Beasts, beasts, beasts… {Rabbit Hole: Tudor Bestiary}

20/12/2011 § Leave a comment

I find myself drawn to the beasts in this lovely Tudor bestiary, c.1520.  Made popular in the European middle ages, bestiaries were large, illustrated compendiums of animals that provided the reader with a double dose of natural history and an instruction in Christian morality.  They are highly symbolic and a modern reader requires quite a bit of guidance to uncover the hidden meanings in these gloriously illustrated manuscripts.  Most interesting to me is the frequent, matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic animals.  It’s as if they actually existed…

Fear not, we are of the nature of the lion, and cannot descend
to the destruction of mice and such small beasts.
Elizabeth I

The Unicorn
Shel Silverstein

A long time ago, when the earth was green
and there was more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen,
and they run around free while the world was bein’ born,
and the lovliest of all was the Unicorn.

There was green alligators and long-neck geese.
There was humpy bumpy camels and chimpanzees.
There was catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born
the lovliest of all was the Unicorn.

But the Lord seen some sinnin’, and it caused him pain.
He says, ‘Stand back, I’m gonna make it rain.’
He says, ‘Hey Brother Noah, I’ll tell ya whatcha do.
Go and build me a floatin’ zoo.

And you take two alligators and a couple of geese,
two humpy bumpy camels and two chimpanzees.
Take two catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born,
Noah, don’t you forget my Unicorn.’

Now Noah was there, he answered the callin’
and he finished up the ark just as the rain was fallin’.
He marched in the animals two by two,
and he called out as they went through,

‘Hey Lord, I got your two alligators and your couple of geese,
your humpy bumpy camels and your chimpanzees.
Got your catsandratsandelephants – but Lord, I’m so forlorn
’cause I just don’t see no Unicorn.’

Ol’ Noah looked out through the drivin’ rain
but the Unicorns were hidin’, playin’ silly games.
They were kickin’ and splashin’ in the misty morn,
oh them silly Unicorn.

The the goat started goatin’, and the snake started snakin’,
the elephant started elephantin’, and the boat started shaking’.
The mouse started squeakin’, and the lion started roarin’,
and everyone’s abourd but the Unicorn.

I mean the green alligators and the long-neck geese,
the humpy bumpy camels and the chimpanzees.
Noah cried, ‘Close the door ’cause the rain is pourin’ -
and we just can’t wait for them Unicorn.’

Then the ark started movin’, and it drifted with the tide,
and the Unicorns looked up from the rock and cried.
And the water come up and sort of floated them away -
that’s why you’ve never seen a Unicorn to this day.

You’ll see a lot of alligators and a whole mess of geese.
You’ll see humpy bumpy camels and lots of chimpanzees.
You’ll see catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born
you’re never gonna see no Unicorn

They very soon came upon a Gryphon, lying fast asleep in the sun (If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture.) “Up, lazy thing!” said the Queen, “and take this young lady to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history.  I must go back and see after some executions I have ordered;” and she walked off, leaving Alice alone with the Gryphon.  Alice did not quite like the look of the creature, but on the whole she thought it would be quite safe to stay with it as to go after that savage queen: so she waited.

The Gryphon sat up and rubbed its eyes: then it watched the Queen till she was out of sight: then it chuckled. “What fun!” said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice.

“What is the fun?” said Alice.

“Why, she,” said the Gryphon.  “It’s all her fancy, that: they never executes nobody, you know.  Come on!”

“Everybody says ‘come on!’ here,” thought Alice, as she went slowly after it: “I never was so ordered about before, in all my life, never!”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Panther
Ranier Maria Rilke

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

For more Tudor beasts, head here.

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