The Monstrous, The Wondrous and the Human
Reaktion Books 2022
Pb, 278pp, £20, ISBN 9781789145458
This beautifully illustrated book is an attractive trip into the symbolism, folklore and politics of fantastic creatures.
The first chapter, on the unicorn, orients the beast within Christian belief and art, with little mention of any zoological inspiration. This focus on our cultural depiction of animals carries throughout the book. We construct our ideas of what it means to be human, Sax says, through our encounters with animals.
This book ventures close to explaining why our monsters (even today’s cryptids) are often human-animal hybrids (apeman, dogman, lizard man, mermaids). Those that aren’t outwardly human-like, such as the dragon, become many things across time, thus making zoological assessments pointless. Similar consideration is provided for mermaids, unicorns and shapeshifters.
For some cultures, the difference between real animals and imaginary ones is unimportant; it is considered so only within the materialism of science. The pelts-and-paws cryptid enthusiasts might be disappointed to find only a philosophical treatment of creatures like Bigfoot and sea serpents, or folklore favourites such as griffins, mermaids and werewolves. You won’t find mention of a genuine encounter with a windigo, or cattle ranches plagued by a skinwalker in this examination of fantastic creatures. But there is much to consider to enlighten us about why we can’t help but bestow human-like traits on our monsters. The great monsters of myth and legend are inspired by nature but ultimately shaped by our human needs.
Some arguable and unsourced statements made me wonder how solid the research was. Regardless, examination of imaginary animals to help demarcate and define our humanity is a worthy process to undertake.
Sharon A Hill