Fiction Reviews

Beasts & Creatures Myths & Tales

(2022) Tok Thompson (ed.), Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$40 / US$30, hrdbk, 430pp, ISBN 978-1-839-64883-0


A substantial and weighty tome presenting tales of magical, divine and demonic beasts and monsters from world mythology and folklore. Many familiar creatures are here, the Hydra, mermaids, griffins, Cerberus, etc.

More interesting are the rarer stories from further afield such as the Indian goblin yarns. In one, 'The Goblin And The Sneeze', a goblin in an old haunted house can’t harm people visiting the property unless one of them sneezes and no one present says bless you and receives thanks for it, in which case the goblin devours the sneezer. This goes on until a wise youth converts him to vegetarianism.

There are some fascinating gems, such as 'The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man', recreating the original tale of the Jewish Golem, a clay robot programmed with divine parchment placed in its mouth until it learns to think for itself with dangerous consequences. The story would influence Terry Pratchett’s 'Feet of Clay' (1996), and Michael Chabon’s 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' (2001) among many other works.

An Indian Jakarta tale of a monstrous crab ('The Giant Crab') in the only watering hole in the jungle that even eats tigers until the elephants put paid to its antics is quite delightful.

The more unlikely the yarn the more fun the reading gets. A Japanese story, 'The Bronze Buddha of Kamakura and the Whale' deals with a whale getting rather jealous when it learns there is a giant statue of the Buddha that might be even bigger than he is. With a rat sent to measure the statue concluding that it is bigger, the whale dons magic boots that enable him to travel inland to investigate for himself.

The retellings are at times rather dry, and don’t often capture the international style and culture of the originals. The stories are rewritten rather than translated so more different contributors would help add to the sense of international diversity represented. None of the tales are badly done but a lot read too close together gets rather monotonous after a while.

From the introduction the editor, Tok Thompson, is rather keen to emphasise the Freudian, and even phallic roots of many tales. The Cyclops with their single eye each, become giant male genitalia. The gorgons, especially Medusa, are women capable of stripping men of freedom and virility, in literally turning men to stone. The editor clearly relishes such aspects, and this may prevent the book being suitable for younger audiences.

The research and choices of stories are excellent, but this is not an easy book to read quickly, more one to sift and select a tale every now and then. It is unlikely you could read them out as bedtime fairy tales as (on top of their spelt out bawdiness in some cases) they are quite heavy and academic in style but it is certainly a book worth reading and returning too.

Many of the tales have a straight-forward easily guessed outcome but there are a few tales with unexpected twists too such as the Scottish tale of 'The Kildare Pooka', possibly an inspiration for the house elves in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

As well as the introduction at the start of the book, each section of stories has its own introductory chapters too. The section on 'Supernatural Beasts & Beings' lumps together werewolves, changelings and fairies. Little Creatures & Tiny Folk covers dwarfs, elves and goblins.

Sadly the collection lacks an index so some stories are hard to remember the locations of unless they are under obvious chapter headings like the 'Creatures Of Myth & Legend re-presentation of The Twelve Labours of Hercules.

Arthur Chappell


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