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28 June 2010 @ 01:10 am
Mythical Beasts  
I grew up in downtown Los Angeles surrounded by brothers and more pets than a small zoo. We didn’t just have the regular dogs and cats, although we had plenty of those. We also had chickens, rabbits, an entire aviary full of birds, a pet goat, chipmunks, lizards, snakes, a pet anteater and, for a few short weeks, two baby bear cubs.

You would think I would be satisfied with having a pet anteater and two baby bear cubs (not at the same time, mind you) but I wasn’t. The only thing missing from my life was a small Pegasus or a unicorn. Perhaps a firebird from the Russian fairy tales. Unfortunately, as good as my mother was at collecting rare and unusual pets, she was never able to rustle up one of those. Instead, I had to settle for experiencing them in books.

It is not surprising that we are drawn to animals. There is something Otherworldly about our relationship with them and something faintly magical whenever we manage to gain one’s trust. Just think how extraordinary it would be to gain the trust of a mythical creature! Not to mention that animals often possess many of the powers we dream of experiencing for ourselves: the ability to fly, agility, overwhelming strength, enhanced vision, almost preternatural hearing. Mythical beasts even more so.

Although, it’s important to keep in mind that mythical beasts can be as majestic as the griffin or as frivolous as barnacle geese.

When talking about mythical beasts, it seems to me there are three distinct categories: True beasts, like unicorns, griffins and rocs; singly occurring creatures, such as the minotaur, Fenrir, Pegasus, and the Hydra; and lastly, those that are part human/part beast such as fauns, satyrs, centaurs, merfolk, and the like. Even then, some defy categorization. One could make a case for the Minotaur being in each of those categories. And the manticore has only the face of a man, with the body and nature of a tiger. He seems as if he would fit best in the true beast category since, by all accounts, he possesses little humanity. (Yes, these are the sorts of questions fantasy writers get to spend their day pondering; just how many unicorns can prance on the head of a pin. Or something.)

There are two primary sources for all these mythical animals. The first source is the earliest works on natural history and zoology, such as medieval bestiaries and the even earlier Physiologus which was a composition of earlier Greek works by Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Herodotus. These texts were, for all intents and purposes, the definitive zoological textbooks of their time. Often pieced together from older works, they included the naturalist observations and teachings first recorded in ancient times.

The second source for these magical creatures is myths and folktales. Greek myths probably contain some the most well-known mythological creatures: winged horses, satyrs, chimera, hydra, minotaur. But other cultures and legends have plenty of them as well.

Some mythical creatures appear in many different cultures and myths: the unicorn not only appears in Western European tales, but in Chinese and Japanese accounts as well, where it is known as the Qilin or Kirn. The same with the phoenix. Tales of the self-regenerating bird appear in the middle east and in Asia as the phoenix, the benu bird of ancient Egypt, the firebird of Russian legends, and the Fenghuang of China.

Dragons are another. They appear in many, many cultures. It is fascinating also, to see how differently they are perceived by western and eastern cultures. In western tales, they are wily and evil and fairly bent on the destruction of man, or at least consuming him as a tasty snack. In eastern cultures however, dragons are demi-gods, creatures of the heavens who bestow good luck and fortune.

I am especially intrigued by those legendary beasts that have appeared in some form throughout a wide number of cultures. Possibly because part of me wants to believe that, as my grandmother used to say, where there is smoke, there’s fire. If so very many cultures had stories and legends about re-generating birds or single-horned horse-like creatures, surely that increases the odds—just a teeny bit—that they might really have existed. No? Okay fine.

Here are some of my favorite websites I use when researching mythical beasts.

From Greek Mythology:

Medieval Bestiaries on the web: (And how cool is it that we can see these ancient writings with just the click of a mouse!)


And then of course, Wikipedia has some great master lists. Their master list of legendary beasts is now divided alphabetically (I liked it better when it used to be all one, really long page of fascinating names.)

Here is another link to mythical creatures by type, which is interesting just to see how they grouped things.

