The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook @ The Royal West of England Academy

PJ (no full stops) lives and works in the West Country, is a member of the Royal West of England Academy and, over a long career, has not only created works across a wide range of media, but also been active in supporting numerous art organisations and initiatives, resulting in the recent award of an MBE for services to art.

PJ Crook at work

PJ Crook at work

This exhibition of recent work, titled Metamorphoses, fills one downstairs room at the RWA’s Bristol gallery with 20 or so (generally quite small) paintings and six or so (quite large) assemblages.

Soundscape by Robert Fripp

The exhibition is accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ created by PJ’s long-standing friend, the guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. From hidden speakers Fripp’s ambient waves of sound wash slowly over the visitor. Since the entire show is housed in one, bare, white room, the overall affect is soothing and relaxing, slowing you down enough to soak up PJ’s dream-like fantasias.

Paintings and assemblages

There’s a big visual difference between the paintings and the assemblages. The paintings are small, the size of a large format book – whereas the assemblages consist of stools or mannekins or tables, thrusting out of the wall which they’re often attached to, intruding into the visitor space, festooned with stuffed birds, shoes and other objects.

The day I visited the artist was there herself and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions. PJ explained that an initial thought had been to display just the assemblages, but that by themselves they created a rather craggy, pointy, threatening experience. So the small and smooth paintings were put in between them to create rhythm, light and shade, a contrast between the assemblages, which you have to step back to really take in, and the paintings, which you have to lean into to enjoy the detail.

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

The paintings

The wall labels and catalogue quote from the opening of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, a wonderful collection of all the ancient Greek myths in which people turn into trees or animals or clouds, and so on, which has been translated and quoted by English poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme my spirit impels me now to recite.
Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread
from the world’s beginning down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

And PJ herself explained, some of the paintings were directly inspired by a recent visit to Greece, such as the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

But, to this visitor, what came over much more powerfully was the sequence of dark and mysterious images which seem to emanate from a northern imagination of forests and fairy tales.

Grandma by PJ Crook

Grandma by PJ Crook

Even the sequence obviously taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally set in Greece) and showing Bottom with his ass’s head, have more the feel of a dreamy northern night – it is a world of sensible shirt and ties (as below) or waistcoat, trousers and laced shoes (in A wood near Athens, above) rather than the bare rock and bare bodies of hot Greece. Part of the dreamlike state is that the animal has been tamed.

Enchanted by PJ Crook

Enchanted by PJ Crook

These could be illustrations to Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, a night-time world of dream women somehow in control of mannekin men, leading the dance, seeing the world in their own terms, all floating beneath the mysterious, female power of the moon (traditionally associated with the female principle, as opposed to the harsh male sun).

Style

As you can see from these examples, the paintings are in a sort of ‘naively’ realistic style, an impression of innocent artlessness which is emphasised by the way all of the paintings overflow to include the heavy wooden frames.

PJ told me she’s been called a surrealist artist, a naive artist and so on. Certainly there are juxtapositions of incongruous objects, as in the early Surrealist manifestos, and these odd visions are painted in a very finished, figurative style. But their powerful dreamlike vibe is entirely her own.

One consistent element I noticed is the blankness of the faces. Strange things are happening – a woman dances with a donkey-headed man or sees herself as a bear in a mirror – and make no comment. The girls’ or women’s faces remain placid and accepting. ‘Yes, of course, why not,’ they seem to be saying. Or thinking.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Then I realised that, although there are a few naked people, you don’t see any nipples or other private parts. They would make the pictures too… too real, give too much of an edge to pictures which are intended to be edgeless, to take us away from the harsh world of the sexualised body and into a desexualised world of dreamy imagination.

On the contrary, the lack of naked bodies or, to be precise, the way the bodies are often so chastely dressed – adds to the incongruity, to the surrealism, of the images. Bottom may well be an ancient Greek workman with a donkey’s head – but he is wearing the waistcoat, shirt, tie and bell-bottomed trousers that remind me of the roll-your-own folk singers of the 1970s; the girl turning into a stag is wearing a sensible summer dress buttoned to the throat and a carefully tied ribbon, as of a 1950s children’s book illustration.

Metamorphses by PJ Crook

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook

The decorum and the chasteness of the figures is part of their lack of affect, their lack of emotional response, to the strange things happening to them, which help to create the all-prevading dream-like mood.

(I recently came across the idea of sticking butterflies to the picture frame in a 1926 work by Francis Picabia, Machaon, where it is explained that the butterfly was a Christian symbol for rebirth i.e. a form of metamorphosis).

