Research is not a straight path. It is a trail that twists through mountains and valleys. There are forks in the road and enticing sights that lay off the beaten track. These distractions can be the most treacherous aspects of the journey. Often they can be so alluring that one can forget where one was going in the first place. I stumbled across one of these tangents recently while researching the life and work of Charles Gould (1834-1893), a journey that took me from Tasmania’s wild west coast to mainland China, from giant freshwater crayfish to dragons, and from natural history to the realms of myth.
Charles Gould, the son of ornithologist John Gould and artist Elizabeth Gould, served as the first Government Geologist of Tasmania. In this capacity, Gould led three expeditions into the west coast of Tasmania in search of gold and other minerals. Gould produced several historically significant maps and reports from these expeditions that helped form the early settlers’ understanding of Tasmania’s west.
While working through the list of Gould’s publications I encountered an 1886 book titled Mythical Monsters. Surely, I thought, this could not have been written by the same Charles Gould, geologist and man of science? My initial interrogation of the book, however, confirmed that it was. The title page provided the crucial extra detail: that the author was Charles Gould, “member of the Royal Society of Tasmania; late geological surveyor of Tasmania.”
A brief scan of the book’s contents cleared up why Gould the scientist wrote a book about mythical monsters. The book is not, as I originally imagined, simply an examination of dragons, krakens and unicorns. Instead, it is an attempt to rationalise the stories about fantastic creatures and to argue that these creatures are not so imaginary after all. In the introduction to Mythical Monsters, Gould proposes that mythical animals “may be considered, not as the outcome of exuberant fancy, but as creatures which really once existed, and of which, unfortunately, only imperfect and inaccurate descriptions have filtered down to us…through the mists of time” (1886, p. 2).
In short, Gould’s Mythical Monsters is an early work of cryptozoology.
Once I realised what I was dealing with it all started to make a bit more sense. Charles Gould was, first and foremost, a natural scientist. He was motivated by a desire to observe and catalogue the natural world. Like most nineteenth century intellectuals, Gould did not confine himself to just one branch of science. As well as geology he also dabbled in botany and zoology. In fact, Gould is best recognised not for his geological surveys but for his painstaking documentation of the Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi) in Tasmania’s north-west. It is likely that the time Gould spent with these magnificent, prehistoric animals influenced his stance on mythological creatures.
Incidentally, both Charles Gould the scientist and William Buelow Gould the artist (no relation) featured in Jeremy Wade’s modern quest for the giant crayfish on his Dark Waters television programme. Libraries Tasmania’s Caitlin Sutton, curator of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, provided Wade with the information he needed to track down the elusive creature.
Dissecting Gould’s Mythical Monsters
The anatomy of Gould’s book is fascinating in itself. The binding is brown leather embossed with stylised dragon scales. This detail alone, especially given the book’s subject matter, is enough to make any bibliophile blush. Such unique character is rarely encountered in today’s mass-production book industry. The front cover features the title engraved in an enchanting blackletter font. Judging by the slight discrepancies between the repeated letters – the uppercase ‘M’ and lowercase ‘t’ – the title font is bespoke.
Aside from the title and a mixture of Chinese characters and hieroglyphs, the cover is dominated by an image of a person riding a dragon. In his discussion of dragons, Gould reveals that this image is a facsimile of a drawing he found in a manuscript believed to originate from western China. There are many other facsimiles in Gould’s book that feature greater detail than the image on the book’s cover. We can probably conclude that this image was chosen because of its simplicity. Anything more complex would have been too difficult to engrave.
Opening the cover we are greeted by stunning golden endpapers. The detail is intricate and the longer one looks the more one finds. One immediately notices the familiar hand-fan designs, which signal the strong focus on Asian mythologies in the book. Closer inspection reveals a pagoda or Shinto shrine, several floral motifs, as well as a phoenix and a small dragon.
