Borges is that rare writer, one who can truly change your outlook forever. To read Labyrinths or Ficciones is to experience the universe anew, to find a poetry in mathematics, a mysticism in reason. In tales like “Funes the Memorious”, “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”, Borges explores the concept of infinitude. A child with endless knowledge, a library that goes on forever, the constantly diverging paths of reality which make possibility itself endless. In doing so he finds a beauty in the concept perhaps unique in literature – the master poet-in-prose of the infinite. The prose he captures these dizzying absolutes within is understated, mellifluous and simple, dreamlike and factual, making the fantastical real, and the prosaic extraordinary. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, he describes a man re-writing Cervantes’ work, word for word, without reading the original, and makes the idea seem not just possible but inevitable, and beautiful. In “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” another world – one whose inhabitants inhabit a realm of pure thought – floods from the pages of an encyclopaedia to overwhelm our own. Borges not only makes us accept this could happen, he makes us welcome it. The highest philosophical concepts of time, space, reality and perception are rendered malleable and human, the arcane loses its abstraction while retaining awe.
In 1957, after he had written most of the stories which make up Labyrinths, Borges undertook the task of penning a compendium of descriptions of fantastical beings – dragons, unicorns, phoenix and the like. Such an obscure, niche-laden, listing exercise would probably be seen as treading water at best in most other authors, – and in the case of most other authors the accusation would probably be accurate. You can’t readily imagine James Joyce publishing a list of his favourite fairy tales for example, nor a joke book by Samuel Beckett. What could be a mere whimsical addendum to a body of work from another writer instead becomes a wonderful vista on the gifts of Borges. This is not a case of “he could write about anything and make it wonderful” – the old “I’d listen to him sing the phone book” cliche – for Borges, style and content are inseparable. Rather, the format of a scholarly researched compendium allows him to brandish with a flourish the outstanding knowledge and learning which pepper his writing, while the subject of the fantastic complements completely the strange insights which inform his vision.
The expected exotic are all here, the dragons, the unicorns, the nymphs, the phoenix and the salamander. What Borges brings to his description of these creatures, which many readers may think themselves already familiar with, is the learning which marks much of his best work (“research” is somehow an inadequate word) immense, profound, yet somehow worn lightly. European medieval manuscripts, the scrolls of ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Persians, the musings of esoteric Victorians, and the lore of all world religions casually surface and recede as the moment demands.
Thus we learn that eastern dragons are associated with both emperors and Confucius and have saliva of medicinal qualities:- “Buddhists affirm that Dragons are no fewer in number than the fishes of their many concentric seas; somewhere in the universe a sacred cipher exists to express their exact number.”
The Phoenix, we see was conjured of by the Ancient Egyptians in their dreams of eternal life, and alluded to by Tacitus and Pliny hundreds of years later as they fixed the intervals of the fiery bird’s visits as once every 1,461 years. We learn that in England once Christianity vanquished the older Norse gods that they didn’t just lie down and die, but instead corrupted and withered into Trolls, while the beautiful Valkyries became witches. These witches were also known as Norns or Fates, grim augurs of the future the memory of which survives in the weird sisters of Macbeth.
References to Tacitus, Pliny, Terulius, Propertius, and St Ambrose remind us that the most learned men of the day considered all these “imaginary beings” as “real”, believed in every bit as much we today accept the existence of exotic fauna we have only seen on television screens. These beings informed the landscape of the mind, which in turn became the landscape of history, and therefore the world. The Nordic Elves who shoot the invisible arrows which cause common itches, their Scottish counterparts the Brownies, who rather more winsomely turn up and tidy around the house, the Harpies, who we learn “wielded weapons of gold – lightning – and milked the clouds” , all these dwelt in the minds of our ancestors in a more profound sense than the mundane insects, cats and cattle which walked among them.
While descriptions of these more familiar fiends and fairies are captured marvellously (in both senses) and show us far more of the subjects than we could have imagined, Borges comes still more into his own with narrations of the more outlandish creatures. Here is Kujata, a huge bull from Islamic folklore, with 4000 eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths and feet. Kujata stands on the back of the great fish Bahamut, “All the seas in the world placed in one of the fish’s nostrils would be like a mustard seed placed in the desert”. Under Bahamut is water, and under the water darkness, “and beyond this men’s knowledge does not reach”. The uncanniness of cosmology is brought to us with a quiet aplomb, as it is with the “Fauna of Mirrors” where we learn that the people of Canton believed another hostile world was behind every reflective surface, the people of whom are enslaved into copying our actions for now, but whose turn to rise will come, and whose uprising will be heralded by…. a rogue yellow fish you may see in the mirror that shouldn’t be there. That such a potentially risible, laughable notion instead haunts the memory is further testimony to Borges’ mastery.
Occasionally the book has guest spots from other authors – mainly Kafka and C S Lewis – which, good as they are, simply serve as contrast to the particular visions of the grand editor. Elsewhere in the bestiary we meet Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel and Aniel, a four headed creature surrounded by rings full of eyes, as envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel. One of its heads is that of an ox, one of man, one of lion, and one of eagle, “each one went in the direction of its face, so imaginable as to be uncanny.” Borges is adept at describing things, which, in terms of physical human description, cannot be described. When H P Lovecraft does this, he horrifies. When Borges does it, he simply entrances.
With all this talk of mystique and wonder, you could be forgiven for thinking this book a po-faced thing. Not at all. Borges is always aware the things he describes are as ridiculous as they are sublime, and a wryness sometimes peers through. Of the strange visionary Swedenbourg, who wrote with incredible vividness of the celestial beings he claimed to know – “as the English are not very talkative, he fell into the habit of conversing with angels and Devils.” When the allegorical nature of some of the creatures is a little too heavy handed for his tastes, he is not above mocking it. (The hippogriff is the combination of a griffin and a horse which denotes the impossible – Luis notes the Greek scholar Servius somewhat milked this by inventing the “fact” that griffins must hate horses). Sillier creatures like the Squonk, ( of Aboriginal folklore, which cries to itself until its body disintegrates) appear with a mordant dryness. The entire “Fauna of the United States” are of a somewhat facetious nature, such as the axehandle hound – shaped like an axe, and which eats only axes. But what Borges never does is pour contempt on the fantastical – he knows its importance too well.
Borges knew that while the religions may be wrong in their claim to give us morality, they and their myths have more far more valid claim in giving us a sense of wonder, helping the impossible peer in, making life, rather than existence, possible. It is in no way a betrayal of rationalism to find a sense of transcendent mystery and awe in the Moslem Jinn (people of fire, as angels are of light and men of earth), the Jewish Golem, (a kind of ancient clay android), or the angelic hordes of in the Christian-informed visions of Swedenbourg. They don’t exist, never have, and countless crimes have been committed in the names of the theologies which conjured them up. But these are beings without which the world of the mind, the world we inhabit, would not exist. Part of Borges’ very real genius is to illuminate these corners of what makes us human, with a wisdom so acute it meets itself round full circle so as to appear childlike, an endless loop of wild possibility.
Not bad for a book about about dragons, witches and gnomes eh? No, he’s not bad this Borges.