Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library,
University of Rochester, presents
Library Resources on Medieval Topics
Kara L. McShane
University of Rochester
Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero write in the preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings that “we are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination…. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster” (16-17). The dragon and many of its fabulous counterparts – creatures like the unicorn, the griffin, the basilisk, and others – have been depicted and re-depicted, serving as religious symbols and visually interesting marginal decorations. They have been teachers, villains, and film stars. Fantastic beasts have captivated the imagination of people from the classical period to the present. They do indeed seem to be necessary monsters, reimagined across times and cultures to fulfill imaginative needs.
While fabulous beasts pervade our culture as they did the medieval world, they are exceptionally difficult to pin down. Any attempt to provide resources on fantastic beasts faces the problem of definition. What is a fabulous beast, and what distinguishes it from the quasi-human creature, the monster, or even from an “ordinary” beast? This question requires more consideration than I can give it here. For the purposes of this bibliography, I will focus on creatures that originate in myth and are not humanoid. Such creatures include, among others, the griffin, the dragon, the unicorn, and the phoenix. In many ways, this is a completely constructed distinction; however, I make this distinction here for several reasons. One reason is the amount of attention that has been paid in medieval studies of late to partially human, monstrous others featured in texts like Mandeville’s Travels and the Wonders of the East collections. Another reason is the scope of this project; a bibliography containing all of these creatures would rapidly become too extensive to be useful. Other surveys might focus on anthropomorphized animals, werewolves and vampires (both very popular with teenage readers at present), giants, and humanoid or hybrid monsters.
Though mythical creatures are very much associated with the Middle Ages, they appear far less often in medieval texts than one might expect. I have tried to provide medieval materials as much as possible; however, it is worth noting that teaching medieval beasts in isolation may prove difficult because their appearances are somewhat scattered. In addition, many beasts predate the medieval period; nearly all have been adapted to suit modern purposes.
However, this should not serve as a deterrent for teachers; in fact, their long, broad history is a compelling reason to teach material about fabulous beasts. Using fabulous beasts as a theme allows teachers to create cross-cultural, interdisciplinary classroom experiences. By using art, film, and literature, students learn to think critically about texts across media. In addition, many fantastic beasts appear in the myths of very different cultures, and integrating these tales allows teachers to explore world cultures. As Borges suggests, we may not know what fabulous beasts mean, but they captivate today’s students just as they captivated the medieval imagination.
Loosely defined, bestiaries are encyclopedic collections of animal lore. Bestiaries first appeared very early in the Middle Ages and they remained popular well into the twelfth century. The number of manuscripts extant (across a wide range of languages) suggests that bestiaries were very popular, and the illustrations often contained in these manuscripts convey their value to medieval audiences. In medieval bestiaries, animals real and mythical appear side-by-side, and creatures of both types generally serve as allegories of Christian values. Though the values attached to fabulous creatures have changed, the bestiary form has remained popular, and I include here several modern bestiaries designed for younger readers.
Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Bodley 764 With All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Translated and Introduced by Richard Barber. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1993.
Barber’s English version of the medieval bestiary features large print, very accessible language, and good quality images. According to the introduction, Barber responds to the fact that T. H. White “lightened the tone” of the bestiary too much (14). (See the entry on White’s bestiary below.) Barber cuts some of the traditional text, particularly the scriptural examples that accompany each animal description. These changes might make Barber’s text interesting if one wished to focus specifically on the beasts themselves, but they do remove some of the context for how bestiaries were understood in a medieval setting. Like T. H. White’s translation, Barber’s version would be accessible for middle school students.
Book of Beasts: A Facsimile of MS Bodley 764. Introduction by Christopher de Hamel. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008.
This facsimile is an excellent reproduction of MS Bodley 764, a Latin bestiary from the mid-thirteenth century based extensively on Physiologus, a second-century Greek bestiary. The introduction provides general context for bestiaries and information about this particular manuscript, and it would likely be best for high school students. All the miniatures are reproduced in color, which would be wonderful for sharing with students, though the Latin text may be inaccessible to those without some paleographic experience. (There are quite a few abbreviations in the text, complicating understanding of the Latin.) The book is readily available online, though it tends to be quite expensive; however, it is a lovely artifact if one has access to it.
Curley, Michael J., trans. Physiologus Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.
