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The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present

Fresh spirit fills me, face to face with these--
Grand are the Forms, and grand the Memories!
                                                  --Goethe, Faust

From the Introduction
"Descendants of monstrous figures of ancient mythologies, imaginary animals of a newer generation emerged from the ocean of oral story and spread through tales of Greek and Roman travelers, historians, geographers, and poets. On the basis of written authority, accounts of these creatures were repeated and varied by writer after writer, leading to general acceptance of their place in the animal kingdom. Following the decline of the classical world, the creatures returned in the Middle Ages through the Bible, homilies of the Church Fathers, and the medieval bestiaries. Encyclopedias included them among living creatures. Some of them figured in the tales of saints, heroes, and travelers who journeyed to the edges of the earth. They entered printed books through classical texts and new literature, joined actual animals in handbooks of heraldry, and were allegories of alchemy. Doubts about the creatures' existence were expressed in medical treatises and natural histories and increased with the development of seventeenth-century science--until the creatures were challenged and discredited as 'fabulous,' expelled from nature. After centuries of literary hiatus, they returned to books as 'mythical' beasts, often in company with their mythological ancestors, and thrived again in scholarly works, popular nonfiction, children's literature, and adult fantasy.

"Writings about animals that the human imagination has shaped from nature form a millennia-long literary tradition. These writings also comprise a composite history of the creatures themselves. Spanning millennia and a variety of genres, works of both major and less well-known authors present the protean creatures’ literary transformations from one historical age to another. Portrayals of them necessarily reflect the ideas dominant in the times and places in which they were produced. The history of fabulous animals ultimately, then, reflects the development of the Western imagination itself.

"Originally derived from immemorial oral lore, these creatures were established in authoritative writings and perpetuated through transmission from writer to writer.... From ancient times to the 1600s, most of the writings in which these animals appear are expository, and most of them confirm a widespread acceptance of the animals’ existence. Even when major authorities themselves remained unconvinced of the tale they had heard or read, and other authors rejected the alleged existence or powers and attributes of a given creature, the willingness of later authors and their readers to believe led to transmission of the information.

"In the second century A.D., Pausanias explained one of the channels through which erroneous facts are perpetuated: 'Those who like to listen to the miraculous are themselves apt to add to the marvel,' he said, 'and so they ruin truth by mixing it with falsehood.' The writings that present imaginary creatures as actual represent the efforts of Western authors to extend knowledge of the known world. In doing so, they often reported (sometimes with reservations) what they had heard and often repeated what they had read, thus producing a body of writings that are about fact and fiction, belief and disbelief--writings that dramatize how fantasies are developed, are rationally challenged, and how, if the creatures written about are elemental enough in the human psyche, they continue to be transformed into other shapes of meaning."



"Nigg charts the rise and fall and re-emergence of mythical beasts throughout history, using as many original texts as possible to support his thesis. His excerpts range far and wide, from the Bible to Borges, Plato to Goethe, Apollonius to Julian Barnes. By tracing the tangled origins and transformations of many fantasy tropes, Nigg has done a valuable service to the world of fantastical fiction. More importantly, he has done for the world of fantastical animals what Joseph Campbell did more generally for the world of myth: He has set it down in all its intricacies, citing the most relevant sources, and come up with a book unique for its dogged thoroughness. The scope of Nigg's study, and the care with which he has gathered his materials, are such that I believe this work will become the bible of imaginary creatures."

--Jeff VanderMeer, The New York Review of Science Fiction,


“I...strongly urge you to seek out The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury from Ancient Times to the Present by Joseph Nigg.... From Babylonian myth to Renaissance heraldry, from Herodotus to J.R.R. Tolkien, this dazzling book follows the tracks of magical beasts down through the ages.”

--Terri Windling, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror(1999)



“I’ve finally found a book worthy of being shelved next to my copy of Katherine Briggs’s An Encyclopedia of Fairies (1976). Joseph Nigg’s The Book of Fabulous Beasts, assiduously assembles excerpts from a wealth of primary texts to chart the origin and development of western civilization’s belief in various mythological creatures. From ancient Mesopotamia to the present, Nigg conducts a tour of a menagerie that never was, one worthy of Dr. Seuss. Nigg's lucid framing material places enthralling snippets from Aristotle to Borges in crystal-clear context. Learn how the manticore and the phoenix came to assume the shapes we recognize today, and discover lesser-known but even more incredible entities, such as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a beast I'm surely charmed by. This book is like reading a handful of lost Avram Davidson essays, and that’s high praise."

--Paul Di Filippo, “On Books,” Asimov’s Science Fiction


“Anyone interested in the humanities will find this anthology of writings on imaginary creatures an invaluable, superbly organized and rich tool to explore the imaginal realm. There’s no doubt that it will become a classic.”

--Ginette Paris, author of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes


"In The Book of Fabulous Beasts, Joseph Nigg writes about his subject matter with wit, charm, and erudition.... A book on fantastic beasts should awaken a sense of wonder in us. Nigg’s book succeeds in doing this.”

--Malcolm South, editor of Mythical and Fabulous Creatures


"Here is required reading for everyone who appreciates fantastic fauna--those tests of human creativity and credulity. Rather than arranging the material alphabetically, as has been done previously, Joseph Nigg offers a convenient chronological compilation, making clear the enduring appeal of these mythical monsters, from antiquity to our own day."

--Janetta Rebold Benton, author of The Medieval Menagerie



“Basilisks, griffins, and mermaids inhabit this ambitious collection of representative writings about mythical creatures that, according to the original context, may or may not exist. Nigg, the author of several books on imaginary animals, has arranged this source book chronologically and divided it into four parts roughly corresponding to the classical, medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods of Western history, each prefaced by a brief introduction. From Homer's sirens to James Thurber's unicorn, over 100 writers, both familiar and obscure, contribute to the literary histories of beasts....The glossary, index, and cross references to particular beasts add to the accessibility of this recommended work."

--Library Journal


Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg