For the last few years I’ve run a small lunch-time club at Ivydale Primary School, mysteriously entitled “Bestiary”. I wanted a novel way to engage the year-6 children in natural history, when they are already barraged with stunning TV wildlife documentaries and almost every animal has a wikipedia page for them to browse at their leisure. So instead, we went back in time.
Despite modern advances in science, there is still a tendency to look back in fond admiration at the arcane and sometimes potentially secret knowledge of the ancients. In some fields (herbalism maybe?) there seems a certain professional snobbery in quoting the overly famous Gerard’s herbal, and it’s easy to forget that not one of the plant preparations was ever tested with any rigour, and the whole thing is more or less based on anecdotal reports of recovery from ill-understood medical conditions suffered by old wives. True, some modern drugs hail from traditional plant extracts (aspirin and digitalis the most oft-quoted), but most seem unlikely, except to enfreshen the fetid air of the sick bed.
The animal equivalents of herbals — bestiaries — contained an equally mixed hotch-potch of the familiar and the fantastical, mundane and mythical creatures sat haunch by jowl, often beautifully painted, but sometimes comically misportrayed, as if (as is quite likely) drawn by the figurative equivalent of Chinese whispers. Rabbits and hares are reproduced with the accurate, but blunt, knowledge of the butcher, whilst unfeasible elephants look like overweight, tusked deer with trumpet trunk and floppy-toed feet. And as for sea serpents, griffins and chimaeras….
So here was the perfect opportunity to incorporate natural history with legendary history, artistic license with anarchic fun, science with silliness. They’ve been making their own bestiaries. And this year they created Ivydale Bestiary Top Trump Cards. They are brilliant.
The mix was just as quirky as in any medieval bestiary. Alongside familiar critters like chickens, slugs and fox were some more unusual beasts such as echidna, seahorse and hippo. There were mythical marvels like roc, dragon and hydra, and (just for completeness) a few plants (venus fly trap, mandrake) and geophysical entities (northern lights, meteor, tsunami). Then there was the just plain odd — an alien called Zwg from the planet Poggle, the God of Death and the Count Van Evil Sock, yes an evil smelly sock that wants to take over the world, very strange.
In the end Isobel, Kristen, Saoirse , Sidney and William (together with Eliza and Tariq in 2012) produced 72 cards. I think they are wonderful and offer them here to anyone who wants to download them and play.