04 September 2009

Bestiary 102

We're back for another round of fantastic beasts!

First, I'd just like to thank the universe for the wonder known as Inter Library Loan. My library system didn't own a copy of T.H. White's Book of Beasts, so I was able to borrow a copy all the way from the University of Wisconsin! I can't tell you what a happy library geek I am. :)

Today's information will all come from that source as I only have it on loan until next week.

Bestiaries are often divided into sections of beasts, birds and reptiles/amphibians. As I mentioned last time, many of the beasts that are catalogued are real creatures, even if their allegorical traits are a spiritual stretch.

The unicorn is described as being the size of a goat, and may be trapped by a virgin. There's one thing that has always puzzled me about that, though. If a unicorn is a creature of purity and innocence and goodness, and the girl is a willing accomplice in trapping this creature, then how on earth does her physical state of being trump her basic greed and evil? Because you'd have to be a pretty slimy specimen to want to kill a unicorn. You'd think that a mythic beast attracted those wholesome traits would be able to smell the evil intent a mile away.

Oh well, there's a mystery for the ages.

One of the charming things about White's translation are his footnotes. They crack me up. Under the entry for the Griffin, he first quotes Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland: "If you don't know what a Griffin is, look at the picture." He then goes on to theorize that the Griffin has no basis in a real creature, but is an animal of fantasy. He illustrates with a Victorian poem about a mythical Dodo (not the one we know is extinct), but ends with the following statement: "The Griffin, however, was a serious animal.... It does not pay to be supercilious about the creatures in a Bestiary."

Yes, sir.

The section on birds is largely based on real animals with a couple of notable exceptions. First, the Caladrius -- a white bird that could foretell death. If it was shown to a patient who would survive, the bird would face the patient. If, however, it prophesied death, it would turn its head away. Again, White's footnotes add to the story with a uniquely human point of view.

It would be difficult to actually sell a Caladrius to anyone, he writes, because the buyer (presumably the victim of the illness) merely needed to enter the store on the pretense of purchasing the bird, have it look at him and tell his future, then leave the store without actually exchanging cash for the prophecy. White tells us that birdsellers became canny and refused to show the bird unless there was cash in hand.

Typical humans.

The Fenix (sic) is a familiar beast to many of us. The allegory to the risen Christ is unmistakable. It foretells its own death, makes arrangements -- builds a sweet smelling nest/funeral pyre of cinnamon and spice branches, then sets itself on fire. "Then verily, on the ninth day afterward, it rises from its own ashes!" The bestiary mentions another creature which may simply be the Phoenix by another name -- the Cinomolgus. And again, White gives us more information by mentioning the Emperor Heliogabulus (3rd century) who was a "glutton and debauchee." He decided that he wanted to eat a Cinomolgus/Phoenix so that he could take in its longevity and probably its ability to rise from the dead. Some poor rare bird or another was obtained for him, he immediately set fire to it and ate it. "One is thankful to know that he was murdered very shortly afterwards." And presumably, didn't come back.

There are hundreds of creatures listed in White's translation -- many are ordinary creatures exalted to an uncomfortable place in medieval symbolism, but the extraordinary few do set fire to the imagination. More next time!
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