Another feature of the pattern is a small eye (seen in the centre of the image below). Imagery of a single eye carries a great deal of symbolic weight in many cultures. Consider, for example, the Eye of Horus, the Eye of Providence, or the one-eyed Nordic god Odin who sacrificed his eye to gain hidden wisdom. These cultural symbols imply secret knowledge, extra-sensory perception and supernatural insight. The endpapers are clever, hidden clues, signalling to the reader that he or she is about to go on a journey through world mythology as well as natural history.
The frontispiece features a full-colour plate of the Fenghuang or Chinese phoenix, which closely resembles a peacock. The image includes two of these birds, one male and one female. In his chapter on the phoenix, Gould explains that in certain strands of Chinese mythology the phoenix is given different names depending on the animal’s sex (e.g. Feng = male, Huang = female), while in other texts the name is unified.
The outward presentation of Gould’s Mythical Monsters reflects the subject matter. The book speaks to us in its own mysterious way. Being in the presence of the book gives one the feeling of having found some long-lost tome filled with ancient knowledge. It is the kind of artefact that answers the question of why, in our digital world, the printed book endures as the preferred format for sharing information and stories.
In the early chapters of Mythical Monsters, Gould sets up his argument by calling on the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. The way that species adapt over time, Gould proposes, could indicate that the animals we see in the present may have been more representative of mythical monsters in antiquity.
Gould points to skeletal remains and fossils uncovered by the growing science of palaeontology as evidence. The pterodactyl, for example, is held up as proof for the existence of dragons. (Gould either did not know or was not concerned by the fact that pterodactyls existed in the Late Jurassic epoch, thus pre-dating Homo sapiens by several million years). Similarly, Gould indicates that the African rhinoceros, or some ancient variant of it, may have inspired the original unicorn myths.
Gould also leans on contemporary works such as Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: the Antediluvian World. In this book, Donnelly lays out evidence to prove that the island of Atlantis once really existed, rather than it simply being the product of ancient imagination. By treating the Deluge or Great Flood as an historical event, Gould affords himself space to explain how animals that may have been the inspiration for certain myths could have been “washed away” physically, but continue to exist through cultural traditions.
The later chapters examine myths around several creatures. Gould connects these stories to physical evidence and the testimonies of people who claim to have encountered them. Gould looks at how dragons have been perceived by a variety of cultures, particularly in China and Japan. Another chapter focuses on Nordic myths about gargantuan sea-serpents and other stories of krakens (i.e. the giant squid or octopus). Gould also deals with the unicorn in its various forms across African, European and Asian mythologies, as well as the phoenix.
Further examination of Gould’s career reveals that he took his cryptozoological theories quite seriously and that they were not confined to the pages of Mythical Monsters. In 1872, Gould presented a paper to the Royal Society of Tasmania on the subject of large, unidentified aquatic animals that had been seen in lakes and rivers around Tasmania. In this paper we can see Gould testing out the arguments he would later use in Mythical Monsters: “The Kraken,” he says, “is simply an enormous exaggeration of the gigantic species of cuttle fish known or believed to exist in the Indian Ocean” (1872, p. 32), and he suggested that the strange, seal-like creatures that settlers were glimpsing in Tasmania’s northern lakes might be the origin of the bunyip legend.
While such a claim might seem silly to the modern reader, this may not have been the case for Gould’s original audience. The platypus controversy was still fresh in the minds of natural scientists in Gould’s day. Even by the 1870s, scientists were still trying to figure out exactly what the platypus was and how it reproduced. Within this context, Gould’s suggestion that a large aquatic beast sighted in Tasmania might close the chapter on Australia’s most infamous cryptid is not particularly outlandish.
Ultimately, Gould’s mission to de-mythologise fantastic creatures left me feeling a bit empty. Gould emphatically tells us that he intends to “strip” mythical monsters “of those supernatural characters with which a mysteriously implanted love of the wonderful has invested them, and to examine them…by the lights of the modern sciences of Geology, Evolution, and Philology” (1886, p. 2).
