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A Bestiary is, quite literally, a "book of beasts." Most of the ones we are familiar with were codified in medieval times, some as late as the Renaissance, but they drew upon a body of traditional animal lore that had been passed along from scholar to scholar for many hundreds of years. Ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Oppian, Gaius Julius Solinus (sometimes referred to as "Pliny's ape"), and Claudius Aelianus were the sources for much of the information in the Bestiaries, supplemented by oral tradition (some of it hundreds of years old), Christian allegorical lore, "traveller's tales" (i.e.: lies) by charlatans like Sir John Mandeville or the later Baron Munchausen, and the genuine (if often somewhat muddled) reports of legitimate explorers, especially those who (by Renaissance times) were beginning to penetrate the unknown fastnesses of the New World.

The Bestiaries, particularly the later ones, were not just compilations of marvels, but serious and substantial works of science, the beginnings of modern zoology ... but because reliable zoologic information was so rare, the compilers of the Bestiaries often had difficulty distinguishing the real from the imagined, so that you will find dragons and crocodiles, manticores and rabbits, beavers and cockatrices, all sharing the same pages—pages where, in the words of M. St. Clare Byrne, "superstition and fact, myth and observation are all inextricably mixed." In his Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts (1607), for instance, Edward Topsell devotes 152 pages of text to the horse, much of it closely observed, and then, a bit later on, tells us that dragons hide in ambush for elephants by watering holes, and that when the elephant "putteth downe his trunke they take hold thereof, and instantly in great numbers leap up unto his eare ... where out they sucke the blood of the Elephant untill he fall downe dead, and so they perish both together." It should also be noted that Topsell makes a careful distinction between the rhinoceros and the unicorn, and then goes on to chide his readers for the "impiety" of not believing in the existence of the magical beast just because there are various one-horned creatures in mundane nature that might superficially resemble it.

This last point is particularly important. Although, as many biologists point out, there are still hundreds of species of insects and plants in the Amazon Basin alone that have never been described or classified by science, in our modern smugness we sometimes seem to feel that we have explored even the remotest corners of the world and know everything there is to be known about the creatures who inhabit it. We congratulate ourselves on the fact that we have no difficulty distinguishing the real from the fabulous, that we can flip through the pages of a medieval Bestiary and with easy confidence relegate elephants, antelopes, cats, beavers, and bison to one category, and manticores, unicorns, dragons, griffins, and cockatrices to the other. We might even allow ourselves to sneer a little at the credulity of our forebears. And yet, even though we know that they're not "real," the fabulous creatures of legend and mythology have not gone away. They still live in the pages of fantasy literature all over the world, and new generations of readers still encounter them there with the same shock of recognition, the same thrill of wonder and awe as their forefathers. In that sense, we still "believe" in them, just as credulously as our ancestors did. There is something about these creatures which is still potent, and their images still speak to something that lives in the deep places of the spirit. In the words of Jorge Luis Borges, "We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon's image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one ..."

In this anthology we will examine some of those "necessary monsters," the magical beasts who are still alive and well in the pages of fantasy literature: Creatures from the pre-Dawn world of myth, from before the coming of man.... Creatures who walk the neon-lit streets of our own modern world.... Creatures civilized and charming. Creatures ravening and monstrous. Creatures who'll make you laugh, creatures who'll freeze the marrow of your bones. Creatures born of fire, creatures of dreadful night, creatures of gentle magic. The fabulous creatures that still stalk through our dreams . , . . and our nightmares.

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