Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bestiaries of Yore, or Something Like Them in the Late 1970's

Who doesn’t love bestiaries? My own fascination with them began with the the first edition Monster Manual (1977), which might not fit the definition of one in a technical sense, but close enough. School was all about structure, grammar, math... Here in the MM there was something similar but fun, with very practical application - studying and memorizing the descriptions and abilities of the creatures could well save your life, in a manner of speaking. The mildly titillating artistic depictions of certain entries were a bonus, and I suspect their inclusion made my fellow players and I feel just a little more grown up.

There were similar books I enjoyed near the same time period. They weren’t as comprehensive, and they weren’t game material - but they stoked the same youthful imagination and wonder for things fantastical, and did so while encouraging suspension of disbelief. A few of these stood out in my memory enough for me to want to recently reacquire them.

Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen illustrated and wrote a series of books about gnomes that I’m sure just about everyone reading this will be familiar with... Although many of my peers despise both gnomes and hobbits, there’s no doubt that they’ve managed to penetrate the popular culture more thoroughly than their cousins the dwarfs. These books were very popular when I was a kid, flying off the bookstore shelves every Christmas as gifts for adults and kids alike. I only had the first, but I gladly admit to liking it - the artwork was great and the descriptions of the dwellings and lifestyle of gnomes were good fun. There was brief mention in these pages of elves, goblins, trolls, and others. The Monster Manual was always the authoritative work for me, so when I read in Gnomes that dwarfs could easily be distinguished from them based on the fact that dwarfs had no beards, it became clear that Huygen had not done his homework.

Giants (by Julek Heller, Carolyn Scrace, Juan Wijngaard, and David Larken 1979) seems inspired by the success of the Gnomes books. Great illustrations in this one, and it was more to my liking since it was more monsterly. There was of course another book in this vein, called “Faeries”, put together again by David Larkin. I knew it was decent, having flipped through its pages in the mall, but neither myself nor my friends ever owned a copy (AFAIK or that anyone will admit).

I loved reading my dad’s subscription to the digest sized Isaac Asimov’s magazine and his old copies of Heinlein, Clarke, and Frank Herbert books. One Christmas morning he gave me Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (by Wayne D. Barlowe, Ian Summers, and Beth Meacham 1979). We also played GDW’s Traveller and this seemed a worthy addition to my other books, but it became apparent that I had a lot of reading to do if I wanted to have any real sense of the aliens depicted and described in this book. Thirty years later and I’m still not even close. The artwork is very good. Here’s a picture that accompanies the entry for Jack Vance’s “Dirdir”, from the third book in the Planet of Adventure series:
A couple of years ago I picked up Thomas Keightley’s The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People originally published in 1880. It was reprinted in 1978 (and again, later I believe). It’s very academic but I highly recommend it if the subject interests you. You might also want to check out the online medieval bestiary at Bestiary.ca - especially with the Cooliris extension in Firefox...

13 comments:

spielmeister said...

This definitely brings me back to the 80s. I recall reading the book on Gnomes (and going over the great artwork) just as we were running our D&D games back in high school. Thanks for bring this up!

Jay said...

I have the Gnomes book from my childhood and I remember pouring over the lavish illustrations and detailed descriptions. Keep your dwarves, I'll take a gnome any day!

Need to get my hands on a copy of Barlowe though...

G. Benedicto said...

FAERIES is the work of Brian Froud and Alan Lee and definitely worth tracking down. There was also Julek Heller's KNIGHTS -- another winner.

Timeshadows said...

I own Giants, and had owned Balowes'.
--Better yet, I played a Dirdir in a WEG Star Wars game for a few sessions. What a blast. :D

Eli Arndt said...

If you liked these you might like the "World of Kong". It is an art book to support the Jackson "King Kong" movie that is done as a naturalists guide to Skull Island. Great art and a lovely little back story threaded throughout.

Also, the "Goblonomicon" is worth checking out. It's a companion book for the "Labyrinth" movie.

mikemonaco said...

Great post! In the last five years or so I finally got my own (used) copies of all four of those.

My older sister had the Gnome book when it was "new" in the mid-late 70s and it certainly was among the reference points for the interest my brother & I would take in D&D. I recently scored a copy at a library book sale and have been reading it to my 4 year old. There is some dark stuff there though that I forgot about (and discuss on my own blog :) ).

There was a neat book "The kingdom of the dwarfs" (by Robb Walsh) which was also pretty good, came out around 1980. These dwarfs were more D&D.

You should also check out Borges' Book of imaginary beings, particularly the illustrated editions.

Lastly a gorgeous book was "Fantastic people," edited by Allan Scott -- with art from 19th & 20th century, from Rackham to John Blanche! The text tried to connect all the beasts and folk of folklore as types of elementals; it was pretty odd but great pictures.

ancientvaults said...

I still have Faeries, Giants and the two Gnome books as well as a plethora of others. I had one book from the 80's on faeries and monsters of the UK that was lavishly illustrated and, alas, lost somewhere in the past and I haven't found a copy anywhere, not on ebay or anywhere else. :(

limpey said...

The 1st edition monster manual BLEW MY MIND. Still does. But I also remember the gnomes book fondly. Great illustrations.

Some other favorites of my own include:
'The Glass Harmonica' by Barbara Ninde Byfield.This is a really old book from the early 70s or so, with great illustrations. Really just a 'lexicon' with 100 possible ideas --- flipping through it was very inspirational. They had it at our school library... later I found a copy at a book sale.

"Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 764" is availible at Amazon.com so I guess it is still in print. A real medieval bestiary, translated with illustrations.

I also really like the David Maucalay illustrated books like 'Castle,' 'Cathedral,' etc. My parents got them for me when I was just a kid and I still have them.

Regretably, I lost my arms, armor and uniforms books that were illustrated by Lilane and Fred Funcken (sp?).

ze bulette said...

thanks for the thoughts and recommendations all, I'll be looking up some of those I hadn't heard of before.

Tom said...

I consider the bestiaries to be the central texts of D&D -without them there is not really much to do -with them there is an almost endless proliferation of wonders to encounter. It's like the great Linnaean age of naturalists never ended.

The Lee/Froud Faeries book is by far the best researched and presented of the genre. There is no speculation or invention by the writers and the pictures (esp. Lee's) are exquisite. They really get into the Unseelie stuff and the Tuatha De Danann/Daoine Sidhe in all there original power and glory so there's more than just the diminished remnants of the old tales.

The best coffee table book ever!

Barking Alien said...

I have all of these books and use them far more often than I do any of the 'Monster Manuals'. Monsters do no appear in manuals, they appear in tomes, bestiaries and the like. The more I played D&D the more I noticed its less tendency to be less and less fantastic and more and more technical (Ecology of the Mythic Creature articles and so forth) and that just put me off.

Additionally might I suggest, The Wildlife of Star Wars, The Flight of the Dragons, Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy, Katherine Briggs Encyclopedia of Faeries and the two folklore encyclopedia's by Carol Rose.

adventurematerials said...

Thanks for the comment! I really like how the internet has allowed so much of the old-school renaissance (if that's what it really is) to flourish, when ordinarily so many of us would just be lone goobers hanging out at the local hobby shop, begging for someone to put down their magic cards and pick up the White Box.

Not that that's an insult to magic, which I love in its own way.

NetherWerks said...

Thanks for the bestiary.ca link--very worthwhile! I plan on having a smallish bestiary ready to go soon and I'm always researching critters...

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