THE GIANT LUNAR MOTH
Doctor Dolittle’s Garden (1927), the seventh book in the series, records how, after many years of very indifferent results, the good Doctor had suddenly achieved a totally unexpected breakthrough in his longstanding studies of insect language - as a result of which he had then planned to investigate certain ancient traditions recalled by local hawk moths concerning a race of giant moths as big as houses. But before he had even begun this project, one of these legendary creatures unexpectedly arrived in his own garden!
The evening in question was moonlit, and the Dolittle household’s members were chatting animatedly, when, abruptly, they heard a mysterious, muffled tapping sound on one of the windows. So the Doctor and his assistant, Tommy Stubbins, opened the curtains to see what was there. As then narrated by Stubbins:
Used as John Dolittle was to strange sights and unusual things, this vision outside the glass for a moment staggered even him. There was a face looking in at us. To begin with, it took one quite a while to realise that it was a face. It was so large that you did not take it in or see the connexion, at first, between the various features. In fact the entire window, at least six feet high by three feet wide, only encompassed part of it. But there was no mistaking the eyes – strange and very beautiful eyes. Anyone but those who, like the Doctor and myself, were intimately familiar with the anatomy of insects, would quite possibly have taken them for something else. But to us, in spite of their positively gigantic size, they were unmistakably the eyes of a moth.
Set close together, bulging outward, shimmering like vast iridescent opals in the pale candlelight from the room, they made us feel as though we were gazing through a powerful magnifying glass at an ordinary moth’s head.
‘Heaven preserve us!’ I heard the Doctor mutter at my elbow. ‘It must be the Giant Race. Snuff the candles out, Stubbins. Then we’ll be able to see the rest of him better.’
With trembling hands I did as I was told...The moth positively seemed to fill the whole garden.
His shoulders behind the head, which was pressed close against the panes, towered up to a height of at least two storeys. The enormous wings were folded close to the thick furry body, giving the appearance of the gable-end of a house – and quite as large. The enormous foot which had softly struck the window still rested on the sill. The great creature was quite motionless.
To cut short a rather long story (one third of the entire novel, in fact), it transpired that this astonishing insect was a giant moth that belonged to an entire race of such creatures living upon the moon. And this particular individual had been sent to Earth as a messenger - to locate Doctor Dolittle, and then personally transport him to the moon to solve what was at that stage a still-unrevealed problem there. It had even brought along a series of very large trumpet-shaped lunar flowers that released great quantities of pure oxygen, thus enabling itself and the Doctor to breathe while flying through the airless vacuum of space between the Earth and the moon.
And this is precisely what happened, with the Doctor’s astounding lunar discoveries and adventures (accompanied throughout by his sagacious old parrot, Polynesia) taking up the entire content of Book #8, Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928). Significantly, Lofting had originally decided that this would be the last Doctor Dolittle novel, stranding the Doctor on the moon indefinitely. But like so many other authors who attempted to kill off in one manner or another their most successful literary creations, Lofting finally relented, and in 1933 he published Doctor Dolittle’s Return, in which the good Doctor and Polynesia duly came back to Earth, but borne this time by a giant lunar locust.
The giant moth only makes a brief appearance in the 1967 film musical ‘Doctor Dolittle’, released by 20th Century Fox Studios, when it transports the Doctor back home to England from Sea Star Island at the end of the film.
MIRANDA, THE PURPLE BIRD OF PARADISE
Paradisaeidae, housing the surrealistically-exquisite, extravagantly-plumed birds of paradise, have always been my favourite taxonomic family of avians. So I was naturally more than a little delighted, when reading The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922), Book #2 in the series, to encounter a character representing a singularly beautiful species that was seemingly undocumented by science, and whose very existence effectively ripped up the zoological rule book as to just what defines a bird of paradise!
The character in question was Miranda, the purple bird of paradise – a name that will not be found in any ornithological tome or formal scientific study of these species. The Doctor and his animal household had been anxiously awaiting her arrival, but in Chapter 9 they were all relieved to learn from Polynesia that she had just arrived, safe and sound, albeit very tired from her long journey, having travelled to England all the way from her homeland in Brazil (as revealed in an earlier chapter).
Straight away, it is evident that Miranda was no ordinary bird of paradise, for the simple reason that all of this ornithological family’s 40-odd known species hail from New Guinea, its offlying islands, eastern Australia, or the Moluccas. Not a single species has ever been recorded from the New World. Nor do any of the known species resemble Miranda, as would soon become apparent from the delightful portrait of her produced by Lofting (presented above), and also from Stubbins’s succinct but eloquent verbal description:
In the centre of the big table, perched on the ink-stand, stood the most beautiful bird I have ever seen. She had a deep violet-coloured breast, scarlet wings and a long, long sweeping tail of gold. She was unimaginably beautiful but looked dreadfully tired. Already she had her head under her wing; and she swayed gently from side to side on top of the ink-stand like a bird that has flown long and far.
Once again, neither Lofting’s portrait nor Stubbins’s account correspond even vaguely with any species of bird of paradise – or, indeed, any species of any type of bird! – documented by science. And what makes her appearance even more remarkable is the fact that Miranda was a female bird of paradise, for in virtually every known species it is only the breeding male that sports such gorgeous, dazzling plumage; the females are far dowdier in form.
Yet again, therefore, the good Doctor was acquainted with a true creature of cryptozoology – one, moreover, that was evidently of unique morphological and zoogeographical significance, representing a very distinct branch of Paradisaeidae that had presumably split from the Australasian lineage at a very early stage in this ornithological family’s evolution.
Alternatively, of course, it may just be that Lofting’s knowledge concerning birds of paradise was not very accurate!
THE JABIZRI BEETLE
Our final example from the Dolittle menagerie of literary cryptids also appeared in the Voyages book, and, just like Miranda, was both very distinctive and very beautiful:
...the Doctor suddenly said, "Sh! - A Jabizri! - Don't you hear it?"
We listened and heard, somewhere in the air about us, an extraordinarily musical hum like a bee, but not just one note. This hum rose and fell, up and down almost like some one singing.
"No other insect but the Jabizri beetle hums like that," said the Doctor. "I wonder where he is - quite near, by the sound - flying among the trees probably. Oh, if I only had my butterfly-net! Why didn't I think to strap that around my waist too. Confound the storm: I may miss the chance of a lifetime now of getting the rarest beetle in the world - Oh look! There he goes!"
A huge beetle, easily three inches long I should say, suddenly flew by our noses. The Doctor got frightfully excited. He took off his hat to use as a net, swooped at the beetle and caught it. He nearly fell down a precipice on to the rocks below in his wild hurry, but that didn't bother him in the least. He knelt down, chortling, upon the ground with the Jabizri safe under his hat. From his pocket he brought out a glass-topped box, and into this he very skilfully made the beetle walk from under the rim of the hat. Then he rose up, happy as a child, to examine his new treasure through the glass lid.
It certainly was a most beautiful insect. It was pale blue underneath; but its back was glossy black with huge red spots on it.
"There isn't an entymologist [sic] in the whole world who wouldn't give all he has to be in my shoes to-day," said the Doctor.
As with Miranda and all of the other enigmatic creatures documented by me in this three-part article, the jabizri beetle has never been scientifically catalogued in the real world, but it thrives to delight readers everywhere in the truly wonderful world of Doctor Dolittle – which brought me so much pleasure and zoological inspiration back in my formative childhood years, and which I have so enjoyed revisiting during the course of preparing these accounts.
So thank you, John Dolittle MD, for your profound influence in opening my eyes and mind to the exciting prospect that animals unknown to science may indeed exist, and not only in your world but also in the real one. True, they may not include pushmi-pullyus or great pink sea snails, but the creatures of cryptozoology are no less extraordinary, and due to your benevolent tutelage during my early days I have gone on to spend many very happy and productive years investigating and documenting their fascinating histories. Thank you again, I shall always be eternally grateful.