‘The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary’ by Caspar Henderson
Published by Granta
Reviewed by Steve Earles
‘In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.’
George Seferis, Nobel Prizes Speech, 1963
‘The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons.’
From a Chinese Poem
‘The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.’
Bestiary, n. ‘A book of the medieval ages treating fancifully of beasts.’
The Cambridge English Dictionary
Caspar’s modern bestiary is anything but fanciful. Rather it proves the old adage that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, yet no less amazing.
Even the title evokes images of wonderment, but the book itself…even more so. It truly is a thing of beauty and joy forever.
We get to caught up in the everyday humdrum that we forget, that the Louie Armstrong song was right, this is indeed a wonderful world. Caspar’s command of the English language and story telling makes this an engaging and absorbing read.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Golbanov Moghaddas, which is as ii should be, even though the medieval bestiaries were not accurate they were extraordinary, like the Book of Kells as imagined by Bosch or Brugel..
As in the quote from the Cambridge English Dictionary that I used to open this review, in medieval times a bestiary was a book of often made up or grossly distorted creatures. (Such as Barnacle Geese growing on trees, or as they state on Salamanders, long thought impervious to fire: ‘The salamander lives in the midst of flames with pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out flames.” Pity all the poor salamanders that were incinerated by medieval morons testing this myth). Caspar’s 21st century reboot is none the less incredible, in fact more so, because the creatures in his bestiary are real.
The depth of his research is staggering, there is a colossal amount of information, yet the book is always a joy to read. It serves as a timely reminder just why this planet we live on (and mindlessly poison and pollute) is so precious.
The book is an abecredarium, with 27 chapters (the letter x, unusually, gets an extra chapter), and runs from axoltl to zebra fish. Caspar writes of the axoltl: “Axolotls have this advantage over many other species in a human-dominated world: many people find them cute.” The axolotls have the ability to regenerate an arm or leg after amputation. If only we could figure out it’s secret.
But an increasing number of animals catalogued with the book are endangered. Caspar (your friendly host) reminds the readers that in 2008 geologists agreed to call the current age the Anthropocene, an acknowledgement that mankind is currently the biggest influence on our planet.
Each chapter starts with an illuminated letter, incorporating something from within the chapter. I can see people getting tattoos of the letters they are that extraordinary and original.
An e-book version of this book would never look as well. There is a definite harkening back to the beautifully illustrated bestiaries of medieval times.
The degree of love, research and attention that went into producing this book is staggering.
The entry for ‘U’ is particularly inspiring: ‘In Search of a Unicorn: Goblin Shark.’ A shark with a horn.
Caspar writes, ‘like many a mythical beast, the Goblin shark is very rarely seen alive or dead. Fewer than fifty individuals have been formally identified since it was first scientifically described in 1897. And yet it manages to be ubiquitous. Goblin sharks have been caught by accident off the coasts of Japan, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and elsewhere. Moreover, its horn is as extraordinary as that of the narwhal though very different in appearance and function: it is an electrosensitive beak that allows the animal to detect small variations in electrical charge in the water caused by its prey (typically squid, crab and various deep-sea fish). Once the prey is detected, the shark’s jaws shoot forwards in the manner of extendable tongs and trap it with a combination of clamp and phanxngeal suction. Like the Wuggly Ump, its other habits are obscure. We can say little more except that while this shark and its horn/snout may be strange and a little disturbing to our eyes, it is a bravura work of evolution. And here lies the secret of this creature’s inner beauty. The Goblin Shark, superbly suited to its forever back world, is testament to the adaptability of the Elasmobranchii- a hugely diverse group of animals that includes sharks, rays and skates- and the endurance of the forms natural selection sometimes achieves.’
I particularly like the entry for ‘M’: ‘Mystaceus: A Jumping Spider’. (The letter ‘M’ is lovingly rendered in the shape of a spider!). He writes: ‘Jumping spiders enhance their vision by allowing their retinas to vibrate slightly from side to side thereby talking in more information that the animal would otherwise be able to do without moving its body, because its eyes are fixed in its head. This trick was studied during research to enhance vision systems for robotic rovers on Mars.’ A case of science imitating nature!
Caspar also informs us that one of the best selling artists of the 20th century was the Right Whale. ‘Released in 1970, Songs of the Humpback Whale sold more than thirty million copies, becoming the biggest selling nature recording of the twentieth century.’
This piece on the Thorny Devil (Latin name Moloch horridus), a creature that looks like a miniature Ray Harryhausen monster is my favourite in the entire book, because not only is the creature amazing but an ingeniously placed joke provides food for us all to think on. Jaspar’s own admiration for this extraordinary creature is evident. ‘This spiky lizard is one of the most remarkable Australian natives, although not in the way that it’s imported Latin name, Moloch horridus, suggest. (Moloch was a Canaanite god who in John Milton’s account was smeared with the blood of human sacrifice.) A typical full-grown Devil will fit on the palm of your hand and its densely packed spikes are no bigger than the thorns of a rose, albeit a particularly ferocious one. Picayune pricklius would be more like it. Not so much John Milton meets Ed Wood as Mark Twain meets Monty Python.’
‘No, the Thorny Devil will not hurt a fly. Living as it does in the rough grass, bush and sandy desert that swathes much of Australia, it makes do with what there is, which happens to be ants. And this lizard is most partial to ants. It munches them as steadily as a moviegoer munches popcorn. (It would be nice to wander off here and celebrate the wonders of ants, a family of insects that have adapted to the most diverse and harsh environments on Earth. I’ll resist the temptation but not before mentioning one of my favourite ant facts: some species are so small, and others so big, that the small ones could walk around inside the heads of the big ones).’
‘The climate in the parts of Australia where the Thorny Devil lives, characterised by great heat and drought and occasional heavy rain, is among the most extreme on Earth. If humanity continues to burn fossil fuels as we do at present, the atmosphere is likely to heat by four degrees centigrade or more by 2070. As a result the climate in some regions of the world may be as hot and arid as those in Australia today. Others are likely to become wetter than they are now, as well as hotter. By the twenty-second and twenty-third century human life as we know it could become impossible in many parts of the tropics that are at present densely populated. Australia itself will face near stupendous challenges. Perhaps the Thorny Devil- unbelievably tough and adaptable, superbly engineered by nature to manage its most precious resource, water, effectively –can teach us a lesson or two.’
‘There’s an old joke in which two Australians are marooned at sea in a small boat under a hot sun with nothing to drink. One of them finds a magic lamp in a locker and rubs it. A genie appears and says he will grant one wish. Without stopping to think the first Australian says, ‘turn the sea into beer’. Het presto, the seawater turns into sparkling, cold beer. The genie vanishes. The two Australians look around dumbfounded. Eventually the second one speaks. “Well done, mate,” he says: “now we’ll have to piss on the boat.”’
‘Humanity’s ability to learn to se beyond a quick fix- to manage resources and environment so that we don’t sink under the weight of the mess we create, we need to not piss in the boat.’
And that pretty much sums it up!
Anyone who has any sense of awe and love for life will love this book, and from both a literary and presentation point of view, it’s a book you’ll want to keep for the rest of your life.