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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Imaginary Animals

The Monstrous, the Wondrous and the Human

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Imaginary Animals

The Monstrous, the Wondrous and the Human

An extraordinary menagerie of fantastical and unreal beasts featuring hundreds of illustrations, from griffins to dog-men, mermaids, dragons, unicorns, and yetis.

Fire-breathing dragons, beautiful mermaids, majestic unicorns, terrifying three-headed dogs—these fantastic creatures have long excited our imagination. Medieval authors placed them in the borders of manuscripts as markers of the boundaries of our understanding. Tales from around the world place these beasts in deserts, deep woods, remote islands, ocean depths, and alternate universes—just out of our reach. And in the sections on the apocalypse in the Bible, they proliferate as the end of time approaches, with horses with heads like lions, dragons, and serpents signaling the destruction of the world.
Legends tell us that imaginary animals belong to a primordial time, before everything in the world had names, categories, and conceptual frameworks. In this book, Boria Sax digs into the stories of these fabulous beasts. He shows how, despite their liminal role, imaginary animals like griffins, dog-men, yetis, and more are socially constructed creatures, created through the same complex play of sensuality and imagination as real ones. Tracing the history of imaginary animals from Paleolithic art to their roles in stories such as Harry Potter and even the advent of robotic pets, he reveals that these extraordinary figures help us psychologically—as monsters, they give form to our amorphous fears, while as creatures of wonder, they embody our hopes. Their greatest service, Sax concludes, is to continually challenge our imaginations, directing us beyond the limitations of conventional beliefs and expectations.
Featuring over 230 illustrations of a veritable menagerie of fantastical and unreal beasts, Imaginary Animals is a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

278 pages | 115 color plates, 115 halftones | 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 | © 2013

Art: Art Criticism

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Medieval Studies

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“A thought-provoking analysis of bestial creations, this illustrated compendium by Boria Sax scrutinizes artistic and literary models, ranging from Chauvet cave art from 36,000 BCE to political cartoons, graphic Japanese novels, and postmodern robotics. Conclusions about the nature and purpose of fantasy animals draw on scripture, anthropology, medicine, myth, and psychology . . . An intriguing, highly readable reference work at a low price, Sax’s multifaceted work covers a host of reference needs.” 


“Speaking as someone fascinated by all animals from earliest childhood, I found Imaginary Animals to be an intriguing and thought-provoking discovery. Scholarly and well-researched, without being either ponderous or condescending, it is written with real wit, and with a contagious delight in its subject rare in such a study. I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in the astonishing range of folkloric, religious, cultural, philosophic and political symbolism with which human beings have regarded and ceaselessly recreated real animals in our time together on this planet.”

Peter S. Beagle, author of "The Last Unicorn"

"You would have thought perhaps that the animal kingdom as it stands was rich enough to excite us and capture our interest, without us having to imagine our own beasts. Wildlife documentaries exploring from our back gardens to the other side of the world are reliable favorites on TV schedules. The animal kingdom is so rich and diverse that it’s easy to astonish even the most seasoned zoo-goer. And yet, in Imaginary Animals, Sax reels off countless examples of animals we have dreamt up ourselves. . . . Sax leads us on a ceaseless and generously illustrated museum tour from one fantastical example to another."

Morning Star

Table of Contents

1. The True Unicorn

2. Animal Encounters

3. What is an ‘Imaginary Animal’?

4. Every Real Animal is Imaginary

5. Every Imaginary Animal is Real

6. Monsters

7. Wonders

8. Creatures of Water

9. Creatures of Fire and Air

10. Creatures of Earth

11. Shape-Shifters

12. Mechanical Animals


Further Reading


Photo Acknowledgements


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