Solitary

Continuing along the same line of thought, PJ’s Wikipedia and RWA profiles emphasise that she often paints crowds. Once it was pointed out to me I realised that I’ve seen her artwork on the cover of a lot of the later album covers of King Crimson, the 1970s prog rock group founded by Robert Fripp, which still records and tours. In fact, PJ has provided artwork for no fewer than 13 KC albums:

List of King Crimson albums with cover art by PJ Crook

Most of these feature multiple figures, and some have large crowds, marching in the street or making up the audience at theatres or the circus. Whereas all of the works in this show do not show crowds: two is generally as many ‘people’ who feature, and a number only show one isolated figure. In other words, this appears to be a selection of works deliberately distinct from the crowd pictures.

This solitariness, the relative isolation and singleness of the figures in these Metamorphoses paintings is another element which adds to their sense of dreamy drifting. Instead of being packed into a crowd reading newspapers or cheering at the theatre, individuals are isolated, looking into mirrors, or dancing with donkeys under the moon, or calmly turning into a stag – unattached, unattended, profoundly untroubled.

The assemblages

The assemblages are wildly different in presence and impact from the paintings. Only on closer examination do you see how they bear the imprint of PJ’s style. Several things are notable about them, first of all, their sheer variety. There are:

  • enormous antique shelf units designed to hold curios and trinkets
  • a tailor’s dummy painted with a cloudy blue sky
  • an antique, 18th century-looking corner table
  • a stool with a guitar placed on it and a cockerel sitting on the guitar
  • a picture frame around a painting of shoes, with shoes stuck on the canvas and around the frame

 

Stepping Out (in my shows) by PJ Crook

Stepping Out (in my shoes) by PJ Crook

What unifies them is:

  • the stuffed birds
  • the colourful decoration of the objects
  • text painted onto the objects
  • the humorously factual titles

The stuffed birds

PJ told me she didn’t have the birds stuffed specially but rescued them from curio shops around the area. I counted 21 stuffed birds, perching not only on the assemblages but poking out from some of the paintings, as well as birds in the paintings.

The ubiquity of the birds is as much of a theme as classical metamorphoses. They it link together apparently disparate works across the exhibition and give the show a visual and avian uniformity.

Bird by PJ Crook

Bird by PJ Crook

The most avian work is Bird Table (below) which neatly illustrates some of the other characteristics, namely the humorous titles and the use of text. It is titled Bird table because it is a table with birds on. I really liked that. As to text, I could see that she’d painted the words ‘one x bird 4 sorrow, 2 x bird for joy’ etc onto the table, and this matched the fact that the two dominant stuffed birds are magpies. But PJ also explained the meaning of the images on the table legs which – being slow – I initially took for pop culture references. The Blue bird logo, Bird’s instant custard, the twitter bird logo, Daffy duck, Robin from Batman and Robin – all birds :).

Bird Table by PJ Crook

Bird Table by PJ Crook

So: an antique shop ready-made object, festooned with stuffed birds (and a bird book and a globe indicating the migratory flights of birds), with painted text relevant to the birds (the magpies) across the table drawers, and visual puns (‘4’ on the left hand leg, ‘& 20’ on the next leg, the image of a blackbird on the third leg).

Having learned to ‘read’ this example I was ready to enjoy deciphering Cock a doodle, but it needed PJ herself to tell me that this stool was sat on by Robert Fripp when he came and did a performance at a hall near her. This explains the guitar (and the mannekin hand – maybe it’s in the position of making a guitar chord?) but it was only when I looked closely that I saw that the titles of various King Crimson tracks are painted along the legs and frame of the stool.

The cockerel itself? The black gloved hands reaching up from the floor? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It’s fun, bright and confident, colourful and jokey.

Cock a doodle doo by PJ Crook

Cock a doodle by PJ Crook

Sea urchin is a great title for a shop mannekin of a child which has miraculously grown silver scales and has a big fish stuck on its head. And a bird on its hand, one of the many birds which thematically bind the exhibits together. Is it a curlew, I wonder, the solitary bird of seaside strands?

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Buy your own

The pieces are all for sale (though many have already been bought). The paintings cost from around £2,500 to £4,000, while the assemblages cost significantly more; for example Bird table costs £18,850.

I went to the exhibition with my son. His favourite work was this small painting of a sad-looking Minotaur at the centre of his maze, a snip at £1,125.

Minotaur by PJ Crook

Minotaur by PJ Crook

This is a very enjoyable, intriguing, other-worldly exhibition – with the Frippscape in the background, a spell of pure pleasure.

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