This first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 306, October 2013
Legendary Beasts of Britain
Shire Publications, Oxford, 2013
pb, 48pp, illus. (colour), index, refs.
What stands out immediately from Legendary Beasts of Britain is the astonishing beauty of its illustrations – excellent colour reproductions of manuscript medieval bestiary illustrations (the yales, dragons, basilisks and "worms" – with and without legs – from the British Library's Harley manuscripts in particular), and photos of mythical beasts on coats of arms and on church misericords. Legendary Beasts is worth the very modest cover price – less than many of today's glossy magazines – for its images alone.
Nor are the illustrations and subject matter exclusively of Medieval vintage or mythical in nature. There's a spread of contemporary photos of Alien Big Cats, including a stuffed puma shot in 1980s Invernesshire, and a Morris dancing Beast of Bodmin putting in an appearance at Bodmin Riding Day just two years ago. The heraldic griffins, mermaids and dragons are neatly brought up to date with examples of logos – the Starbuck's mermaid and Midland Bank and Vauxhall cars griffin.
Cryptozoological pedants will be soothed by Legendary Beasts' quick to clearing up dragon-wyvern confusion, dragon-griffin and St Michael-St George confusion, with a sympathetic explanation of why heraldic dragons are so hard to confuse with griffins in the first place.
And the text's strong as well, with a surprising amount covered in a mere 45 pages of narrative. Oxford medievalist and linguist Julia Creswell points out some of the peculiarly British traits of our dragons – they're less interested in guarding gold compared to their Continental cousins. UK dragons are also keener on stealing milk than devouring damsels, as well as statistically less likely to meet their end through the deeds of noble knights, and more likely to be dispatched by guile at the hands of cunning commoners.
There's also a mention of what was probably Britain's last dragon hunt, in the North Wales county of Denbighshire as late as 1812. What put the locals into such a sudden panic appears to have been the misidentification of an impossibly exotic-looking new arrival into the valleys - the pheasant!
Another national characteristic is the "British love for creating comic rather than frightening monsters." It seems we British deal with our really terrifying monsters by turning them into children's cartoon characters or soft toy versions of themselves. "Nessie," it turns out, is an old Scottish pet name for Agnes.
It's a fine introduction to the beasts of British folklore – as well as some very modern British cryptozoological phenomena – making it the perfect small gift both for seasoned forteans and not-yet-enthusiasts alike.
VERDICT: 9 OUT OF 10
A SMALL THING OF GREAT BEAUTY
© Matt Salusbury