Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bulfinch's Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch

I had a hard time deciding how to classify my last read, Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fables.  Part of me says this is a non-fiction account of various religious myths (and I don’t mean ‘myths’ in a derogatory sense – the first thing they teach you in university when talking about all religions is that ‘myth’ has no intrinsic value to the word, rather we assign either positive or negative meanings to it), and the other part of me (that would be the lapsed Catholic) says it’s all fiction…

I grew up with this volume sitting on a bookshelf, but never really got into it, and that’s in light of an entire unit in a Grade 10 English class that was focused on mythology, and two undergraduate Classics course that leaned heavily on mythology for exam content.  I’m not sure what pushed me to finally crack this book, but I did find I enjoyed it… for the most part.

According to the author, this work is a collection of mythological stories that need to be understood in order to fully appreciate some of the great classics of ‘modern’ poetry (I’m talking about Milton and Pope, amongst others) and their frequent allusions to classical mythology.  It’s a sincere and useful exercise, but for me, I can’t enjoy those types of work.  Luckily, Bulfinch follows a pattern: the first part of his chapters presents the myth in question, and the second part includes snippets of various works of poetry at the end.  In my case, including it at the end made those pieces easily skip-able.  And boy, did I.  If, however, you enjoy the Miltons of the world, you should appreciate not only the text of the myth, but also the inclusion of the more modern references.

As for the myths themselves, I found them to be a bit of a mixed bag.  The origin stories of the gods are generally glossed over in the first chapters, and are only occasionally referenced and/or expounded on as they relate to the other stories that Bulfinch is relating.  And, oftentimes, they could serve from some judicious editing and an over-all copy edit.  However, on the whole, the book is exceedingly well organized – each chapter has a common theme that runs through it, from mortal interactions with a specific god, to name origins, to different regions.  About two thirds of the book is dedicated to a mix of Roman and Greek myths, while the last third covers the Egyptians, Norse, and Celtic myths; I almost felt like this was an afterthought, as Bulfinch wraps up the section on the Greek/Roman stories with an academic assessment of how and why those stories developed, but doesn’t do the same for the other culture.

What I particularly loved about this book is the summary of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Even though I was assigned to read both books in those Classics classes I took, I was never able to get through them.  I think it’s the epic poetry component – I can’t find a rhythm in the reading and get frustrated.  My knowledge about these stories was a compendium of class discussions I had to sit through, the movie Troy (staring Sean Bean as Odysseus, which is why I watched it.  Brad Pitt who?), and an episode of Wishbone I saw when I was 9.  These sources were effective in giving me the jist of the story, but Bulfinch’s summary is well appreciated and I feel less bad about my knowledge gap now…

So, final verdict?  This book has many purposes and target audiences.  It could be enjoyed by someone who likes poetry and needs to better understand the illusions those authors make; it could be useful to students at all levels trying to get a better handle on the subject matter; or it could be for people like me, who were just looking for an interesting read.  While Bulfinch’s compilation isn’t the only one out there (in fact, I have Mythology for Dummies sitting on my shelf which I did, in fact, read from cover to cover), it is one of the first modern versions and it does a yeoman-like job at collecting information from a disparate set of sources and presents them in a reader-friendly fashion.  For these reasons, I’d recommend you read it if you’re into that type of thing.  

** A foot note - This is the 100th post for Eight Bookcases!**

No comments:

Post a Comment