As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition
- Jorge Luis Borges, preface to the 1969 English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
It is an old adage that a good book is like a good friend, and as a staunch bibliophile I subscribe fully to this. Therefore, it was a great pleasure to receive a package in my pigeonhole containing a translated edition of Jorge Luis Borges' wonderful little Book of Imaginary Beings (Libro de los Seres Imaginarios). This little book is in many ways typical of Borges in that it contains a wide-ranging display of knowledge drawn from a great variety of literary works and selected from several different cultures. The book is in effect a kind of bestiary compiled from the long and long-winded history of mythical - and sometimes fictional - beasts. For someone whose love of Borges comes in part from his eclecticism, the Book of Imaginary Beings is an utter delight to read.
I bought my first copy of its English translation during my second term at university, i.e. in the spring of 2008. I remember very clearly how I spent part of that summer reading through the book, and my reading was inspired by me having read somewhere that the intention of Borges had been that this book should not be read from beginning to end, but rather by picking chapters here and there more or less at random. For a budding medievalist, convinced of the usefulness of such cultural historical knowledge, the reading was a sheer delight.
One or two years later, I gave my copy of the Book of Imaginary Beings to a very dear friend for his birthday. Part of me always regretted it. Even though I was somewhat sad to part from such a treasury of often-arcane knowledge, I did nothing about it until this year (for reasons I still fail to understand). What inspired the purchase, however, was that I had allowed myself to become immersed in the cultural history of the monsters from the Graeco-Roman and the medieval tradition, and after having spent weeks researching and writing about Blemmyae, Panotii, Cynocephali and other fixtures of the medieval ideas of the extremeties of the world, I was inspired to buy Borges' modern and updated bestiary. After its arrival, I have spent some time relishing its chapter in a kind of academic nostalgia. To share that delight, I will present one of the chapters below, and hopefully this will whet the appetites of readers as yet unfamiliar with this work to either obtain or borrow a copy of their own.
The vegetable Lamb of Tartary, also named Barometz and Lycopodium barometz and Chinese lycopodium, is a plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece. It stands on four or five root stalks. Sir Thomas Browne gives this description of it in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646):
Much wonder is made of the Barometz, that strange plant-animal or vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which Wolves delight to feed on, which hath the shape of a Lamb, affordeth a bloody juyce upon breaking, and live while the plants be consumed about it.
Other monsters are made up by combining various kinds of animals; the Barometz is a union of animal and vegetable kingdoms.
This brings to mind the mandrake, which cries out like a man when it is ripped from the eath; and in one of the circles of the Inferno, the sad forests of the suicides, from whose torn limbs blood and words drip at the same time; and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds nesting in its branches, and when spring came put out feathers instead of leaves.
- Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni), Vintage Books, 2002: 28
Although Borges does not mention it, the vegetable lamb is first described in medieval travel accounts of the Far East, and its first mention is often ascribed to Odoric de Pordenone (1286-1331), a Franciscan friar who travelled extensively in the East and who wrote an account of his journeys. The Barometz is believed to be a misunderstanding of the cotton plant, and its description gained enduring popularity.
This popularity might indeed be partly due to its inclusion in John Mandeville's Travels, written in the second half of the fourteenth century. In chapter 21, the narrator describes this beast in the following way:
Therefore, should one go from Cathay to northern or Southern India, one will go through a kingdom called Caldilhe. This is a very large country, where a kind of fruit grows like a gourd. When it is ripe people cut it open and they find inside an animal, a thing of flesh and blood and bone, it's like a little lamb without wool. People eat the animal and the fruit too, and that is mavellous indeed.
- John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (translated by Anthony Bale), Oxford World Classics, 2012: 104
The vegetable lamb of TartaryWoodcut from an unspecified edition of John Mandeville's Travels
Printed by Henry Lee in The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)