A Bestiary Essay - Critical Essays

A Bestiary

A BESTIARY is an exciting jaunt through literature in search of real and unreal beasts: dog, ape, frog, and fly accompany unicorn, centaur, and mermaid in this collection of quotations chosen from sources ancient through modern. This book is a reissue of a 1955 limited edition. Its large size and uncluttered format make it a comfortable book to browse through.

The entries are linked not only by the bestiary format but by Alexander Calder’s distinctive illustrations. Calder, who died in 1976, was known for his mobiles and wire sculptures; these pen and ink drawings of men, animals, men as animals, and animals as men look like wire sculptures, and add a dimension of comedy.

The individual entries are enlightening and entertaining, as the sources represent literal and symbolic interpretations of the chosen beasts, and scientific accounts as well as literary ones. Sometimes the interpretations seem to reinforce each other, as in the case of the Whale, which begins with THE MIDDLE ENGLISH BESTIARY’s identification of whale with devil, follows it with the famous conceit in Milton’s PARADISE LOST in which the chained devil is compared with a sleeping whale mistaken for an island by a boat’s pilot, and concludes with a passage from MOBY DICK (a necessary inclusion!) comparing the appearance of the whale out of the depths with “majestic Satan.” But sometimes the assessments conflict. Elizabeth Bishop, Jonathan Edwards, and St. Francis all have much to say about the Fish, but Bishop gives a natural description, St. Francis a friendly symbolic one, and Edwards, predictably, an unfriendly one.

A BESTIARY is an attractive and thought-provoking book. The mingling of the expected with the unfamiliar makes it a continual source of pleasure.