Physiologus is a second-century Greek bestiary translated into Latin around 700 AD, and it is the base text for many medieval bestiaries. Curley’s translation includes a remarkably readable introduction providing lots of background on the language and the possible origins of the text. To make the many scriptural references in the text obvious to readers, Curley places these references in brackets. Like most bestiaries, the text includes both fantastic beasts and “typical” beasts described unusually, such as the hyena which can change its sex; in addition, this text includes stones, trees, and some other non-animals. The notes at the end provide further information about each of the creatures found in the text and include information on some other texts in which the beast can be found. Curley’s translation is best suited for high school students.
Morrison, Elizabeth. Beasts: Factual and Fantastic. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty, 2007.
Morrison’s book consists primarily of images, taken from manuscripts such as the Marquette Bible, a copy of The Romance of the Rose, and other manuscripts in the holdings of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. The book is divided into three major sections: Animals in Daily Life, Symbolic Creatures, and Fantastic Beasts. Morrison provides a brief introduction in which she explains that animals held a central place in the Middle Ages because they were essential to everyday life and because their strongly symbolic elements, which were often associated with religious imagery, captured the medieval imagination. She comments on most of the images, and each section has a brief blurb about animals in the context under which she has grouped these images (for example, a section called “Studying Animals” talks about Physiologus.) The images are of high quality, with captions providing provenance and manuscript, and the book itself is fairly inexpensive; it would be an excellent visual supplement to texts being read in a classroom setting.
White, T. H., trans. The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. New York: Putnam, 1960.
White’s translation of a twelfth-century bestiary adds epigraphs from anachronistic sources (e.g., he adds one from Paradise Lost at the start of the Beast section). He also reformats the medieval materials, adding subject headings. White’s text has copious footnotes referencing classical, medieval, and modern works. This book includes many facsimile images from the manuscript being translated as well as small sketches presumably based on said images. The text is most appropriate for middle-school students; however, teachers should be prepared for the fact that White’s language (particularly British slang) may read as slightly dated to today’s students.
Ashman, Malcolm, and Joyce Hargreaves. Fabulous Beasts. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1997.
Ashman and Hargreaves discuss various primary sources that feature fantastic beasts; Pliny, Herodotus, and Wang Fu are mentioned, as are medieval bestiaries, the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation myth), Marco Polo, and others. The book is divided into four sections addressing birds, dragons, human-like beasts, and hybrid beasts respectively. Ashman and Hargreaves provide short retellings of tales about these beasts and a cultural context for each creature. The book includes some “standard” fabulous creatures such as the basilisk, phoenix, centaur, and siren; however, it also includes some fantastic beasts which are less commonly discussed, such as the rainbird from China or the Blodeuedd from the Mabinogion, and specific famous fabulous beasts such as Tiamat of the Enuma Elish, Quetzalcoatl, Grendel, and Fafnir of the Volsunga Saga. The book would be appropriate for high school students, particularly given its theoretical introduction that tries to explain the function of fabulous beasts across cultures.
Barber, Richard W., and Anne Riches. A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. New York: Walker and Company, 1971. Rpt. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2000.
The book provides short dictionary-style entries on a large number of fabulous beasts (about 600), including Grendel, giants, sirens, and others. Many of the more famous beasts (such as unicorns, griffins, dragons, centaurs) have considerably larger entries. The book is accessible for late elementary and middle school students. Perhaps more useful to teachers is the bibliography included in the back of the book; this bibliography is divided into sections based on time period (Pre-Classical and Classical, Medieval Western, Early Modern, Modern) to provide further references for those who are interested. Each beast entry ends with a number corresponding to this bibliography, steering the reader to additional sources for more information on specific beasts.
Borges, Jorge Luis, with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton and Co., 1969.
This volume contains 120 fabulous beasts from across cultures. A small narrated story on each creature fills the sections; these stories are direct and approachable for students. Most of the sections recount the creature’s origin text where known. (In many cases, these are secondary accounts of the creature.) Several beasts are taken from modern literature, such as the works of C. S. Lewis and Franz Kafka. The book includes an index to simplify navigating the many beasts and tales. It would be most appropriate for high school students.
McHargue, Georgess. The Beasts of Never: A History Natural and Unnatural of Monsters Mythical and Magical. New York: Delacorte, 1988.
McHargue divides her book into nine parts, each focusing on a different fabulous beast. She focuses primarily on Western beasts, though chapter two addresses the “eastern dragon.” She includes the major, expected fantastic beasts, including the dragon, phoenix, basilisk, unicorn, “winged wonders,” and sea monsters. There is also a chapter on “minor monsters” which considers creatures like the bunyip, an Australian water creature. Her final chapter focuses on the Loch Ness Monster, one creature whose existence she claims is still under question. The book includes a list of further references and some illustrations. McHargue leaves room for the possibility that fantastic beasts do still exist, yet she approaches these creatures in a scholarly fashion. The book would be suited for older elementary school readers.
Nigg, Joe. The Book of Dragons and Other Mythical Beasts. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2002.
This short work is designed as a modernized bestiary and is appropriate for middle school readers. It considers creatures from various world cultures, though of course it is not a comprehensive text. Overall, the book is a good brief introduction to a wide variety of cross-cultural beasts. In addition, there is a brief reading list in the back of the book, which provides a starting point for students interested in further exploration.
Nigg, Joe, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
This book of collected tales is considerably larger than Nigg’s Wonder Beasts (see the next entry). It is organized chronologically into four major sections that Nigg calls the “classical, medieval, Renaissance and ‘modern’ periods of Western history” (xvii). The cultural origin of each tale is clearly marked, and the emphasis here is on tales of Western origin. The text is designed as a primary source book. For ease of use, tales are cross-referenced with other tales that speak about the same fabulous beast. The book opens with an brief history of fabulous beasts which introduces the general topic; the rest of the book consists entirely of collected tales. Nigg contextualizes the source and then provides excerpts which describe the beast or beasts in question. The book covers a huge chronological range of sources, from the Enuma Elish to Lewis Carroll’s work. All pieces of art shown are carefully documented, as are the tales anthologized. Nigg also includes a glossary. The book would be easily accessible to middle school students.
Nigg, Joe. Wonder Beasts: Tales and Lore of the Phoenix, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Dragon. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1995.
Nigg organizes this book by creature. He also marks the origin of each tale (classical author, culture of fairy tale, et cetera). The book begins with classical stories and traces the development of the beast in Western texts, with a section on each beast around the world and a section on the beast today. Each beast’s section consists of a short essay about the creature and several tales it features in; this approach provides a fuller understanding of the creature through multiple perspectives. The book is designed for students; it includes a timeline and a bibliography to help students place the tales in context. The general introduction provides a brief summary of places one might find these four beasts; these sources are largely medieval, including bestiaries, heraldry, and travel narratives. In addition, the introduction traces a history of the “fabulous beast” as a phenomenon. Nigg provides a brief biography of each of the authors from whom he draws his tales and cites the larger work from which the tale is excerpted. He also provides definitions of some unusual words. All in all, this book is a great starter for middle school students – extensive enough to spark discussion and interest, not too challenging as far as reading level, and containing resources to support further research.
Payne, Ann. Medieval Beasts. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990.
Payne’s text focuses specifically on twelfth and thirteenth century English bestiaries and the creatures discussed in them. Her introduction outlines the origins of the bestiary, beginning with Physiologus. She then provides an entry for each animal that appears in these manuscripts. Each entry gives the creature’s principal traits according to the bestiaries as well as some minor traits that came to be associated with the animal. The book also includes images taken from medieval manuscripts. Older high school students could engage with this text, though they may need some general background on the Middle Ages before doing so.
Weber, Belinda. Fabulous and Monstrous Beasts. New York: Kingfisher, 2008.
Weber’s book is best as a general introduction for younger readers (elementary school). The book is fairly general and features very nice illustrations. Weber includes dragons, vampires, harpies, and lake monsters, among other creatures. The book also includes a short section on “folklore of today” which briefly retells myths surrounding real animals in contemporary cultures. In order to help students, the book includes a short glossary and an even shorter list of further reading.
Materials Focusing on a Specific Beast
In addition to bestiaries that collect information about various fabulous beasts, some texts focus on one particular creature. Many of these collect myths about the creature in question from multiple cultures, though almost all of them are primarily Western in their focus. These resources could be particularly useful in a classroom setting because students might use the short stories they contain for independent reading.
Allen, Judy, and Jeanne Griffiths. Book of the Dragon. London: Orbis, 1979.
