Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. Review by Mervi Hämäläinen

Book Cover

This is a collection of 116 imagined creatures, just like the title says. Borges has collected them from various mythologies and writers from Ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century. There are fantastical creatures from Kafka, C. S. Lewis and H. G. Wells as well as Pliny, the Eddas and Ovid.

Each being has a one to four pages of description from various sources. The most famous of the creatures are probably the Sphinx, the Phoenix, the Unicorn and the Valkyries. Borges gives each their mythological origins and also some indication of how they have been used and seen through out the ages. There are also entries for the Chinese Unicorn and the Chinese Phoenix which are quite different from their Western variants.

Dragons have three different entries: the Dragon which is a short overview of different kinds of Dragon legends, and the Eastern and Western Dragons which are give their respective legends.

Many of the beings that are staples of modern fantasy are found here: elves, fairies, satyrs, nymphs, even the Kraken. However, the sources for them are various mythologies and so they come across are very different from the average fantasy book or movie.

The book contains also two creatures which aren't so imaginary at a first glance: the Panther and the Pelican. However, they have been described very imaginatively in medieval writings: the Panther has a sweet voice and scent while the Pelican can bring its dead hatchlings back to life.

If you are looking for stories from Borges' fertile imagination you are going to be disappointed. However, as a starting point to different mythologies this book is very good. Many of the entries are just enough to whet your appetite and make you want for more.

Borges' translator Hurley makes a comment that Borges wanted readers to dip into the book every now and then, and indeed that seems like a better way to read it rather than reading it immediately cover to cover. Peter Sís' illustrations give the book an atmosphere all its own.

Mervi Hämäläinen is a long-time reader of fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. She's currently working as a freelance translator.