“Sir John Mandeville’s Report on the Griffin” and why I love it

Sir John Mandeville’s Report on the Griffin by Jane Yolen

Persia, 12th Century

Hiking in the Scythian hills,
John Mandeville stops for his tea,
Unpacks his hamper, eats his scones,
Surveys the land for a rarity,
Some miracle, some un-nature
To make this trip to Araby
The cause for royalty’s delight,
So that he might become a knight.

The air is heavy, hot, and still,
Yet Mandeville hears overhead
The shuttering of metallic wings.
(In ether are the best dreams bred.)
The hamper holds more than his tea.
He scatters on the ground the bread
That he has brought, the bloody meat
Which predators will find a treat.

Then he sits down, his pen in hand
To wait upon the mythic beast
And capture it upon the page
While it chokes down his proffered feast.
The ink dries up long, long before
Our John’s imaginings have ceased.
The foolscap tells an eerie tale
Of Griffin wing and tooth and nail.

“They have the shape,” he scribbles down,
“Eagle before, lion behind.”
His eager pen invents the form,
Remarks the species, clan, and kind;
Recounts the fierceness of the race
That guards the gold the gods have mined.
His travelogue has just the wit
To make the facts all sort-of fit.

And when the clattering wings depart,
And once again the land is clean,
He finishes his travel notes
And makes quite certain that they mean
A metaphor to please the king,
A parable to tempt the queen.
Ignoring what his eyes behold,
A different tale is what he’s told.

The transformation on the page,
The careful building blocks of diction,
Cause our traveler little pain
Nor cause his heart the slightest friction.
He knows well the audience
For his attempts at science fiction.
His work and home will not be slighted.
And for his travel book he’s knighted.

The moral of this tale is given:
Where you see eagle, there write Griffin.


I found this poem in a book called The Faery Flag by Jane Yolen. The book is so old that the library has no circulating copies which somehow makes it all the more wonderful that I did find it and get to read it. Much like Here There Be Dragons (which I read around the same time) this collection has always stayed with me.

I always love poems that tell stories, the cadence of this one just adds to its charm. As someone who is always imagining or, frankly, just making things up I enjoyed Sir John’s embellishments. I also liked the idea that sometimes reality needs a little extra help to become something really special.