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. (more…)
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“The Middle Ages” often evokes images of priests and crosses. The dominance of Catholic, and to some degree Orthodox, Christianity tends to form the popular conception of what it was to, erm, get medieval, and also leads to questionable beliefs about the period. Namely, we have the idea that the dominance of Christianity made the Middle Ages a time of ignorance, which is one of those arguments that doesn’t bear much scrutiny because a) the institutions of the Church actually helped preserve Classical learning by keeping writing alive and well, and b) much of the Middle Ages was defined by a complex relationship between paganism and Christianity. In rural areas in the “central” part of what would become Christendom (and, later, the cultural conglomerate known as Europe), pagan practices survived long after conversion during the early Middle Ages. However, I’m focusing on the more obvious case of just how long it took for Christianity to really grab hold in northern and Eastern Europe.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the largest state in Europe during its prime, remained officially pagan until 1386 when it joined crowns with the Kingdom of Poland. That alone is fairly telling.
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