One of my bedside books is Borges’s, The Book of Imaginary Beings. It's exactly what you'd expect - a modern bestiary filled with weird and wonderful creatures from myth, legend and literature, beginning with ‘A Bao A Qu’ and making its way to ‘The Zaratan’ via ‘Harpies’, ‘Lemurs’ and ‘Swedenborg's Angels’.
It's a wonderful and thought-provoking collection, some of it enchanting, some of it bewildering, and some of it just plain nuts.
A couple of days ago, I opened it at random to the entry for ‘The Shaggy Beast of La Ferté-Bernard’. This is a particularly fruity beastie, ‘the size of a bull… with a snake’s head and a round body buried under long green fur. The fur was armed with stingers whose wound was deadly.’ It had broad hooves the same shape as those of a tortoise and a ‘tail shaped like a serpent’ that could ‘kill men and cattle alike’. When angered, the Shaggy Beast breathed flames that destroyed crops. When hunted, it hid in the river and, so huge was the Beast, this made the river overflow and flood the surrounding fields. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Beast also ‘devoured maidens and children,’ a penchant that ultimately proved its undoing at the sword of one victim’s sweetheart.
This is completely bonkers, but the Shaggy Beast tells us something important about the difference between the monsters of folk tale and the monsters of fantasy literature. Many of the most famous beasts in fantasy are embodiments of ideas or world-views. Smaug from The Hobbit is greed, arrogance and hubris; Lovecraft’s Cthulhu exists to remind us that we are nothing more than specks of dust in a huge and uncaring universe; even Godzilla – not quite literary but close enough – serves to warn us of the dangers of technology unleashed and uncontrollable.
These monsters make a sort of sense, possess an internal logic, but oddities like the Shaggy Beast just seem to be made up of random bits and pieces of other creatures, with a few super-powers tacked on just to really freak everyone out, but what sounds like a crazed combination of random characteristics becomes much more comprehensible if we read it backwards,
The Shaggy Beast is clearly a creature defined by its effects, not by its origins or motivations - to understand it we have to ignore what it looks like and just consider the result of its actions: dead or missing livestock and loved ones, floods, failing or burned crops. From this perspective, the Shaggy Beast makes more sense. It explains why stuff happens. If you’ve no idea why your crops keep failing or why the river inexplicably floods, you might just turn to a solution that ticks all the boxes, even if that solution has long green fur armed with deadly stingers.
A more romantic and tragic myth of this kind is the Selkie, a tale with variants across much of northern Europe, but especially in Orkney and Shetland. Selkies are shape-shifting seals, who emerge from the sea and become humans, often very alluring ones, with many tales of humans falling for selkies, both male and female. In some cases, the male selkie seduces a woman or girl, while there is another particularly heart-breaking story about men who trap female selkies into becoming their wives by stealing their seal skins, so preventing them from returning to their true home in the sea. The selkie myth can be read as another creature dreamed up in response to tragedy: a young woman goes missing and is said to have been taken by a male selkie for her lover or, alternatively, a child’s mother disappears beneath the waves of the Pentland Firth but is not dead – she has returned to her true people.
If you have ever stood on a beach and seen seals bobbing about above the waves, those big, calm, curious eyes watching you, listening when you sing to them, then you’ll understand how believable this myth is. Are those not the eyes of my long-gone beloved, gazing back at me? Might they once more step on to the land and be with us again?
As for the Shaggy Beast of La Ferté-Bernard, it can stay right where it is.