Stephen Fry sits surrounded by mythical animals from the Fantastic Beasts franchise on one side, and real animals on the other.

Stephen will be looking at how real-life animals have inspired their fantastical counterparts. 

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Stephen Fry explores how nature and myth shape our view of life on Earth

Over thousands of years people have dreamt up all manner of strange and fantastic beasts in folklore, myths and legends.

A new documentary starring Stephen Fry alongside a host of Museum specimens is set to explore just how the connection between storytelling and science has shaped our view of life on Earth.

Fantastic Beasts: A Natural History, produced by BBC Studios Natural History Unit and Warner Bros., will be broadcast in the UK on BBC One and available on BBC iPlayer. 

The natural world has fuelled the curiosity of people, from 40,000-year-old cave paintings to the Museum itself.

While today, most life will be sorted based on factors such as DNA and body shape, our ancestors looked at these creatures very differently. Sometimes, fact and fiction became confused as stories became part of folklore, giving rise to mythical animals with unusual abilities.

Creatures such as the centaur, dragon and unicorn are at the heart of tales dating back centuries, while still providing inspiration for writers and researchers today. This link between the real and the mythical was explored through the lens of the Wizarding World in the Museum's exhibition Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature.

Now, actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry is digging deeper into this topic in a new documentary airing on BBC One at 19.00 on Sunday 27 February, in which he explores why we continue to be fascinated by mythical creatures to this day.

An extinct rhino skull in a display case, with a drawing behind showing where a largem single horn would have once been.

Real animals such as Elasmotherium may have inspired myths about creatures like unicorns. 

'I think the stories of mythical beasts are so compelling because of their mixture of fear, dread, excitement and comfort,' Stephen explains to the Museum.

'This range of countervailing emotions are ones that mythology, story-telling, fairy-tales and more have always comforted and alarmed us with. We have sat in the caves, and now around our books and screens, glad to be safe, but needing to know about the dangers and the wonders out there in the wider world.'

Why do we create fantastic beasts?

Stephen is no stranger to legends, having published a series of books on Greek mythology. As a result, it's no surprise that the fantastic beasts which inspire him the most come from ancient Greek culture, describing it as a 'dead heat' between Pegasus and Cerberus.

'One is beautiful, serene, powerful, mysterious,' says Stephen. 'The other a plain straight forward growling, slobbering, slavering beast like a horribly mutated hybrid of pit bull, bulldog and Rottweiler perhaps. Yet somehow one feels rather sorry for him.'

Though these legendary beasts have their roots in literary allegories, Stephen says it is no surprise that some of the most spectacular animals inspire legendary counterparts.

'I think an animal which is close to mythical is the Steller's Sea Eagle,' he says. 'While filming this documentary I met one for the first time and had it on my arm.

'It was so huge and heavy, with such majesty that I almost felt I had to bow my head in its presence. The whole aura of the animal, from its eyes and beak to its talons, demonstrated such power in that fantastic form.

Stephen Fry stares at the camera as he holds a large Steller's sea eagle on his arm.

The Steller's sea eagle is 'close to mythical', says Stephen, as its sheer size and presence inspires awe. 

'Of course, they are built to tear flesh. Their beauty is all about strength, speed and killing. Ted Hughes described the eagle as a "huddle-shawled, lightning-faced warrior" who "stamps his shaggy-trousered dance on an altar of blood."

'They're exactly like the gryphons and wyverns that we see on flags and gateposts - not to mention the Wizarding World's Buckbeak the Hippogriff.'

The might represented by mythical creatures and their real-world counterparts have seen them used as symbols of power for centuries. For instance, the arms of the British monarch are supported by a lion and a unicorn, representing a blending of authority and storytelling.

Storytelling may also have been one way that our ancestors tried to understand and explain the world around them, with fantastic beasts as just some of the results.

What do fantastic beasts offer us?

Sometimes, however, creatures that could be considered mythical have later turned out to be a reality. Legends of the Kraken may refer to animals such as the giant squid, a twelve-metre-long animal which has only been pictured alive within the past 20 years, or the similarly large colossal squid which is yet to be observed in its natural habitat.

Though not quite as big, the coelacanth is another aquatic animal which lived on the edge of reality for a time. Initially described from fossils dating back over 260 million years, the catch of a living specimen in 1938 off the coast of South Africa led to one newspaper describing it as having 'outdone' the Loch Ness monster.

A preserved coelocanth in a tank.

The discovery of coelacanths living off the coast of South Africa spurred newspaper articles to claim it had 'outdone' the Loch Ness monster. 

Stephen believes that even if Nessie isn't found any time soon, our fascination with fantastic beasts helps remind us of the power of the natural world.

'We all need to remind ourselves of the astonishing achievements that evolution can make over huge amounts of time,' he says. 'Following its simple rules, just as water follows gravity, it makes and remakes, shaping and reshaping living organisms to perfect them for tasks in ways that still astonish us.'

In turn, this interest can feed back into our own lives, as structures, processes and materials found in nature inspire developments of our own. Known as biomimetics, this area of research goes beyond the scientific, and back into the realms of imagination.

'When we try to make up anything in our heads, we are reminded that nature has got there first,' Stephen continues. 'Talking to computer graphic designers and creators of creatures for films, they all say, without exception, that there is nothing that comes into their minds that isn't from nature, that hasn't been tried out over the millions of years of life on this planet.'

The stories of mythology, of the hubris of gods and the struggles of mortals, also remind us of the wider issues that are affecting our planet today.

'These tales remind us of something that our mixture of guilt and pride causes us to forget: we are not aliens to this world. Our brains, and therefore our imaginations, are part of nature.

'Anything we form in our minds, in our mythologies, legends and authored story-telling; all of that features shapes and characteristics from the natural world. We must hold on to the understanding of how we are part of nature, not apart from it.

'For all our consciousness, adaptability, versatility and achievements we are no less a part of nature than a beetle, a bat or a bear. The more we understand that, the greater our chance of respecting nature and living with it, rather than booting it out of our lives.'

Fantastic Beasts: A Natural History with Stephen Fry featuring an exclusive interview with J.K. Rowling is set to be broadcast on BBC One at 19.00 on Sunday 27 February, and will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.