Much of Allen and Griffiths’ book would be interesting to teachers wishing to focus on medieval dragons. Chapters of note include “Western Dragons,” “Dragons in Alchemy and Psychology,” “Dragons on Maps,” “Dragons in Epic and Folklore,” and “Dragons in Art and Heraldry.” They also include sections on Classical and Eastern dragons and on plumed serpents and lake monsters (which focuses more on the Americas). The book provides good summaries of many large works, making the texts more accessible for a young adult readership. The book also features art, mostly prints of engravings and famous paintings that nicely supplement the text. It is particularly interesting that the book offers potential rational explanations for dragons. As a result, the book points out that while dragons may not literally exist, they have literary and artistic meaning.
Hathaway, Nancy. The Unicorn. New York: Viking, 1980; Rpt. New York: Penguin, 1982.
This text is (as its title suggests) limited to the unicorn. The introduction explains some of the theories about the unicorn, such as that it might have developed from the rhinoceros or perhaps that it is a mythic creature that we feel should exist. The sections of the book retell selected lore in a narrative format. Section two of the book focuses on the unicorn in the Middle Ages; its stories retell how a unicorn can be captured by a maiden, explain the animosity between the unicorn and the lion, and provide an account of the magical horn that cures diseases.
Nigg, Joe. The Book of Gryphons: A History of the Most Majestic of all Mythical Creatures. Cambridge, MA: Apple-wood Books, 1982.
Nigg’s gryphon-specific book opens with a general discussion of fabulous beasts, including some theories about their origins. Nigg points out some of the problems of definition that arise when talking about fabulous creatures; he emphasizes the culturally-informed variations of the gryphon in particular. The book is remarkably broad in scope, citing everything from Persian epics to medieval bestiaries to Frank Stockton. He provides an extensive bibliography and rich art. The book seems most appropriate for middle school readers. For those particularly interested in the medieval gryphon, chapters three and four collect and discuss many appearances of the gryphon in that time, including The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, The Romance of Alexander, and Dante.
Nigg, Joe. A Guide to the Imaginary Birds of the World. Introduction by Roger Tory Peterson. Cambridge: Apple-wood books, 1984.
This book of birds is arranged geographically, with sections for Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. The entries are set up as somewhat encyclopedic, each including the distribution, general characteristics, wingspan, feeding habits, relatives, a brief description, and a short story about the bird in question. Included among the thirty birds in the book are the basilisk, phoenix, simurgh, halcyon, and gillygaloo. For students who want more resources, a brief list of books and of “more imaginary birds” is included at the end of the text.
Fabulous beasts achieve much of their pull on the human imagination through the stories told about them. Many of the best medieval texts featuring fantastic beasts are not available in easily read or student-appropriate editions, and furthermore, these texts do not focus on the fabulous creature in question. Given the huge scope of texts in which fabulous creatures appear briefly, I have included here only medieval texts in which the passages featuring fabulous beasts could be easily extracted for teaching purposes. For example, Mandeville’s Travels features gryphons and phoenixes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae features dragons, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur features dragon and serpent fights as well as a mysterious creature called the Questing Beast. Perhaps the most famous dragon fight in medieval literature occurs in Beowulf, and Seamus Heaney’s 1991 translation is a much-used text in high school classrooms. Many medieval romances, such as Sir Isumbras or Bevis of Hampton, also briefly feature fantastic creatures. It is difficult to recommend editions of these texts, since many do not exist in accessible translations. However, many of these romances are available in Middle English versions designed for students through the Middle English Texts Series (METS); the language may be accessible to high school students with assistance. I have included here a list of METS volumes with a brief notation of which texts may be relevant. One major advantage to using METS texts is that they are available online; I have included the link to each edition online as well as the citation for the print edition.
The Book of John Mandeville. Ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/kohanski.htm>
Mandeville briefly references gryphons; the lore provided by the narrator is much like the information one might find in a bestiary. (This edition does not retell the story of the phoenix, though some other editions of Mandeville do. Several of the modern bestiaries in this bibliography retell this episode; see, for example, Joe Nigg’s Wonder Beasts.)
Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour. 2nd ed. Ed. Harriet Hudson. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/hudson.htm>
This edition of Sir Isumbras features a unicorn that carries away one of Isumbras’s children, though the family is later reunited.
Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/herz.htm>
Bevis of Hampton features a dragon fight that goes on for several days.
Saints’ Lives in Middle English Collections. Ed. E. Gordon Whatley, with Anne B. Thompson and Robert K. Upchurch. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/whatley.htm>
This collection includes an excerpt in which Saint George is victorious over a dragon.
Medieval beasts are reinterpreted by modern authors as well, and many works of children’s fantasy feature dragons, unicorns, and other such creatures. Since it would be impossible to be comprehensive, I have attempted to include texts that are easily accessible. In addition, certain works are already so well-known to many students that I would be remiss not to include them here.
Cherry, Lynne. The Dragon and the Unicorn. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1995.
Cherry’s short book features beautiful illustrations and would be best suited for younger elementary school children. It tells the story of Allegra the unicorn and her friend Valerio the dragon when humans come to their forest and begin cutting down trees and building a town. The forest is saved when a young girl named Arianna discovers the beauty of the forest and the many creatures that live in it. Traditional lore about the dragon and the unicorn is woven into the plot, and the book introduces students to these stories within a short, independent narrative. The book also features beautiful illustrations.
Christopher, Nicholas. The Bestiary: A Novel. New York: Dial Press, 2007.
Christopher’s novel tells the life story of Xeno Atlas, a young man who is captivated from an early age by mythical creatures. That fascination becomes the impetus for a scholarly yet intensely personal quest: a search for a mythical bestiary called the Caravan Bestiary. Xeno’s travels take him around the world as he seeks the bestiary and simultaneously learns about himself. The well-told story is part mystery and part history, and it preserves many of the myths that surround fabulous creatures such as the phoenix, a large Middle Eastern mythical bird called the rukh, and many others. However, teachers may wish to proceed with caution. Parts of the novel take place during the Vietnam War, and the novel features deaths in Vietnam, anti-war riots, and drug use. However, these references are not graphic, and mature students will find the novel enjoyable.
Coville, Bruce. Dragon of Doom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.
This very short book tells the tale of a boy named Edward who becomes the helper of an inept magician named Moongobble. When Moongobble fails his magician’s test, he can only become a magician by finding the golden acorns protected by the Dragon of Doom. Edward joins Moongobble in his quest for the golden acorns. When Edward sneaks into the dragon’s cave to try to see the acorns, he discovers that the dragon itself is a surprising creature! This story, with its illustrations, would be appropriate for third and fourth grade readers.
Coville, Bruce. The Dragonslayers. New York: Minstrel, 1994.
This book features the adventures of a willful young princess, a page, and an elderly squire who go out to slay a dragon set loose in the kingdom. As they seek to defeat the dragon, all of these characters learn valuable lessons about themselves. This book would be appropriate for second or third grade readers.
Coville, Bruce. Into the Land of the Unicorns. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
The book opens with the main character, a girl named Cara Hunter, and her grandmother fleeing from a strange man. Cara escapes with the help of her grandmother’s magical amulet, and she finds herself in a strange world where unicorns are real. She meets a unicorn named Lightfoot, and they travel together to meet the Queen of the Unicorns, whom Cara hopes will be able to help her grandmother. However, she has been followed to this new world by the man who pursued her and her grandmother on Earth. The book ends with Cara taking on a new quest, to fetch her grandmother and bring her back to the land of the unicorns. Students who enjoy this book may wish to continue reading the series with Song of the Wanderer and Dark Whispers. The series is, at the time of this publication, unfinished. This book would be best suited for older elementary school readers.
Coville, Bruce, ed. The Unicorn Treasury. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
This book is a collection of poems, short stories, and excerpts from longer fantasy works that feature unicorns, by authors such as Madeline L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Patricia C. Wrede, and others. The stories are short and very accessible; they could be read together in a classroom setting for younger students, and older elementary school children might read the stories independently.
Ormondroyd, Edward. David and the Phoenix. Chicaco: Follett Publishing, 1957. Reprinted in 2000 by Purple House Press, Keller, TX.
