I found The Book of Beasts by E. Nesbit at the hospital when I took Isaiah in for an audiology appointment last week. It is a charmingly told and illustrated little story reminiscent of George MacDonald, Tolkien, and Frank Stockton’s The Griffin and the Minor Canon.
There is a fair bit of humor for the adults, and the premise of the story — a magical book from whose illustrations real animals spring out — is oh-so-effective at capturing the imaginations of children. The little boy-king, the huge library he inherits, the ornate tomes, and the pompous condescension of the courtiers-cum-babysitters are all captured quite nicely by the illustrator. But of course, my kids’ imaginations are most fired by the book and the creatures in it. It is a medieval bestiary, and apart from a butterfly and a blue bird of paradise, there emerge from its pages a dragon, a manticore, and a hippogriff (wrongly so-called; it is actually a Pegasus, which the young king rides like Bellerophon to overcome the dragon he has accidentally let out of the book to plague his people).
I showed my kids the illustrations in Manuel Phile’s De Natura Animalium, which was produced by the father-daughter team. Cretan calligrapher Ange Vergece did the writing, and his daughter, whose name is lost to history, did the illustrations.
Sadly, no entry for a manticore, thought it does have some similar creatures: There IS a manticore, bright red and evil-looking:
There are also some other, similar things:
And a very nice dragon, which the caption bills as an “Arabian snake”, perhaps recalling Herodotus’ report of flying snakes in Egypt. Note the paisleys on its wings, apparently borrowed from a peacock’s feathers!
(I love the Greek handwriting, and actually bought a font based on it. I would like to get a facsimile edition of one of these medieval bestiaries. There’s something about grand old books filled with mythical monsters that just thrills me. When I’m a grandfather, I want my grandchildren to have their imaginations set afire by visits to my weird old house filled with odd artifacts and good books.)
As a Christian parent, I’m not quite sure what to make of the manticore that plays a supporting role in Nesbit’s story. On the one hand, it appears in real medieval literature as a symbol of the devil. Its human face is interpreted as a deceitful appearance, similar to Dante’s Geryon, the embodinment of Fraud. (But Geryon does not have a lion’s body.)
On the other hand, Nesbit’s manticore is “the sworn foe of dragons”, and though he’s rather cowardly and doesn’t win, this natural opposition to the dragon makes him rather a Christ figure. Naomi made connections with the Lion of Judah and with Aslan. I’m not sure how far we can push it, but these conversations are great fun to have with a seven-year-old daughter.
Most medieval writers appeal to Pliny the Elder’s description of the beast in his Natural History:
“Aethiopia produces . . . many monstrosities : . . . Ctesias writes that in the same country is born the creature that he calls the Mantichora, which has a triple row of teeth meeting like the teeth of a comb, the face and ears of a human being, grey eyes, a blood-red colour, a lion’s body, inflicting stings with its tail in the manner of a scorpion, with a voice like the sound of a pan-pipe blended with a trumpet, of great speed, with a special appetite for human flesh.”
I’m rambling a bit. I highly recommend the picture book to you if you have kids. I’m now on the lookout for The Book of Dragons, the collection from which The Book of Beasts was excerpted and condensed for this illustrated picture book. Nesbit is a very enjoyable writer. Like Milne and Kipling, she is a master of the “dual audience”, delighting parent and child at the same time.