Dive deep with Joseph Nigg's Sea Monsters tonight

Our workaday world is so minutely mapped and Googled that we sometimes forget just how much of it was, until fairly recently, unknown and feared -- particularly the sea, home of seals mistaken for mermaids and even more fantastic creatures: the sea serpent and the kraken, whales as big as islands and a tree that sprouts ducks, the polypus (a giant man-eating lobster) and even a kind of sea rhinoceros. Fortunately, all these marvels and more can be found in Joseph Nigg's fabulous new book, Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World's Most Beguiling Map.

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Nigg, a Denver author with a serious writing pedigree -- he picked up his doctorate at the University of Denver, where he studied with the late, great novelist John Williams -- has long been fascinated by mythical beasts of all persuasions, starting with an antique oil lamp he acquired that featured a winged lion with a fish tail. His impressive research and canny storytelling has led to well-received books about gryphons, unicorns, imaginary birds and other critters of the mind. How to Raise and Keep a Dragon, perhaps his best-known work, began as a spoof of pet-training manuals but then was sold as a children's book and has since appeared in editions in twenty languages.

The success of the dragon book presented Nigg with several offers to do more in the same vein, but he was eager to move on. "Frankly, they're one of my less favorite animals," he says. "I've been working on a study of the phoenix for several years."

His latest is, well, another kettle of fish. Nigg has been researching sea monsters since the 1990s, and he's hit upon an intriguing way to introduce readers to their scaly magnificence -- by focusing on the Carta Marina, a 1539 map by Olaus Magnus of Scandinavia and the terrors that lurked in the waters beyond. The book is a handsome, coffee-table exploration of Magnus's work, a voyage from one end of the map to the other, explicating each crazy beast found on it and offering some informed speculation on Magnus's sources and the real-life counterparts, if any, of the creatures. (The kraken, for example, may have been a giant squid; the sea cow, a walrus; the sea unicorn, a narwhal.)

Best of all, the book's dust jacket unfolds into a huge reproduction of the Carta Marina, suitable for framing. Quite a turnabout for a map that had been considered lost for centuries, until a copy turned up in Munich in 1886.

Nigg describes how Magnus's map (and his massive commentary on it) influenced cartographers and natural historians who came after him, as scholars moving out of the grip of medieval superstitions about sea beasts began to try to classify and explain them. Nigg says Magnus is at the cusp of "that shift in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the change of belief" that heralded the arrival of an age of scientific inquiry.

Some of the phenomena in the Magnus map, such as the duck tree and the sea rhinoceros, seem to be based on nothing more than legend. But legend itself can be pretty beguiling, as Nigg found out in his attempts to track down where Magnus was coming from, so to speak. "Most of it is guesswork," Nigg says of his appendix matching up the mythical beasts with their actual counterparts. "I've still got a lot of question marks there." Nigg will discuss Sea Monsters at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 9, at the Tattered Cover on Colfax, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, call 303- 322-7727.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast