June 14, 2019

Creature Collections: Encyclopedias

        My interest in compendia of magical beasts is nothing new, obviously  (click on “Creature Collections” in the sidebar for lots and lots of other books) but for the past year or two I’ve been trying especially hard to get my hands on as many comprehensive creature reference books as possible, in order to research subjects for my block prints and my bestiary.  Here are a few of the works I’ve consulted:

        The Mythical Creatures Bible, by Brenda Rosen, 2009 - Lavishly illustrated, full-color encyclopedia with creatures organized in categories, of which “Sacred Creatures” is a separate category, which I appreciate.  The variety of illustrations includes some from older sources and some apparently made for this book.  It does include some errors (such as “the real-life lizard called a Salamander,” and putting the elves of The Lord of the Rings among the “many famous fairies in literature”) which don’t inspire confidence.  It is, however, an appealing book to browse through.

        Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Magical Beasts, by Robin Palmer, 1966 - A dictionary of only about 66 animals with small illustrations, plus complete stories or poems about 12 of them from a variety of cultures.  Hardly a comprehensive reference work, but it is interesting to read about some of the creatures in their own contexts.

        A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, by Richard Barber and Anne Riches, 1971 - A good small reference with a wide variety of creatures, including lots of local monsters of the British Isles, and some more modern beasts such as the gremlin and shmoo.  I especially appreciate that each entry includes its references in an extensive bibliography.  The bibliography is helpfully organized by time period.

        A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, 2016 - Despite the title this is not a field guide, but it is a nice overview of lots of creatures, relatively heavy on humanoids, and arranged in categories (including “The Sacred & the Divine”).  Each of the entries includes side boxes that mention specific instances in literature from ancient myth to modern movies.  It does a great job of putting recent pop culture instances into context.  The illustrations aren’t particularly inspiring, but do at least have the benefit of including a nice diversity of people, when people are shown.

        Giants, Monsters, and Dragons, by Carol Rose, 2000 - Pretty much the keystone reference work on mythical beasts (it tends not to include the more humanoid creatures), this one has a lot going for it.  It covers a lot of beasts, each one given with its references; it has an excellent bibliography; and it includes a number of useful indexes.  It’s always one of the first places to look.  Because it’s such a popular source, it’s a little hard to cross-check - any errors in this book tend to be repeated by everyone else on the internet and in subsequent works (including, no doubt, my own).  Obviously I’d prefer to be able to trust all its information completely, but I think it’s pretty much impossible to cover this much ground without allowing a few errors to creep in, and I consider this encyclopedia an impressive and extremely useful resource.

        The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John & Caitlín Matthews, 2005 - This dictionary aims to include all sorts of magical beings, including not just what I think of as mythical creatures, but also gods, and famous named individuals of certain species, such as centaurs, for example.  It also has articles on the magical attributes of real animals such as elephants and dogs.  There are inset sections retelling specific stories about many of the creatures, and others discussing certain larger categories, such as “Celestial Creatures” and “Road Predators.”  I would have appreciated if it included references for each entry, as some of the other encyclopedias do.

        As I mentioned, I think it’s pretty hard to achieve simultaneously broad range and perfect accuracy of detail, and I’m sure all these works have at least a few inaccuracies, especially in their accounts of non-European mythologies.  I wish they were perfect, of course, and if there were a perfect source I would certainly wish to own a copy — but I confess that I find myself with a bit of a soft spot for the inaccuracies that result from the Game of Telephone that is mythology.  After all, myths and legends have always morphed and changed over time and place as people hear stories, misunderstand them, “improve” them, and tell them again, on down the line.  Despite our best efforts, why should we be any different?

[Pictures: Kraken by uncredited illustrator (?) from The Mythical Creatures Bible by Rosen, 2009;
Gremlin by Rosalind Dease from The Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts by Barber & Riches, 1971.]


Sue Bursztynski said...

I’ll read anything by John and/or Caitlin Matthews! I have some of their Arthurian books. I think John has actually written fiction, but I couldn’t get it in ebook.

That is a stunningly beautiful painting on top of your post - who did that?

I’m still hoping to get one of Katherine Briggs’s fairy books.

Actually, Tolkien called his Elves fairies himself in some of his History Of Middle Earth Books. Of course, that stuff was written before LOTR. The earlier Tolkien Elves are a murderous lot, always fighting each other; I guess the artist colony Elves of LOTR are preferable!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Sue, there's no illustrator listed in the front matter of the book, so I'm guessing an artist must be listed somewhere in small print along with all the other credits. But as I've already returned the book to the library, I can't look it up!
As for the fairy/elf issue, I wouldn't mind if "fairies" was given as an umbrella category including all sorts of magical peoples, but in this particular case it seemed as if fairies were being narrowly defined, in which case I don't think Tolkien's elves qualify. Still, you're right that it's not entirely clear-cut. But *nothing* can make a salamander into a lizard! =)

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

This is awesome! I've added some of these to my TBR.