David moves to new home and meets a phoenix; the two quickly become friends, and the Phoenix takes it upon himself to educate David by introducing him to a variety of fabulous creatures, including Griffins, a Sea Monster, a Banshee, and a Faun. However, in between these adventures, David has to help hide the Phoenix from the Scientist, who wants to capture or kill it “for the advancement of human knowledge.” The book ends with the Phoenix’s five hundredth birthday (when, as per tradition, a phoenix makes a nest and burns itself – but returns within moments to fly away to safety). This book is a wonderful way to introduce third to fifth graders to many of the myths surrounding fabulous beasts through an entertaining story.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. NY: A.A. Levine Books, 1998.
—–. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
—–. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
—–. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
—–. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
—–. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
—–. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
No work in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series stars a fabulous beast as its main protagonist; however, centaurs, dragons, hippogriffs, unicorns, winged horses, a phoenix, a basilisk, a three-headed dog, and a sphinx all appear in Harry’s world. While these beasts are not the focus of Rowling’s works, they are very often essential to the plot. Elementary school students would easily enjoy the first three books (Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban), while the later books in the series (Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows) might be saved for older students.
Rowling has also written a modern bestiary for Harry’s world, called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The in-universe guidebook includes an introduction written by the book’s fictional author, introducing readers to the problems of classifying fantastic beasts in a section called “What is a Beast?”
Film versions of all seven books are either completed or in production at present; the cinematic versions of the first six books are already available on DVD. (Note that Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix are rated PG-13, though the other films are rated PG.) Deathly Hallows part one is due in theaters in November 2010, and Deathly Hallows part two should follow in the summer of 2011.
Silverberg, Barbara. Phoenix Feathers: A Collection of Mythical Monsters. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.
Silverberg collects short pieces featuring the griffin, kraken, dragon, unicorn, roc, basilisk, and phoenix in this book. The stories sweep a vast chronological range (from Pliny to Mandeville to contemporary short stories), and in that way they reflect the staying power of these mythical creatures. The book would be a good resource for short fiction to be used in a classroom setting for late elementary school and early middle school students.
Stockton, Frank R. The Griffin and the Minor Canon. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963.
This short book tells the story of a griffin who comes to a town in order to look at a stone image of himself above the church door. The only one of the townsfolk who does not fear the Griffin is the Minor Canon, a humble, good churchman who tries very hard to improve the lives of the townsfolk, his neighbors. The Griffin befriends the Minor Canon and begins to follow him around; the townsfolk then send the Minor Canon away, hoping the Griffin will follow. Instead, however, the Griffin takes up the Minor Canon’s tasks of visiting the sick, helping the poor, and running a school for unruly children. Due to their fear of the Griffin, the townsfolk begin to live well and get along with each other. When the Griffin discovers they sent the Minor Canon away, he is enraged and demands that they honor him on his return. The Griffin fetches the Minor Canon, who is now honored by the townsfolk and becomes a bishop; the Griffin carries off the stone image of himself that drew him to the town and places it outside his cave. The book is appropriate for elementary school students, though they might be horrified to learn that the Griffin wanted to eat the Minor Canon!
Fabulous beasts have become famous across visual media as well as in fiction. Film provides a way for modern audiences of all ages to glimpse these elusive creatures. As with fiction, it would be impossible to be comprehensive, and so I have attempted to provide a range of films. I have also included the rating of the film to help teachers determine its appropriateness for each particular classroom setting.
Dragonheart. Performed by Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Dina Meyer. Dir. Rob Cohen. 1996. (Rated PG-13)
Dragonheart tells the story of a jaded dragon-slayer’s unlikely alliance with the last surviving dragon. King Einon is a tyrant over his kingdom, enacting cruel punishments and declaring himself above the knightly code. Bowen, a knight who once tried to instill the Knight’s Code in the king, and Draco the dragon travel the country swindling peasants; Draco pretends to terrorize villages, and Bowen offers to slay the dragon for a reward. As they learn more about each other, Bowen and Draco realize they have both been wronged by King Einon, and their financial arrangement becomes something more noble as they seek to avenge those wrongs and to help the people overthrow Einon’s rule. However, Draco’s life is bound to Einon’s; to kill the king, Bowen must kill the dragon. Bowen struggles with this decision before killing the dragon as Draco has asked, and the act kills Einon as well. The film ends when Draco’s body disappears, and he becomes a star to inspire the people.
