In the 1967 introduction to The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Louis Borges and Margarita Guerrero make a suggestion on how to approach the text:
Like all miscellanies…The Book of Imaginary Beings has not been written for consecutive reading. Our wish would be that the curious dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope. (xv)
I didn’t follow this ideal reading pattern, instead diving in from cover to cover through 116 different beasts that were either once believed to exist or wholly imagined. While a straight reading defeats the purpose of a miscellany, in a sense, it does give you a feel for the motivations behind arranging such a collection. Borges and Guerrero were assembling a wonder book in a world rapidly lacking in wonders of the imaginative sense. In this, The Book of Imaginary Beings shares the fundamental driving force behind wonder books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, while these earlier European authors were intent on eliciting wonder at God’s creation, this collection looks to elicit wonder at the creations of the human imagination throughout the ages.
All the entries, then, are based on pre-existing sources; there’s nothing here from Borges’ own stories or invented between the two compilers. It reads very much like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (and quotes from it from time to time) or your typical medieval bestiary, but without the tiresome religious allegory appended to each entry and, of course, with all the real animals removed. The only exceptions are entries for animals such as pelicans, panthers and salamanders, included for the fanciful descriptions found in earlier sources that don’t at all resemble the creatures they purportedly described.
At least one historian has pointed out that in the Middle Ages there was no shortage of knowledge (the age was overflowing with it); the problem was determining the truth of such knowledge—sifting through manuscripts supposedly containing facts from the far-flung regions of the world was very much like sifting through the internet for accurate historical information today. When listing creatures no one around them had seen, the authors had to rely on earlier writings and claimed accuracy through cross-references to reputable sources, usually from the natural philosophers of the Greco-Roman era. Inevitably, the process of re-inscription led to mistranslations and additions until creatures with quite mundane descriptions in one book mutated into fanciful monstrosities. The Book of Imaginary Beings picks up on this stylistic device common in bestiaries and early encyclopaedias; it is heavily intertextual, quoting from a dizzying array of sources, and not always accurately. The intertextuality helps bolster the effect of giving a weightiness to entries in what otherwise would seem a pointless endeavour; the compilers are only putting us in the minds of those who did believe in these strange things, and gives an account as to why.
Inevitably, a book like this will have absences, especially when drawing on the literature of the world rather than just a part of it; some bestiary favourites aren’t included, some creatures encompass more than one entry. There is, however, a logic to the selection process:
We do not know what a dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of a dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon emerges in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature… (xii)
The Book of Imaginary Beings focuses on such necessary monsters within its pages, as determined by the whim of the authors. This unifying principle makes the compendium a satisfying whole.
That effect, too, isn’t surprising. The publication history behind the book speaks to a long process of refinement: first appearing in 1954 as A Manual of Fantastic Zoology in a much shorter version, each later edition and translation added further creatures and shuffled the order of contents. This, too, means the compilation went through the organic development experienced by the materials it takes inspiration from.
The ancillary material in my edition claims this is the first book of its kind; since the Monster Manual wouldn’t appear for another few decades, I don’t doubt it. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980) takes on a project in similar vein, and I consider it a companion volume.
My 2005 edition is translated by Andrew Hurley and includes illustrations unique to this version by Peter Sís. His whimsical drawings composed entirely by stippling have a playful unreality to them that perfectly matches the tone of the text.