The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures -  John and Caitlin Matthews
“This book is a zoology of the imagination more than it is a natural history. It follows the myths of magical creatures wherever they show themselves, myths that are primal stories encoding understandings that we grasp by means of metaphor rather than with any literal-mindedness. Where will these creatures lead us?” --From the book

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures is a 682-page, flexibound compendium of fantastic beings from myth, magic, and urban legend. (Flexibound is somewhat between a hardcover and a paperback). Arranged alphabetically for easy reference, hundreds of entries are culled from literature, sacred texts, history, legends, cryptozoology, and movies. Mythical stories pertaining to animals, fowl, and insects are also provided. Entertaining and informative, this book sparks both imagination and curiosity. Indeed, it’s hard to read “just one” entry in this unique book.

Some of the fantastical beasts, monsters, and demigods listed in this book include:

Fire Drake

While many entries are familiar, I found the majority obscure—having never heard of them. I was intrigued to find that Dobby, the house elf from the Harry Potter books, is actually a genus of British house fairies—known mostly in the north of England. Supposedly, the Dobby/Dobie makes ridiculous mistakes or is easily confused. When I read the entry for the Brownie (pronounced “broony”), I was surprised to read that the sure way to get rid of a brownie is to give him a piece of clothing—just like the house elves in the J.K. Rowling series. (Unfortunately, the authors didn’t cross-reference Dobby to Brownie for some reason, so I stumbled upon the entry quite by accident. Or, due to obscene curiosity, I suppose).

At times, the authors speak at length about Potter references in relevant entries. However, the entry for the Stag fails to mention Harry Potter’s Patronus, which is a luminous white stag that Harry conjures in his times of need.

Some of the research for The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures seems sketchy at best and inaccurate at worst. For example, under the Mothman entry, there’s a mention of the movie The Mothman Prophecies. The entry states “starring Kevin Costner”, but Costner isn’t in the film. The star of the movie is actually Richard Gere. I have to wonder: if the authors include a mistake like this—on a fact that is easily researchable—how accurate is the other information in this book?

One of the first entries I looked up was “tulpas”, a concept that fascinates me. Unfortunately, there is no mention or entry for this phenomenon. Yet, there was information on the Golem, which is similar—but of Jewish/Kabbalistic origin.

While the authors explained that Fawkes is a pet Phoenix of Dumbledore in the Potter series, they fail to mention a more common mythological connection: the Phoenix is connected to the sign of Scorpio, and is considered a higher expression of this Zodiacal sign. Another “miss” was the entry on Salamanders. There is no mention that this creature is a spirit connected with the fire element in magical Hermeticism and some Pagan traditions. (Not to mention that the Salamander is a somewhat common theme among the fire suits in Tarot, most notably the Wands.) So I looked up Gnome (associated with the earth element), and did find a brief mention of salamander, gnome, undine, and sylph in terms of hermetic practice and Paracelsusian philosophy. Thus, the cross references in this book seems to be shoddy.

While some of the information in The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures is downright fascinating, I was a bit disappointed to see what I considered glaring gaps in the research, not to mention inaccuracies. I didn’t go looking for these, but discovered them early in my explorations of this book as I followed my interests and curiosity. That, and the fact that many of the entries were entirely unfamiliar to me, makes this a so-so book for me.

Granted, it’s an overwhelming undertaking cataloguing hundreds of fantastical creatures from a myriad of sources—so kudos certainly go to the authors for doing a decent job as far as breadth goes. Moreover, I suppose I can’t be too hard on the book, considering that it’s an encyclopedia—not necessarily and exhaustive reference. Perhaps I am spoiled by Judika Illes’ breadth and depth in The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft (not to mention her book on 5,000 spells).

If you’re curious about the likes of mermen and griffins, sirens and orcs, The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures will probably delight you. I can see this book being especially good reference for sci-fi and fantasy writers. However, if you want comprehensive information on several creatures, you may be better off getting a book that is devoted specifically to such a subject. (Note: after only an hour or so of reading this book, the pages began to pull away from the glue binding. Unfortunately, the flexibound cover/binding isn’t as sturdy as the two previous hardback installments of the Element Encyclopedia series. Thus, it’s not a good idea to read the book flat—but this hefty volume makes it almost impossible to read any other way without experiencing discomfort.)

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