Dragonslayer. Performed by Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clark, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam. Dir. Matthew Robbins. 1981. (Rated PG)
In this film, set in a fantasy Middle Ages, a sorcerer named Ulrich and his apprentice, Galen, set out to slay a dragon and rescue a village. But the king of the land has made a pact with the dragon; every spring and every fall, one virgin is chosen by lottery and sacrificed to the dragon, and the dragon leaves the rest of the people alone. When Galen tries to kill the dragon and fails, the king decides to hold another lottery – and this time it is the princess who is chosen to be sacrificed. Galen and Ulrich kill the dragon with the help of a blacksmith’s daughter with whom Galen has fallen in love, though the princess dies before they succeed. Overall, this is a fairly predictable dragon film, with a few twists in the plot. It may be best for middle school students and up; there is one scene where the princess’s hand is eaten by a dragon that may disturb younger students, and some scenes show blood.
The Last Unicorn. Performed by Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury. Dir. Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. 1982. (Rated G)
The film tracks the story of the last unicorn as she travels across an animated world in search of more of her kind. Along the way, she encounters a magician named Shmendrick and is attacked by the Red Bull, the creature who has herded the unicorns into the sea so that only King Haggard can see them. Shmendrick transforms her into a woman in order to save her from the Red Bull, but once in her human body, the unicorn begins to forget her quest and falls in love with Prince Lir, the adopted son of King Haggard. The unicorn is forced by her companions (including Lir) to confront the Red Bull and she successfully does so, rescuing the captive unicorns. The film ends with Shmendrick and Molly Crue, two of the unicorn’s companions, setting off happily together while Lir is left alone. The unicorn is changed by her time as a human, however; she becomes the only one of her kind able to feel regret. Some moments in the film seem geared toward adults, but the film is targeted generally toward younger viewers. The film is based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, and teachers may wish to have students read the book as well.
Pete’s Dragon. Performed by Jim Backus, Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters. Dir. Don Chaffey. 1977. (Rated G)
In this Disney classic, the title character Pete runs away from the abusive family that has adopted him. He is aided by Elliot, the animated green dragon. They are found by Nora, a lighthouse keeper, and her elderly father Lampie, who take Pete in. When the abusive family tries to recapture Pete, Elliot saves the day – and the town near the lighthouse. The film ends with Elliot’s departure to help other children now that Pete has a home and family. The film includes a number of delightful songs and would be appropriate for elementary school aged children.
Reign of Fire. Performed by Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler. Dir. Rob Bowman. 2002. (Rated PG-13)
High school students may enjoy this post-apocalyptic vision of a world in which dragons are real — and menacing. Underground construction in London awakes dragons lying dormant beneath the Earth’s surface. Within twenty years, the dragons make the planet nearly uninhabitable, and the surviving humans gather in small, isolated outposts in an attempt to outlast the dragons. One English outpost, led by Quinn Abercromby, finds itself invaded by an American soldier named Denton Van Zan. Van Zan leads a team of dragon-slayers on a quest to find and kill the only male dragon, which would make it impossible for the dragons to reproduce. After Van Zan’s first strike team is unsuccessful, Quinn joins Van Zan in a second attack on the dragon. Though Van Zan is killed, the mission is successful, and the film ends when Quinn’s outpost makes contact with a group of survivors in France.
The Spiderwick Chronicles. Performed by Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte. Dir. Mark Waters. 2008. (Rated PG)
During a tense divorce, Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace move with their mother into the long-abandoned home of their ancestor, Arthur Spiderwick. From the moment they arrive, strange, inexplicable events befall the family, and the family blames these accidents on Jared, who has had trouble handling his anger at their father’s absence. Angry and upset, Jared explores the house and finds Arthur Spiderwick’s field guide, a book that contains all the practical knowledge Jared needs to discover and appease the fantastic creatures that are truly causing the mysterious accidents and disappearances in their new home. However, opening the book has dangerous consequences. The ogre Mulgarath wants the field guide so he can make himself the most powerful creature that ever lived, and he will stop at nothing to obtain it. Jared, Simon, and Mallory must overcome their anger and work together to save the book from Mulgarath and protect their home. Along the way, they are helped by a griffin, a hobgoblin, and Arthur Spiderwick himself. The action and danger – as well as the green goblin blood – make this a film best suited to older elementary school students and up.
Merlin. Written by Johnny Capps, Julian Jones, Jake Michie, and Julian Murphy. Performed by Colin Morgan, Bradley James. Dir. Jeremy Webb and Dave Moore. BBC. 2008. Television.
