Legendary Beasts of Britain
Shire Publications 2013
There is a loosely connected worldwide band of dedicated enthusiasts, Fortean investigators and conspiracy theorists who call themselves cryptozoologists, hunters on the track of unknown animals. One of the best-known pioneers of this art was Bernard Heuvelmans whose book, Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (1955), was indeed translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals. What binds these disparate devotees is the belief that ancient accounts and travellers’ tales may well have described existing or recently extinct animals that science either was ignorant of or obstinately ignores. In this group can be numbered seekers after dragons, the Loch Ness monster, alien big cats and Bigfoot or the Yeti. But modern cryptozoologists aren’t the first to give credence to bêtes ignorées — such beliefs have been going on for centuries, even millennia.
Julia Cresswell’s short introduction to British legendary beasts is one of Shire’s superb library of “affordable non-fiction paperbacks” about ordinary people’s interests and passions, particularly in the UK. In some four dozen pages it covers the family of dragons, alien cats and dogs, water-beasts and other composite or hybrid creatures. By detailing their origins in folklore, literature, heraldry and religion she largely bypasses questions about their factual reality because, in truth, there is no evidence to support the existence of such unknown creatures in the British Isles — only anecdote and the occasional fraud. Of course we’re not talking about invasive or introduced species such as parakeets, mink or other escaped exotics.
The first chapter deals with dragons in all their manifestations (or infestations, if you prefer), from serpents with or without wings through bipedal wyverns to the fully-fledged heraldic monsters indistinguishable from modern examples in popular culture. Localised dragon legends, especially coupled with human adversaries, abound in Britain and the creature has been adopted as a national emblem in Wales. A discussion of big cats ranges from Dick Whittington’s companion through the possibility that historic lynxes may be behind medieval tales of native lions and on to the Surrey Puma and the Beast of Bodmin. While feral dogs might account for some of the supposed victims of these giant felines, supernatural dogs are not unknown in the folklore either.
A third chapter deals with aquatic humans, namely mermaids and the Scottish selkies and Finn-folk. Merfolk were humans with fishy tails; selkies were seals who could doff their skins to appear human. Finn-folk however were the reverse of the last: magicians who could shapeshift using special seal skins. Then there are the humanoid monsters, most famous of all being Grendel who appears in Beowulf; his descendants appear in folklore and the Harry Potter stories as Grindylows, and even in SF. Less than human are the various water-serpents, whether inhabiting saltwater or freshwater (for example, Nessie in modern popular folklore). Wales has its freshwater monster the afanc (with which King Arthur fought) but more widely spread are water-horses, such as the kelpie in Scotland (Andie Scott’s giant Kelpies have recently raised their profile), also known to Beowulf as the nicor and the Nuckleavee in the Shetlands.
Cresswell’s fifth chapter deals with purely heraldic creatures, effectively hybrids that have rarely made it into local lore. Griffins are a mix of lion and eagle, while unicorns combined features of a horse, lion and goat with the addition of the tusk of a narwhal. Less well-known is the Yale, appearing with aspects of a deer or goat, a lion and boar, plus a set of vicious swivelling horns. After brief discussions of the cockatrice, salamander, Pegasus, phoenix and centaur, the author completes her survey of legendary insular beasts with a select bibliography.
As befits her introduction drawing attention to the importance of medieval bestiaries and carved images, the booklet is profusely illustrated, often with several pictures to a page. While there is little or no discussion of why we have been and continue to be fascinated by such fantastic beasts, there is enough here to stimulate further investigation to discover answers to these and other questions.