A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A Bestiary is a beautiful and magical object. Very few medieval examples survive, and some of those that do, such as the Aberdeen Bestiary, have been plundered for their exquisite jewel-like illuminations. The earliest bestiaries mixed up mythical and real beasts, and magical and real properties, because who knew then where the one begins and the other ends? Medieval bestiaries, like herbals, were also about God’s creation and the moral and religious lessons to be drawn from his creatures, but also about utility, and they speak of the beneficence and malevolence of the creatures they describe towards humankind. They are full of anecdote and wonder.
Today’s scientific books on animals tend towards the zoology textbook dealing in taxonomy and anatomy, or the identification guide focused on appearance and habitat and visibility. But the magic tug of the Bestiary, with its lore as well as facts, persists, and Caspar Henderson is the latest to respond to it.
He claims as an initial inspiration The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, which collects together wholly imaginary beasts from sources as disparate as Gilgamesh, Kafka and Chilean folklore. This book celebrates the infinite bounds of human imagination, but Henderson’s train of thought leads him to conceive of a book that deals with a collection real creatures that are easily as bizarre as any that can be imagined, to see what they can teach us, not just about the limits of our imagination, but about the marvels of our world. The majority of the creatures he describes live in the ocean, which covers seven tenths of the globe, and of which we know so little.
So Henderson sets out to create a book that can be traced back in its intention and achievement to the medieval Bestiaries, before that to the classics of natural history of Aristotle and Pliny, and even further to the astonishing cave paintings of Chauvet, 30,000 years old, and yet as skilled in observation as any wildlife artist could aspire to today. The introduction sets the scene beautifully, by reminding us what pleasures are to be found in Bestiaries, what food for reflection and what lessons about the earth.
But there is more to bestiaries [...] Along with zany pictures, bizarre zoology and religious parables, they contain gems of acute observation: attempts to understand and convey how things actually are. Undaunted by (and unaware of) the limits of knowledge of their time, they celebrate the beauty of being and of beings.
In this book the author does something of the same. He too is undaunted by the limits of present day knowledge, but he is aware that they exist. At the heart of his essays on these fantastical but real beasts is a perception of the interconnectedness of life, of the power of humans’ dominance to destroy not just creatures but their ecosystems. At the same time, he shows instances where, if brought back from the brink, nature is even more powerful and can heal itself. So there is a message of warning, and a message of hope in each of these essays.
So, what joys are there to be found in this book? It does work on two levels – it is wonderful to dip into, and each of the essays deserves to be read by itself and its food for thought digested. However, the essays are absolutely not self-contained, though they can be read that way – 27 essays, A-Z, on barely imaginable creatures. For example H in this book is for Human – but the essay concentrates on the human foot and examines bi-pedalism. To learn fascinating details about the human eye, you need to have read the essay on (wait for it) Gonodactylus, the ‘Genital-Fingered’ Stomatopod, a strange shrimp-like creature with an astonishingly adapted eye. This eye is the starting point for a riff on the evolutionary biology of the eye, and hence the human eye. And so on. These creatures are jumping off points for the examination of interconnectedness, and the key to that is evolution. At the beginning, Henderson claims that in this book
[E]volutionary biology (and the scientific method of which it is part) give us a richer and more rewarding sense of the nature of existence than a view informed by myth and tradition alone.
Or even imagination. So this the the added dimension of the 21st Century Bestiary.
There are many pleasures to take from this book. As well as being erudite and beautifully and thoughtfully written, it is a gorgeous piece of book production as well. There is a conscious attempt to reproduce the delights of a medieval bestiary, with beautiful little engravings, decorated capital letters, ornaments in the margins, and, most intriguing of all, rubrics – red-letter passages in the text with corresponding explanatory notes in the margins. The index is a vital tool, especially if you want to chase themes through the book from essay to essay. I have yet to discover whether it will let me down. The bespoke illustrations are by Golbanou Moghaddas, and all the other illustrations, contemporary or historical are referenced at the back. I have deliberately posted a large image of the cover, which gives some idea of the pleasures within (including the charming little vignette in the lower right hand corner of a weirdly human-looking Axolotl).
As for the content, my favourite essays include an almost unbearably moving piece on the Right Whale, all four species of Rights, concentrating on, what else, human beings and their hunting of them to near extinction. Why Right Whale? Because they are the easiest to handle when caught and yield the most products, of course. However, there is a message of hope – populations of all four species almost crashed, but with limits (let’s not say a ban, because it isn’t really) on whaling, some populations are recovering strongly. But the message is there not to tell us that we can resume our plunder, but because hope should underpin an understanding of why we conserve species. Otherwise fatalism sets in. Another favourite is a dual essay on the Honey Badger and the Honey Guide – a fierce and fearless creature and shy and retiring bird, whose paths cross but who leave one another alone as they look for wild honey. Enchanting – and Henderson cheers me up immensely by referencing the classic YouTube video on the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger – what a star.
Henderson crosses all sorts of disciplinary boundaries in this book – philosophy, evolutionary biology, taxonomy, anatomy – all at a level suitable for the general reader, and with ample notes and references to pursue for more detail. He is ferociously well-read – in one paragraph that I actually had to read twice because it made my head spin, he jumps from Theodosius Dobzhansky (me neither) to Robert Pogue Harrison, to Henry David Thoreau (I’ve definitely heard of him) to Richard Feynman (yes! I HAVE heard of him!) in successive sentences. As well as this, he draws on his own wide and deep reflection to create a book of beauty, wisdom and wonder. As Henderson says on his absolutely splendid blog, Knowing increases amazement. I absolutely loved it.
Caspar Henderson: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. London: Granta Books, 2012. 427pp
ISBN 13: 9781847081728