition to any children’s library.
This is the first time I’ve read anything by Borges, and it’s an odd book to introduce myself to such a famous writer with – but I enjoyed his tone and will definitely be checking out more of his own fiction once I have shelf-space.