Other than dragons and unicorns, I am often surprised at just how few of these fascinating creatures show up in books. I know both Kathleen Duey and Bruce Coville have written series on unicorns. And Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant has an intriguing book on a completely re-imagined type of unicorn. Dragons, too, have had a respectable showing in children’s and YA fantasy. And of course, the Percy Jackson books have included a number of the mythical creatures from Greek myths. But other than those and the Harry Potter books, my personal list of books featuring mythical beasts is short. How about you? What books have you read that I might have missed?
charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com on June 28th, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)
Rachel Neumeier, author of the lovely YA fantasy City in the Lake, has recently published the first two books of her griffin mage series. They're not marketed as YA books, but I'm in the middle of the first one, Lord of the Changing Winds, and there is certainly YA crossover appeal.
rllafeversrllafevers on June 28th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
I just saw those at the bookstore the other day and was wondering about them! I'll have to check them out. (Especially because I have a griffin book I'm working on...)
natalieag on June 28th, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for all the links on mythological animals. I love reading abut them. Like you, I wish they existed.
rllafeversrllafevers on June 28th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)

One of the things I love about living in the digital age is the access to all sorts of lovely, ancient manuscripts that I would never have been able to see prior to the internet. Ironic, no?
dpeterfreunddpeterfreund on June 28th, 2010 01:30 pm (UTC)

I think there is a decided dearth of "beast" books in young adult fiction -- you're more likely to see them in MG or children's fantasy. Let's bring those monsters back!

The other thing I think of is FIRE, where magical beasts (though not the traditional kind) are kind of a big deal.

You know what you do see in YA, because they are human enough to appeal to the kind of "mostly human" monsters that paranormal YA tends toward, that would also fall under that third category of yours -- mermaids. Half-fish, half person. (Or selkies, who are a sort of seal-people.) There are lots of mermaids out or coming out. There are centaurs in PC Cast's Brighid's Quest, though that was originally published as an adult novel and only repackaged as YA to capitalize on her YA House of Night readership. And I just read about the sale of a "retelling of the Ariadne story" that will probably have a minotaur like thing in it.

But as "beastly" as YA usually gets is werewolves.

Thanks for mentioning my books!
rllafeversrllafevers on June 28th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
NARNIA! ::slapping hand on forehead:: How could I have forgotten!

And while there may be more magical beasts in MG, I still think there aren't very many of them, when you consider how many people (kids in particular) are fascinated by the subject.

There are a lot of humanesque beasts in YA, which is a very cool trend...
ebooraem on June 28th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
Fascinating post--and those links are AMAZING. Thanks so much, Robin!

Holly Black's books have a lot of creatures in them, but she seems to classify all of them as "faeries" whether humanoid or not. Eoin Colfer's books, too (isn't the James-Bondian gizmo-expert a centaur?) ONe of my favorite Holly Black characters is Ravus the Troll in VALIANT--tortured and ill-tempered, but with more "humanity" than a lot of the humans.

One thing I loved about the Harry Potter books was Rowling's take on flying beasts. Of course we all fantasize about how much fun it would be to ride a winged horse or dragon or hypogriff. But the reality probably would be as Rowling describes it, cold and uncomfortable, always feeling you were about to slide off.
rllafeversrllafevers on June 30th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
You're right, Ellen! Holly does feature a lot of mythical beasts in her books. And I adored VALIANT, although I wouldn't consider a troll a mythical beast but rather a mythical race. They seem too humanoid to be classified as a bast.

And there are just so many reasons to love the Harry Potter books, aren't there?
liakeyes on June 29th, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, what a wonderful post, Robin, just brimming with useful information and questions that have got me thinking. Why ARE there so few beasties in YA literature?

Psychologists say that children under the age of 12 have a harder time discerning the difference between reality and fantasy, which is why they're so imaginative, but also why they're easily scared. Teenagers are deeply into urban fantasy right now, and it's harder to imagine mythical beasties having a place in modern urban environments, even ones with vampires and werewolves in them. Vampires can live in cities, and wolves are close to dogs in form, so it's not such a leap, such a suspension of disbelief.

Very fun article! Thanks so much for giving us so much to think about.
rllafeversrllafevers on June 30th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
So glad you enjoyed the post, Lia. And I have to say, it was exactly that question that led me to write the Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series.

I agree that it IS hard to imagine mythical beasts in urban settings. It is a much greater suspension of disbelief. Although I do have one idea I'm toying with. But even it would still be an older MG though, rather than a YA.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on June 30th, 2010 12:01 am (UTC)
Thanks for this great post! I will definitely be back to use some of those links. It really is too bad that there aren't more magical beasts in YA. It almost sounds like a challenge...
rllafeversrllafevers on June 30th, 2010 12:09 am (UTC)
Ha! I have thrown down the mythical beast gauntlet, now who will pick it up? :-)
anesbetanesbet on July 6th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
Those are wonderful links, Robin!

You know who just came to mind, in the midst of all of these dragons and centaurs and griffons? Aunt Beast, from A WRINKLE IN TIME. She's a different sort of "beast," but made a big impression on me. As did the singular "cherubim" Proginoskes.

I had imaginary winged collie dogs as pets when I was in second grade. Not quite as cool as dragons or farandolae, but I was an avid fan of LAD, A DOG, on the one hand, and every fantasy book ever written on the other.

Fun topic!