'...there is something in the dragon's image that appeals to the human imagination... It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.' Jorge Luis Borges
Odell Shepard, in his The Lore of the Unicorn, speaks of the unicorn as one of those creatures of the imagination which man has created 'in his own image' - a figment of the imagination, and one which is a reflection of the mentality of humanity and which persists through changes in its intellectual milieu. At the moment, we are most likely to encounter such creatures - Dragons, Griffins, Unicorns - in fantasy novels, comics, films and television series, where they function as embodiments of the excitement and terror which we wish we could find in our more mundane lives, or which we are supposed by the producers to wish to find. Yet, just as traditional bogeymen have been replaced to some extent by paedophiles and other, more human terrors, so the fantastic beasts of mythology and the mediaeval bestiary have been exchanged for the less improbable subjects of cryptozoology.
Yet it would be a shame and an error to dismiss fabulous beasts out-of-hand. Though we are used to thinking of them as inventions, most of the apparently bizarre descriptions of animals, birds, reptiles and fish which have come down to us from early accounts and bestiaries can be explained by some means. Often what has happened is that accounts and depictions have become muddled through translation, transcription and hearsay. The result is a gory mess of myth, travellers' tales and natural history - frequently seen through a filter which transformed everything in the world into an illustration of the Christian faith.
The heraldic depiction of a Basilisk or Cockatrice (the only difference in heraldry is that the basilisk is sometimes given an extra head at the end of its tail) is of a hideous beast with the head, body and legs of a cockerel and the wings and tail of a dragon: this monster was said to come from an egg laid by a nine-year old cock during the Dog Days, which was then hatched by a toad; it slew with a glance or by using its poisonous breath. But to begin with, the Basilisk was nothing more than a large snake, perhaps the King Cobra or a spitting snake or an amalgam of several serpents; by the fourteenth century it seems to have become confused with reports of the Crowing Crested Cobra of central Africa, which has a comb-like crest, wattles, and emits a crowing sound - hence the bizarre, composite appearance of this monster.
Similarly, the Unicorn seems to have developed through a conflation of the Rhinoceros and assorted species of antelope; the Dragon was originally any large reptile, such as the Komodo Dragon; and the Griffin may trace its descent from the winged gods and guardians of the Near East - anyone who has seen an Assyrian statue of a winged bull will know what I mean.
Though some of the originals for their monsters were undoubtedly fabricated beasts, whether they were constructed as gods, guardians, representations of religious rituals or developed from tales and folklore, there can be little doubt that most of the bestiarists were convinced that these animals were really as they described them. Moreover, the age was not generally one of intellectual curiosity. Nonetheless, as traditions grew more and more entangled with spurious etymology, decadent heraldry, religion and old wives' tales, the creatures became more and more complex and removed from their origins, and eventually, at the end of the Renaissance, thoroughly phantasmagorical.
It was this development that led to the twofold debunking of these beasts: firstly, through science, and secondly, through mockery. In his Pseudodoxica Epidemica or Vulgar Errors, published in 1646, Sir Thomas Browne set out to discover the truth behind the superstitions and traditions which adhered to animals (among many other things), in a way which approached Baconian method; and with the growth of empiricism in the sciences, beasts such as the Griffin and the two-headed serpent Amphisbaena were shown to be not merely improbable, but impossible. Perhaps the freaks of nature which were exhibited at fairs, and which were eventually the mainstay of the macabre cabinets of curiosities of the Victorians, replaced them to some extent; and certainly biology has revealed that many animals which exist are just as strange as those which do not. The sports of nature reduced the monsters to sports of the mind.
It is mockery and the grotesque which have governed the development of the idea of the fabulous beast to the present day. Marina Warner says that: 'All monsters are to some extent chimerae, impossible in nature, explicitly described yet also unimaginable, and the very display of such outlandish inventions inspires strong emotions of dread - against which laughter can be the best defence.'
Michelangelo defended such delusory figments as the resource of artistic metaphorical expression. So, rather than existing as part of an external world, such phantasms became a part of the singular vision of the Artist, and a part of the internal contours of the mind - the terrors of the personal psyche. It was the reason of the Enlightenment which produced monsters while it slept; but these monsters, born of the mind, were less fabulous and more uncanny than the creatures of the bestiaries. They were, and are, more human.
A few fabulous beasts still occupy a place in literature, especially in fantasy and in books written for children; but such creatures in such a context lose all the power they once possessed, and are merely a part of a genre which is governed by fairly rigid conventions. One example of a fabulous beast actually fulfilling a role outside these conventions is the Dragon in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books; whatever your opinion of the merit of these books per se, it is easy to see that the unconditional relationship between dragons and humans expresses a longing for total understanding - an understanding which we are denied by the mind's impenetrability.
Despite this, the more lasting horrors of fantasy are provoked by monsters of a more human form: Lovecraft's Shoggoth, Tolkien's Orcs; a grotesquerie which is part of everyday entertainment. And ultimately, we are less disturbed by these agreeable terrors than by the monstrosities perpetrated by ourselves.
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