Mar 1, 2023
"What about werewolves, giants, trolls, and dragons? We don’t believe in them; they’re not real! Are they?"
What does the creator of Harry Potter have in common with a 1st century CE Roman historian? Simple, they share a passion for Beasts!
Arguably, Rowling and Pliny are responsible for the two greatest European Bestiaries of the Christian Era. They provide bookends to a tradition that spans 20 centuries and that appears in some form in every culture and in every era. First, some background:
What is a ‘Beast’? Any life form other than Homo sapiens could be considered a Beast. ‘Beasts’ include our fast friends: lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! They also include Spot, our family’s best friend.
But that barely scratches the surface. ‘Beasts’ include proto-humans from Neanderthal to Yeti. They include dragons, centaurs, and other supposedly mythical creatures. They include all manner of chimera, e.g., unicorns, griffins, and merpeople (known as ‘mermaids’ before the gender revolution).
Push out the envelope to include flesh eating plants, pernicious bacteria and unclassified life forms like fairies, elves, and leprechauns.
We live in the universe of a small child. We live in the company of fellow human beings. Beyond that, we know Spot the dog, Puss the cat, and Elsie the cow. We have stuffed giraffes, rhinos, hippos, et al. We trust that these puppets have real-world prototypes, even though few of us have ever actually petted one.
What about werewolves, giants, trolls, and dragons? We don’t believe in them; they’re not real! Are they?
Like our neighbors’ bratty children (but unlike our own cherubs), we are terribly spoiled – so spoiled in fact that we actually have the chutzpah to complain about conditions in our habitat.
Let’s take stock: we live alongside other, mostly peaceable humans in a civilized society. We’ve domesticated our pets and tamed our ‘beasts of burden’ (horses, oxen, etc.). As for the rest of the animal kingdom, as noted above, we’ll take ours stuffed, thank you… and not by a taxidermist.
Most of us will be born, grow, live, and die without ever hearing a dragon roar (Puff notwithstanding)!
We live in a well-designed zoo. Our enclosure is virtual - but virtually impermeable. We imagine that we are the zookeepers but in fact we are the exhibit. And yet, we complain:
“The food could be better, it gets chilly at night, the sheep bleat too loudly, etc. If ‘zoo management’ really cared about us, they’d do something about these deplorable living conditions, right?”
It’s that darn old Problem of Evil coming back to bite us again, albeit in a new guise; but Pliny and Rowling turn the ‘problem’ on its head by asking, “What if there was no Zoo? What then?”
Whining, we ask, “Why aren’t things better than they are?” Clearer eyed, Pliny and Rowling asked, “Why aren’t things much worse?” IRL, Sally and Spot are your playmates…but it could just as well have been Behemoth and Leviathan.
Pliny and Rowling both take a page out of Wonderful Life – no, not the Jimmy Stewart movie, the Stephen Gould book. Life could have, and may have, evolved in many different ways, almost all of which would have been much less hospitable than what we’re used to.
Why did life evolve the way it did? Or did life evolve in all sorts of horrible ways, with us somehow sheltered from the worst results? Is there cosmic censorship?
Did the horrible monsters of our imagination just never evolve? Or did they evolve in all their pomp and fury but behind some sort of invisible barrier, a cosmic filter perhaps, that protects us?
If so, is that evidence that there is a ‘bias toward good’ in the universe that saves us from fates far, far worse than mere death? Is that ‘bias toward good’ a manifestation of what we call God? Can we ask anything more of God than such a tilt?
Who even asks questions like these? Well, how’s this for a NY Times Best Seller list: Job, Pliny, Augustine, Einstein, Tolkien, Hugh Everett (physicist), and Rowling? Our questions put us in good intellectual company. Perhaps Augustine said it best (paraphrasing): I don’t know whether proto-humans exist or not but if they do, then they must somehow also be descended from Adam and Eve (Genesis 6: 1-4).
Pliny and Rowling turn the classic Problem of Evil on its head. In their hands, it becomes a Problem of Good: If life on earth could have evolved in such horrible ways, why didn’t it? Or, if it did, how is it that we are sheltered from its worst effects? Who made Middle Earth ‘safe for humanity’?
The so-called Problem of Evil has led many to deny, or at least question, the existence of a benevolent God. The great Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote an entire book, Why I Am Not a Christian, to broadcast his conclusion. If so, the discovery of the Problem of Good should have the same effect…but in the other direction. How is it that things are not very, very much worse than they are? Could that be evidence of some sort of ‘divine influence’?
Ponder that a while, if you will, but while you ponder, perhaps you’d like to meet some of my cuties:
According to Pliny, the Scythians feed mainly on human flesh. The Anthropophagi drink out of human skulls. The Psylli expose their newborns to deadly serpents to prove the mother’s chastity and test the father’s paternity. Calingi women conceive at 5 years of age and don’t live beyond the age of 8. The Asmoths have no mouths and live only on odors.
Rowling picks up where Pliny leaves off. She takes full advantage of 20 centuries of geographic exploration, and scientific discovery to expand Pliny’s menagerie and to give her creatures greater definition.
Her bestiary includes all the usual suspects: Centaurs, Griffins, Dragons, Pegasus, Unicorns, Werewolves and, of course, Yeti. She also includes some relative newcomers to the beastly scene: Erklings, for example, are three-foot tall, elfish creatures native to the Black Forest; their preferred diet, of course, is the flesh of young children.
On the other end of Rowling’s genetic spectrum is the Acromantula, a spider-like creature, capable of human speech, now native to Borneo. It is thought that the Acromantula may be the product of genetic engineering…by humans. Like COVID-19 perhaps?
When we were very young, we believed that monsters lived in unseen spaces: under our beds, in our closets, etc. Gradually, we outgrew such beliefs. But what if we were right in the first place? What if the monsters were there all the time, but somehow something protected us from them. Was it the trusty nightlight? Or Daddy’s always thorough ‘sweep’ of my room at bedtime? Or was it the benevolent bias of being, aka God?
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.