Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

First, a quick public service announcement. Y'all know that Plenilune is available for purchase on Kindle right now and in paperback in a few days, right? The book I've been raving about since I got an advance review copy? Excellent. On to the review.

An odd thing happens when you begin to read enormous quantities of classic literature. You begin to realise that all these people are quoting or alluding other people, and if you have an ounce of curiosity, you want to know exactly what all those allusions mean. (This, by the way, is how I got into Shakespeare. My mother was reading us Huck Finn, and I had no idea about Romeo and Juliet, so I dug right on in.)

If this is so--if you haven't a clue about Pyramus and Thisbe, but want to know what all the fuss in A Midsummer Night's Dream was about, or if ND Wilson's Arachne has you stumped, or if you have questions about anyone from Baucis and Philemon to Vertumnus and Pomona--then Bulfinch's Mythology is your one-stop handy reference book.

Thomas Bulfinch's magnumopus is a nigh-comprehensive summary of the myths and legends of Western Civ. Part 1, The Age of Fable, is a summary of Greek and Roman myth. Part 2, The Age of Chivalry, covers the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion. Part 3, The Legends of Charlemagne, is a neat summary of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Originally written in the 1850s to familiarise the ordinary reader with basic classical allusions, the Mythology is a fun mix of stories, commentary, and quotations from great English authors (Dryden, Milton, and Tennyson all make appearances). There are snippets of poetry, and selections from old English folk ballads. It's all very readable and very charming.

Now to be honest, Bulfinch is usually not my first stop when it comes to reading up on myth. If I'm too lazy to dig out the actual Iliad or Mabinogion, or if I want something a little more child-friendly, I would be more likely to try Padraic Colum's The Children's Homer or Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, both of which I highly recommend. However, Bulfinch is a good deal more comprehensive than either of these or any similar books. He's an excellent stand-by to have on one's shelf to fill in gaps. (I never could find out what a cockatrice was until I read Bulfinch!)

Another of the things I really appreciate about Bulfinch is the fact that despite the comprehensive nature of his book, he manages to keep things pretty clean. This is a great book to let children loose in. The downside to this, of course, is that when I went to read the originals as an adult--particularly when I read the Orlando Furioso--I was quite unexpectedly struck by all the shenanigans, which would have made Shakespeare blush.

And yet, let me tell you the main reason why you should have this book on your shelf. Part 3, The Legends of Charlemagne, is fantastic. It condenses and retells the wildly weaving story begun by Boiardo and finished by Ariosto, without including any of the aforesaid shenanigans. This is a good thing because the Matter of France is terrific fun. When I first stumbled across Part 3 of Bulfinch, I was absolutely gripped.

Bulfinch's Mythology is an excellent reference book, fun to dip into on the long winter evenings, featuring a rare and valuable condensation of the Orlando Furioso. I recommend it.

Find Bulfinch's Mythology on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox, or Project Gutenberg.


Kim Marsh said...

I have not read.Bulfinch so the question I would have to ask is, does the prose stand by itself ad worth reading? Rather than using the horrible but quick and useful Google.

Suzannah said...

I've always thought so, yes.

Rachel Heffington said...

This sounds fascinating. I'm willing to admit that I don't know much mythology. I know that sounds horrid, but I don't. I think when I was little, I shied from Greek mythology because of the gods, and when I got old enough to be able to separate their religion from mine, I had less time to devote to the study. XD

Suzannah said...

Oh, dear, Rachel! Well, you'd probably find Bulfinch helpful. Otherwise, when I was little I enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne's "A Wonder Book" and "Tanglewood Tales".

Rachel Heffington said...

Great! I know my fairytales down pat, but I am shaky on the myths. Lewis has helped me some, but one does wish one had some references under one's belt.


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