Thursday, July 21, 2022

Guest Post: Anne EG Nydam, "On the Virtues of Beasts--A Modern Fantasy Project with a Medieval Inspiration"

The first answer to the Society's recent call for contributions--which is still open; we'd love to hear from you!--comes from author and illustrator Anne EG Nydam, whose Nydam Prints features prints, books, and other artistic sundries. Her 2019 book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, is "a bestiary that is inspired by and modeled on medieval bestiaries," as well as by the works of Tolkien. She notes, too, a comparison between medieval bestiary work and contemporary speculative fiction, in that both serve "to inspire a sense of wonder by telling stories about magical things, which holds up a mirror or guidebook to invite the reader to consider how we can live our lives morally."

The text of the post below is furnished by Nydam, in which she reflects on the content and composition of the words and images in her bestiary. The images below all come from her book and are used with her kind permission. Editorial adjustment is kept to a minimum.

am not an academic or a medievalist, but I am an artist and fiction writer who has done extensive amateur research into the medieval bestiary, which I find not only a fascinating genre, but also one that has many common threads with our modern speculative fiction genres. I combined these ideas by writing and illustrating On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, a “medieval style” bestiary of my own, featuring all sorts of mythical, magical creatures. Medieval bestiaries combine elements of art, storytelling, science, mythology, social history, and morality. Right at the outset, I’ll acknowledge that the medieval writers wouldn’t have used any of those modern terms, let alone think of their work as “fantasy” in any way comparable to the way we think of fantasy now. Nevertheless, the blend of all these different elements is what attracts me to bestiaries and is what makes them so much fun!

There are many fantasy “bestiaries,” often presented as if they were books of natural science, and I enjoy these. However, the bit that differentiates the medieval era’s bestiaries from both the Classical encyclopedias before and the Renaissance encyclopedias after is a moral component: the idea that the purpose of learning about the Creation is to gain insight and understanding about the moral lessons that the Creator had embedded in the creatures of the Earth. In Europe, these moral lessons were all about Catholic theology, but the bestiary genre was also popular throughout the Middle East and Persian literary areas, where the moral lessons derived from the natural world were based in Islamic theology. Plus, Jewish art of the same era often made use of similar iconography for similar purposes, although to the best of my knowledge, there was not a bestiary genre in Hebrew literature. In any case, though, what struck me as I discovered more about these texts was the common thread across these cultures of the idea of using stories (especially information about the natural world) to examine moral issues. Moreover, this is a role that speculative fiction often takes on today.

I’m one of the many people for whom Tolkien’s work was instrumental in turning me into a lifelong lover of fantasy. Three of the elements in Tolkien’s success and appeal to me are beauty, wonder, and morality, and these are three major elements in the medieval bestiaries’ success, as well.

First, beauty. Bestiaries were lavishly illustrated, and the illustrations in bestiaries were not marginal decoration, but were important iconography that explicitly illustrated the text. For my own bestiary, therefore, I wanted to make a book that would be physically beautiful. Not only did I illustrate each of the animals featured, but I designed borders to go around each page, decorative initials, frontispiece and illustrations for the index, and so on.

Second, wonder. When we look at bestiary illustrations, as well as their strange descriptions of some of the animals, we tend to think, “Couldn’t they see that isn’t accurate? Surely they must have known?” But often “scientific” accuracy in the way we think of it now simply wasn’t the point. For the medieval bestiaries, part of the point was to inspire the reader with wonder to draw them in and to invite them to think about the divine lessons to be understood through learning about this wondrous Creation. They did this by describing strange creatures from faraway places, by illustrating them with marvelous colors and even gold illumination, and by telling anecdotes of magical behaviors and miraculous properties. This is exactly what modern speculative fiction often does as well; it shows us a world that is explicitly not “realistic,” and draws us in with wonder. For many of us, myself included, Middle-earth was a major introduction to the wonder, beauty, and excitement of magical worlds. Tolkien also created a sense of wonder by writing in a deliberately lyrical, somewhat archaic style. In order to evoke wonder in my own bestiary, I used many of these same techniques used by the medieval bestiary makers and by Tolkien: tales of strange and magical creatures; illustrations of wondrous scenes; and a deliberately poetic, old-fashioned writing style to show the reader that this is not your everyday modern encyclopedia!

Third, morality. The wonder opens our hearts and minds to consider and reconsider the choices we make about the ways we can live in our own world. Modern speculative fiction has a powerful and subversive ability to slip behind our defenses because we are willingly suspending our disbelief. Because readers of fantasy are less likely to object, “But that could never happen!” fantasy can show us visions not only of nifty things like elves, dragons, and magic, but also visions of individuals and societies functioning in ways that we would otherwise reject as impossible. Tolkien used a world of wonder to draw us in to consider the moral dimensions of such big questions as heroism, industrialism, loyalty, power, and knowledge. For my bestiary, I drew a moral from the story of each mythical creature. Rather than medieval Catholic theology, however (which has some thoroughly appalling elements), my morals are more modern messages about the importance of welcome and kindness, care for the natural world, integrity, creativity, and so on.

For years, I toyed with the idea of making a medieval-style bestiary with a modern diversity of creatures and a modern sense of morality. I made illustrations of dozens of mythical creatures, researched their stories, pored over more than a hundred digitized medieval bestiaries on-line. But was I the only person in the world who loved the strange mash-up of old-fashioned writing, relief-printed art, veneer of science, world-wide fantasy, and explicit morality? Would the people who love fantasy accept the moral lessons? Would the people who appreciated moral content understand the fantasy? Would adult readers want a picture book, and would children be able to read archaic, poetic writing? My husband, who likes to deal in data, convinced me that I should run a Kickstarter campaign in order to get some answers. Quite simply, if no one was interested in the Kickstarter, I would know that I was indeed alone in thinking this idea was enticing. On the other hand, if I got a few backers, I’d be able to gauge just how much interest there might be. Lo and behold, when I launched the campaign, it was successfully funded in just a few days, and went on to receive pledges of over five and a half times my initial goal.

Since then, the book has gone on to receive positive reactions whenever I do readings or bring it to events. So it turns out that the modern world is still interested in beauty, wonder, and morality, those same elements that made bestiaries best-sellers of the medieval world. And I also owe thanks to Tolkien, for introducing me to the wonders of medieval-influenced fantasy, of course, but also for making it such a foundational part of the modern fantasy landscape that other readers, too, have found that my own book, although it might seem so hopelessly niche, strikes a familiar and beloved chord.

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