What, we might ask, is wrong with a love of the wonderful? Does everything require a rational explanation? If we remove fiction, fable and myth from the world, is what we have left really worth anything?
The crucial point is that Gould underestimates the importance of myths as myth. The dragon, for example, is common to cultures all over the world in various guises. And this particular mythical monster still carries meaning even in the twenty-first century (e.g. The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and so on). Even if we accept that dragons are not really existing creatures they still perform an important allegorical function, particularly when we are examining problems like hoarding wealth or the abuse of power.
Myths and mythical creatures give us a more flexible way of speaking about society and of working through our reality. In her book The Myths We Live By, Mary Midgley insists that “myths are not lies. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning” (2003, p. 1). What Gould didn’t understand – or chose to ignore – was that myths are an indispensable part of any culture, and that they are not necessarily incompatible with science. Tolkien and Hawking can co-exist; reason and wonder often go hand-in-hand. Just as the Large Hadron Collider helps us gaze upon the fundamental components of the material universe, the tale of the rise and fall of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons lets us peer into the human psyche and reflect on the danger of hubris.
Gould’s chapter on giant sea serpents and krakens provides a useful example to advance this argument. In this chapter, Gould concludes that myths about these monsters originate from sailors who have mistaken other creatures for something more malign. After all, fear of the unknown is the crucible of superstition. Having done this, Gould implores his readers to accept that “the creature must now be removed from the regions of myth, and credited with having a real existence” (335).
Very well. But even if we take Gould at his word, the mythical existence of sea serpents still serves an important cultural function. Gigantic, barnacle-encrusted leviathans lurking beneath the waves give us a way to symbolise the sublime power of the ocean and of nature itself. They provide the language we need to express humankind’s insignificance when compared to the enormity of the universe. These stories and monsters, which have their echoes in everything from H. P. Lovecraft to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, subvert the idea of man’s supremacy over nature. They emphasise the need for humility and respect far more effectively than mere words can.
To reduce mythical beasts to the level of scientific data, as Gould attempts to do, is to erase an essential part of what it means to be human. In fact, we can use this line of argument to refute Gould in scientific terms; to challenge him, as it were, on his own playing field. Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal. As a species, we are unique in the sense that we use fiction as a means of sense-making as we navigate the real world. To strip away our love of the wonderful would be to alter our very nature.
Indeed, the field of literary Darwinism proposes that the ability to tell stories may have served an important evolutionary function in the development of the human brain. This is revolutionary thinking, particularly in how we think about the role of stories in culture and even in human biology. We do not tell stories because we are human. Rather, we are human because we tell stories. In this sense, Gould’s reverence for Darwin comes back to bite him. According to advocates of Darwinian literary studies such as Jonathan Gottshall, Homo sapiens’ flights of fancy may well have given us an evolutionary edge towards becoming the planet’s dominant species.
Bearing all of this in mind, I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between myths as they are and what Gould has to say about them. It is possible that ancient humans encountered dinosaur bones or fossils and created stories about huge, flying creatures as a way of explaining what they could not yet understand. This would certainly account for the dragon myth being common to cultures all over the world that had little or no contact with each other. And the idea of people imbuing real animals with magical properties, like the peacock becoming the phoenix, is understandable given the beauty of such creatures. But even if Gould is correct in saying that krakens and unicorns are not the product of human imagination alone, this does not mean that we should dismiss the stories that we tell ourselves and each other about these creatures. As I have said above, myths and their monsters serve an important cultural function that cannot be discarded without fundamentally damaging who we are.
Gould’s Mythical Monsters is a fascinating book, both as an historical object and as a text. For me, Mythical Monsters offered a fun diversion from more serious research and an opportunity to think more deeply about the role of myths in society. Although Gould is ultimately critical of mythologies, his book may be a useful reference text for those wanting to trace the provenance of mythical creatures in particular cultures. Anyone wishing to read the book can view a modern reprint in the History Room, place a hold on a lending copy or access a free eBook online.
The original 1886 edition will be on display in the Hobart Reading Room from February 11 to April 30, 2020.
Written by Ryan Burley
Ryan is Acting Heritage Librarian at Libraries Tasmania.
Gould, Charles, (1872). Large Aquatic Animals in Upland Lakes of Tasmania. Monthly Notices of Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania for 1872, 32-38.
Gould, Charles. Mythical Monsters. London: W. H. Allen & Co, 1886.
Midgley, Mary. The Myths We Live By. London: Routledge, 2003.
If you’re interested in cryptozoology, here’s a great online bibliography and research guide from Western Washington University that can get you started: https://libguides.wwu.edu/cryptozoology
And of course these resources available from Libraries Tasmania:
Joel Levy, Fabulous creatures and other magical beings. London : Carroll & Brown, 2006.
Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, Abominable science! origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other famous cryptids. New York : Columbia University Press, 2013
Nineteenth Century Science:
There are a lot of fabulous books about the often surprising world of nineteenth century science and natural history. Here are a few suggestions, available through interlibrary loan:
Bernard Lightman (ed), Victorian science in context. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997
Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997
James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation : the Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago and London : University of Chicago Press, 2000
Myths and Society:
Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. New York : Anchor Books, 1991. (Libraries Tasmania has both the book and the original TV series that aired on American Public Television in 1988.)
The Gould Family:
Sean C. Dawes, John Gould : an Australian perspective. Stepney, S. Aust. : Australia Pub., c2011.
You might remember this historical novel about the Gould family that came out a few years ago:
Melissa Ashley, The Birdman’s Wife, South Melbourne, VIC : Affirm Press, 2016
And not long after, our own Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts had a wonderful exhibition on the fascinating story of Elizabeth Gould – if you missed it, you can check out the exhibition catalogue here.
And of course, the work of Charles Gould:
NS140: Geological Reports, Charts and Loose Manuscript Notes by Charles Gould, 1860-1869
NS5126/1/74: Subject folder on Charles Gould, by Jean Sarson
Tasmanian Parliament, “Report of Mr. Gould upon the gold-exploring expedition – June, 1863.” Hobart : Government Printer, 1863.
Charles Gould, “Report …upon the subject of gold in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land.” [London] : Colonial Office, 1864.
Charles Gould, “Notes on the geological structure of the north-east coast of Tasmania,” Royal Society of Tasmania papers and proceedings, 1865, p. 63-66
Charles Gould, “On the position of the Gordon limestones relative to other palaeozoic formations, etc.” Royal Society of Tasmania papers and proceedings, 1866, p. 27-29
Charles Gould, “On the distribution and habits of the large fresh-water crayfish (Astacus sp.) of the northern rivers of Tasmania.” Royal Society of Tasmania papers and proceedings, 1870, p. 42-44
Charles Gould, “The islands in Bass Strait,” Royal Society of Tasmania papers and proceedings, 1871, p. 57-67
Charles Gould, Mythical monsters, London : Bracken Books, 1989 (originally 1883)
We also have a number of maps that Charles Gould either prepared himself or contributed to, which document his journeys in Western Tasmania, among other places.
3 thoughts on “Charles Gould’s Mythical Monsters”
Excellent, I enjoyed looking at Gould’s map of western Tasmania, it looks like he found gold on Sarah Island, not named that on the map.
A fascinating article on a great discovery of Charles Gould’s book.
Perhaps it can be viewed through the lease of the new Darwinism approach to science, as his father John was also a pragmatic and very good natural historian.
I am curious as to which Gould the giant freshwater lobster is named after – I always assumed it was W.B.Gould the artist/convict, but it may have been Charles..
I’m glad that you enjoyed this article.
Darwinian natural science certainly had a profound impact on Charles Gould’s work.
The specific epithet in astacopsis gouldi does in fact come from Charles Gould rather than William Buelow Gould, though it is a fair assumption to think that the name might come from the artist. It is just a quirky historical coincidence that two of the men responsible for the early documentation of the animal were both named Gould!