‘Animals were the first thing that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals.’ (David Attenborough)
Since the first paintings of bison and deer were made deep underground in caves 30,000 years ago, we have been fascinated by the lives of the non-human inhabitants of the planet we share. Natural historians have described and classified countless species that populate the Earth.
In the same spirit of enquiry, writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman have explored the possibility of worlds where humans are not necessarily masters of a hierarchy of creation, but where animals and birds possess magical powers and can speak, and where creatures exist that are unknown to mortal biology.
‘Animals from the abyss – old golden creatures, things with wings, pearl-eyed monsters from the deep sea, and whispering plants from long ago.’ (Diana Wynne Jones)
In the Middle Ages when few people travelled beyond their home towns and villages the world beyond was inhabited by unknown creatures, both real and imaginary. In this realm of the possible dragons and unicorns existed alongside domestic cats and tawny owls in the pages of bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts, as well as in the popular imagination. These images of exotic potential continue to fascinate, and the pages of fantasy fiction are alive with stories of dragons, phoenixes and strange hybrid beings who live beyond the boundaries of the commonplace.
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