"The Book of Imaginary Creatures" seems like kind of a flimsy book for a great author like Jorge Luis Borges -- a bestiary of creatures from myth, religion and literature. But the book becomes deeper and more intriguing as it goes on, tapping into philosophy and common imaginings around the world.
There are several religion-based creatures -- the Biblical Levithian, Swedenborg's angels and demons, Mohammed's heavenly steed Buraq, Judaical golems (which aren't quite the same as other creatures, since people have to make them), and supernatural versions of real animals, like the white elephant that appeared before the birth of Buddha or Chinese foxes.
But even more numerous are the mythic creatures, from the usual (centaurs, unicorns, hellhounds, gryphons) to the obscure (the A Bao A Qu, an insubstantial little thing that follows people up the stairs). These are a more colourful bunch, especially since many of them -- dragons, the hare in the moon, the basilisk -- recur in different countries, and Borges told readers of most of those.
And to round it off, Borges included creatures invented in literature -- Homer and Dante's mythic creatures, Poe's Antarctic creatures, Kafka, Lewis Carroll's version of a Cheshire cat, and C.S. Lewis's alien creatures from the "Space Trilogy." These authors all created creatures that were almost too weird, but which also seemed relatively likely (as invented animals go).
"The Book of Imaginary Beings" is actually very well-rounded, with lots of bizarre or relatively unknown creatures. You'd expect a bunch of typical mythic creatures just tossed together, but fortunately Borges goes way behind the call of duty, from the A Bao A Qu to the Zaratan (a carnivorous living island).
Borges obviously had great respect for these various legends, since he treats them as seriously as if they were scientifically proven. And he did his research, including duplicates and variations from across the world (not all of them, though), such as the Guardians of the four directions: for the Chinese, it was four tiger spirits, while it was four angelic beasts for the kabbalists.
Borges writes this in a solemn, scholarly manner, but it's still very easy to read ("It is a monster of form, inspired by the devil of symmetry in the imagination of sculptors, potters and ceramicists"). He also includes translations of the beings' names, and quite a few snippets of text and poetry that describe them. Even ancient nonfiction, such as Lucretius insisting that a creature like the centaur couldn't exist. Okay, whatever.
"The Book of Imaginary Beings" seems like a rather minor work for a legendary author. But taken on its own, this little mythic bestiary is a solid little read.