The BBC’s Merlin often depicts mythical creatures; the dragon living under the castle at Camelot appears consistently throughout season one, for example. Fantastic creatures often serve as the plot device of the episode, functioning as threats (or tools of Arthur’s enemies). Episodes of the show have featured a griffin, a basilisk, a unicorn, and the Questing Beast. The first season is currently available on DVD in the US, and the show would be appropriate for high school students. The second season has finished, though it is not yet available in a US-format DVD, and the show will be returning for a third season. In addition, novelizations of individual season one episodes have been published by Bantam.
Both real and imaginary animals have begun receiving more critical attention from medievalists, particularly in the fields of art and literature. I include here a sampling of critical materials to provide insight as to how (and why) to discuss fabulous beasts. While much of this material may not be ideal for student reading, these critical materials would provide a valuable starting place for teachers. (I have noted in the annotations texts which advanced students may find helpful.)
Benton, Janetta Rebold. The Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.
Benton’s book begins by discussing how medieval artists were inspired by the classical past, and Benton ties in literary sources (such as the labors of Heracles and material from Virgil) when appropriate. The book outlines some of the places one can find images of fantastic beasts (e.g., architecture, marginalia) and explores how artists used these creatures, with particular emphasis on their use in religious buildings. The second chapter focuses specifically on the bestiary and its use, providing examples from an early Latin bestiary called the Worksop Bestiary. Chapter 3 considers the meaning of animals in medieval art and the varying opinions about their use. Overall, this book is an exceptionally useful text with many interesting images. Advanced high school students may find this text useful. Though the book is out of print, used copies can be obtained relatively inexpensively online.
Hogan, Walter. Animals in Young Adult Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.
While Hogan’s book focuses more generally on animals in young adult fiction, Chapter 5 provides several valuable discussions of contemporary science fiction and fantasy texts featuring mythological and/or magical animals. Hogan briefly discusses J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tolkien’s works, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Robin McKinley’s works, and several other texts. Though the book does not discuss these works at length, this chapter might serve as a valuable resource for finding further reading/texts to teach. It could easily be read by a high-school student.
Robinson, Margaret W. Fictitious Beasts, A Bibliography. London: Library Association Bibliographies, 1961.
Robinson lays out her project very clearly in the introduction; she focuses on the European literary tradition, and she defines fictitious beasts for her purposes as “animals (and birds, fishes, etc.) in a physical form that does not exist in nature” (8). The first section of the book divides sources by time period, into Classical, Medieval and Renaissance, and Modern sections. Where appropriate, she points out which beasts are mentioned. Robinson organizes the second section of the bibliography by beast, and she considers the dragon, griffin, basilisk, barnacle goose, phoenix, unicorn, mermaid, sea-serpent, and miscellaneous beasts. Though it may be difficult to obtain, her text is a very valuable resource for anyone seeking primary materials on fantastic beasts.
Salisbury, Joyce E. The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Salisbury begins by considering the relation between humans and animals and the slippery boundary between the two. She historicizes the marked distinction between them, dating it to the writings of early Christian thinkers and their attempts to distinguish themselves from classical thought. She offers five chapters dealing with the actual relationships between humans and their animals. These chapters deal respectively with animals as property; animals as food; sexual relationships between humans and animals; animals as exemplars; and, finally, humans as animals. While the book may not focus specifically on fabulous beasts, it may offer useful insight as to the relationship between animals and humans in the Middle Ages.
Salter, David. Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature. Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
Salter’s scholarly book explores how “through their depictions of animals, medieval writers were able to reflect upon their own humanity” (6-7). He discusses the role of animals in medieval romances, saints’ lives, and other literature. Salter includes Sir Isumbras, Sir Gowther, Octavian, Bevis of Hampton, stories of St. Francis of Assisi, and several tales of Alexander the Great (including Kyng Alisaunder, in which Alexander’s horse Bucephalus is a magical hybrid creature that would be at home in a bestiary). This text focuses on animals of all kinds, not specifically mythical beasts; however, its discussion of medieval romances makes it a very valuable resource.
Kara L. McShane is a doctoral student at the University of Rochester, and an Instructor in the College Writing Program.
Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VIII, Issue 1, Spring 2010
NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted. The original “look and feel” of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed. No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.