Saturday, January 29, 2011


Recently the kids have starting asking me one question over and over again. Whenever they are confronted with an animal in a story book they ask me "Is it real, or imaginary?"

At seemingly random moments throughout the day I hear

"Mummy, are armadillos real or 'magin'ry?"

"Mummy are dragons real or 'magin'ry?"

Ditto for unicorns, meercats, tarantulas, vampires, red eyed tree frogs, narwhals and all manner of fantastic beasts that they have encountered in books and films. Over Christmas they were constantly probing me about whether reindeer were real or not. I was able to answer this one honestly, relieved they never asked me directly about the status of one particular reindeer and the driver of his sleigh.

It is quite a reasonable question, when you think about it. We do take trips to the zoo, but ultimately many of the animals that populate their books are exotic beasts that they may never actually see in the flesh. Geekyboy was quite convinced that the armadillo was a made up animal. It took some argument on my part that though they are quite peculiar looking things, they do in fact exist in the world. Contrarily, unicorns, so like horses but with that fine single horn, seem quite consistent with the realm of the real.

Even as adults, I realized, there are many things in the natural world that we know to be real but have never actually seem ourselves apart from on nature documentaries. Those bizarre deep sea fish with the huge jaws spring to mind, the giant quid and the coleacanth, the pangolin and the blind mole rat. Then there are those persistant mysteries; the yeti or bigfoot, and the loch ness monster. Perhaps the realm of the imaginary and the real overlap more than we think. Then of course there are those creatures that once existed but are now long extinct. Dinosaurs feature heavily in our literary repertoire and they defy definition. Real, yes, but now long extinct, and the depictions of them even in scientific texts owe much to the imaginations of palaeontologists.

To be on the safe side, we have now added a third category to our classification system; "real, 'magin'ry, and 'stinct". I think I'm ready for the next barrage of questions!