The Book of Imaginary Beings

TJ has an awful lot of enviable books. Fortunately, he’s also a generous guy. On our first post-Silliman reunion in Manila, he brought a traveler’s backpack full of books to lend. Apart from Sandman: Endless Nights, I also eyed a hardcover originally intended for Vida, who was deterred by a dog-bit-neighbor fiasco. It was titled The Book of Imaginary Beings, and featured the Buraq on its cover. Fascination and curiosity prompted me to snatch up the volume in Vida’s place. Who can blame me?

The beasts chronicled in Borges’ almanac range from the recognizable to the inexplicable, the delightful to the frightening. A sizable number are amalgams, with a few exaggerated combinations refusing to cohere into a single image. Pliny portrays the Leucrocotta as “a wild beast of extraordinary swiftness, the size of the wild ass, with the legs of a stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of a badger, a cloven hoof, the mouth slit up as far as the ears, and one continuous bone instead of teeth.” Others are easier to imagine, like the familiar Centaur and Kraken. Still there are those that need no further envisioning: “The Hide-behind is always hiding behind something. Whichever way a man turns, it’s always behind him, which is why nobody has ever satisfactorily described one…”

In this smorgasbord, overlaps become downright inevitable. Borges records three names for the island-animal immortalized in Sinbad’s tales: Fastitocalon, Zaratan, Jasconius. Elsewhere, he reports of singular beasts: “The Panther has, on the shoulder, a spot which bears the form of the moon; and that, like it, it regularly increases to full, and then diminishes to a crescent” (Pliny). In all his descriptions, there is no attempt at elaboration; many do not even exceed a page. Likewise, Borges makes little effort to justify myths. Creatures simply are, and they are remembered for just that.

Although “necessarily incomplete,” this book renders our attempts at taxonomy laughable, or at least trifling, when compared with the bulk of creatures yet undiscovered, unimagined, lost to catastrophe or history. Perhaps this dearth explains our fascination with animals, real or unreal. There is something about conjuring creatures that makes the heart leap. Of the Ouroburos, Borges writes, “When the Twilight of the Gods shall come, the serpent shall devour the earth and the wolf shall devour the sun.” The prospect is terrifying, but there is beauty in this.

We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination… It is, one might say, a necessary monster…

Sometimes I have the feeling that the animal is trying to tame me. What other purpose could it have in withdrawing its tail when I snatch at it, and then again, waiting calmly until I am tempted again, and then leaping away once more?

…and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds that nested in its branches and which put out feathers instead of leaves when springtime came.

The idea of a house built expressly so that people will become lost in it may be stranger than the idea of a man with the head of a bull, and yet the two ideas may reinforce one another. Indeed, the image of the Labyrinth and the image of the Minotaur seem to “go together”: it is fitting that at the center of a monstrous house there should live a monstrous inhabitant.

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