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Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon

Sitting around the fire we fell to talking about fantastic creatures. What strange beings the human imagination had concocted in past ages!

--Satyajit Ray, The Unicorn Expedition

Excerpts from the Introduction
"The glorious phoenix spreads its wings in a mural in the Phoenix, Arizona, airport. The eagle-lion griffin stands majestically on business signs, belt buckles, and coats of arms. Pewter and glass unicorns prance in gift shop windows. Dragons roar in fantasy games. Images of ancient fantastic animals are all around us and in our imaginations."  


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“From ancient times until only a few centuries ago, mixed and magical creatures were generally believed to share the sky, waters, and earth with actual animals. In a world filled with an astonishing variety of animal life, it wasn't easy to know which creatures were real and which ones were fabulous, mythical, or imaginary."


* * *


"Ancient travelers to Egypt, India, Ethiopia, Arabia, and Scythia returned to their own countries with tales of actual creatures so marvelous they seemed to come from dreams. Because no one back home had ever seen these animals, travelers compared the beasts to animals that were more familiar. Herodotus, the first major Western historian, described the Egyptian 'river horse' as a four-legged animal as big as an ox, with cloven hoofs like an ox, the mane and tail of a horse, and a voice like a horse's whinny. Another early writer, Ctesias, said the blood-red, man-eating manticore of India was as big as a lion, had a face, ears, and eyes like a man, had three rows of teeth, a long stinging tail like a scorpion, and a voice like a panpipe. One of the best-known mixed animals of ancient times was the camelopard. Some thought the spotted, long-necked creature was the offspring of a camel and a leopard. It was brown with white spots, had a neck like a horse, feet and legs like an ox, and a head like a camel.

"Today, we know the river horse as a hippopotamus and the camelopard as a giraffe. (The giraffe still carries the scientific name Giraffa camelopardis, and its starry counterpart is the Camelopardalis constellation.) The manticore was mostly imaginary, but was later identified with the Bengal tiger. No matter how real the animal is to the teller, the description of it will sound fantastic to the person who has never seen it."

From "More Wonder Beasts"
"Besides the four major wonder beasts--the phoenix, griffin, unicorn, and dragon--and their close relatives, there are so many other mythical and fabulous creatures from around the world that it takes whole books to hold them all. Hundreds of pages separate the 'A Boa A Qu' from the 'Zu.' And that does not even take into account the host of newly invented creatures that throng through popular culture, from the Star Wars films to video games. There were probably several new fantastic beasts born today, and there will be more tomorrow. We can all create our own by combining the parts and powers of various animals in our own imaginations."

“This book on four of the most influential of mythological creatures, ostensibly for children, is both wonderful enough and beastly enough to intrigue adults as well....

"The book is remarkable precisely for its gathering together of the myths of different cultures, and, ultimately, for its information on how these four creatures have come to inhabit, in symbolic form, our modern culture. In essence, the book allows the reader to trace the evolution and dissolution of these potent symbols....

"By printing excerpts from Ovid, Marco Polo's journeys, and various fairy tale traditions, Nigg gives the reader a wonderful mosaic of these fantastical beasts--creatures that were very real to people at the time. Nigg has won awards for such previous books as The Book of Gryphons and Imaginary Birds, and he brings the charm of those books to this text as well. Highly recommended for children of all ages."

--Jeff VanderMeer, Fantastic Worlds


"The study of fabulous beasts has preoccupied Joe Nigg over many years. This work is but the latest of several books and many articles he has written on the subject. He brings together here an extensive survey of contemporary and present fictive and expository literature to illustrate the place of wonder beasts in the collective imagination and how over time that literary treatment became firmly cemented in the domain of fantasy. The book begins with a ten-page introduction that provides the historic context for speculation about hybrid beasts, the production of bestiaries, scholarship, the appropriation of beasts for heraldry and the enduring fixation with fabulous beasts--Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, the Yeti and others.

"The work is divided into four discrete parts: The Phoenix, The Griffin, The Unicorn, and The Dragon. The author begins each section with the popular description of the beast, the derivation of its name, its place in mythology and archeological evidence of its place in contemporary culture. Nigg then turns to excerpts from primary sources ranging from ancient histories to present-day children's fiction. Thus, with The Dragon he begins with an extract on Perseus and Andromeda, by Ovid, proceeds to Beowulf, ranges across the Middle Ages and African and Asian cultures and ends with a 1981 story entitled 'Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon.'

"A final chapter entitled 'More Wonder Beasts' briefly considers other mythical creatures. It is interesting to read Pliny from his Natural History matter-of-factly describing wildly improbable beasts of Ethiopia--and this typifies the browsing appeal of this book. It is interesting to see how the perceptions of beasts have changed over the centuries and how folklore embellished common creatures into beasts of bizarre proportions. This is work of careful, detailed scholarship as evidenced in the extensive references list and index and in-text documentation. Interspersed through the cream pages and russet text are contemporary illustrations.

"This is a worthy, well-produced anthology of folklore but also a very useful reference book to enhance appreciation of the continued place of wonder beasts in children’s literature of today.”

--Kevin Steinberger, Australian Library Review

"Wonder Beasts will be useful to students who are researching myth and folklore, and to librarians and scholars who are looking for a comprehensive source list on the topic. The book is beautifully laid out, with burgundy ink on cream-colored paper, and decorated with pen and ink illustrations. It is obviously a labor of love, and would complement other titles such as The Book of Dragons by Michael Hague...and Here There Be Dragons by Jane Yolen."

--Susan R. Farber, VOYA

 Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg