Some people collect bottles or baseball cards. Denver author Joseph Nigg collects mythical beasts, such as the sea swine, the ziphius, giant worms and other creatures lurking in his new book Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World's Most Beguiling Map.
The earliest accurate map of the Scandinavian countries, the Carta Marina, or "sea map," was created in the 16th century by Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus (1490–1557). It's fancifully illustrated with humans performing every day tasks on land -- and chimerical sea creatures showing their big teeth and humongous tails out in the forbidding waters. Magnus created the map in Rome while visiting his brother Johannes; copies of the map were printed from 9 woodblock panels, and were produced from 1539 to 1551.
All of those prints seemingly disappeared around 1574 (there weren't very many produced) until one was found in Munich in 1886 and another in Switzerland in 1961.
In Sea Monsters, Nigg guides the reader through the intricacies of the map and the times of its creator. It's a voyage that delves into the mythology behind many fabulous sea creatures but also explores their connections to real-life whales, squids and other behemoths of the deep.
A respected expert on mythical creatures (see more books below), Nigg's interest in them began with a lighting fixture. "My early fiction leaned toward mythical and romantic treatments of realistic material, from gandydancing to boilermaking, cross-country skiing to small-boat sailing," Nigg noted in an interview with Contemporary Authors. "Then, several years ago, I was at work on a novel about a medievalist living in a ship in a children's park when I became entranced with an emblematic beast on an antique lamp in my study. Research into what that figure was led to my books on mythical beasts."
In a recent conversation, Nigg told me that libraries didn't play a big role during his childhood, although books did: "My father supervised the building of power plants, so we moved across the Midwest in a house trailer every year. My personal library in an orange-crate shelf consisted mostly of children’s classics my father ordered from the Book-of-the-Month Club (especially Twain, Stevenson, and Kipling), and I had an ever-growing collection of Classic Comic Books."
As an adult, however, Nigg found libraries playing a large role in his research: "Sea Monsters is based on the color print of Olaus Magnus’s 1539 Carta Marina at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The map’s key in the back of the book is reproduced from the University of Uppsala Library’s English translation of the Latin key on the library’s copy of one of two extant copies of Olaus Magnus’s renowned map. I researched a facsimile of Christopher Saxton’s 1583 wall map in the Denver Public Library’s Special Collections. And the library’s Interlibrary Loan service was invaluable. Also indispensable were digitized Renaissance books on the Internet, the Library of Alexandria that sits on our desks."
When asked about his favorite sea monster, Joe says, "I suppose it would be the little Sea Unicorn sticking its horn out of the water near ships engaged in a sea battle off the southwest coast of Iceland. The creature is not listed in the map’s key, but Olaus’s figure might be the first printed picture of a narwhal. Narwhal teeth were highly prized and sold as horns of the fabled unicorn."
My favorite part of the book? It's the book jacket, which, when unfolded, becomes a beautiful, laminated poster of the Carta Marina.
Joseph Nigg will be at the Tattered Cover (East Colfax location) on Wednesday, October 9th at 7:30 to sign copies and discuss Sea Monsters.
Other Books by Joe Nigg: