Nothing new under the sun


H A Guerber The Myths of Greece and Rome
Introduction W M S Russell
Wordsworth Editions 2000

The late W M S Russell, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Reading, was a modern-day polymath: classicist, sociologist, biologist (he helped formulate the principle of the three Rs of humane animal experimentation: Reduction, Replacement and Refinement), folklorist (former President and Secretary of the Folklore Society), radio quiz panellist (a sometime stalwart of Round Britain Quiz), raconteur, singer, novelist… Well, you get the picture. I was privileged to be a longtime correspondent of his, and while I never had the opportunity to meet up with him in person I knew him from phone conversations to be knowledgeable, personable and friendly. His premature death was a great sadness to me personally and a loss to his many friends and acquaintances generally.

Bill Russell provided a new introduction to this re-issue, one of a series entitled Myth, Legend and Folklore, the result of a collaboration between Wordsworth Editions and The Folklore Society which it is intended will make the archive of the Society more generally accessible than at any time since its beginnings in 1879. This classic narrative of classical mythology, first published in 1908 and written by British academic Hélène Adeline Guerber, was apparently highly regarded in its day. Though not as famous as The Age of Fable, which I remember from my childhood as the first part of Bullfinch’s Mythology, Guerber’s retelling comments on their origins and significance from a later and more scientific viewpoint, as her opening sentence proclaims:
Mythology is the science which treats of the early traditions, or myths, relating to the religion of the ancients, and includes, besides a full account of the origin of their gods, their theory concerning the beginning of all things.

My review copy from 2000 is actually full of Bill’s handwriting, correcting the handful of typographical errors that had slipped through the editing process to appear in the published version, so I am particularly fond of it. Unlike modern academic tomes, there is no extensive bibliography – indeed, none at all, as Guerber’s contemporary references are now all well out of date. However, there remains the nineteenth-century penchant for quoting classical and contemporary poetry at appropriate points in the text. For all that the text reads easily enough, with sub-headings to chop up the text in bite-size chunks and a useful index to locate names (though the numerous but bald page references for Heaven, Earth, Love etc are a bit daunting – a bit of cross-referencing would have been more useful).

Every so often someone will lament the passing of an age when to be educated meant being as familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman myths as with your own neighbourhood. For better or worse that is no longer the case but, as with the practice of straitjacketing the English language with the rules of Latin grammar, this knowledge could often constrict the creative imagination. Maybe the passing of time may lead to public re-acquaintance with this ancient matter, resulting in a kind of mini-renaissance.

Or maybe not. Professor Russell’s introduction reminds us nevertheless that classical myths and folktales have inspired modern writers in unexpected ways, especially science-fictioneers such as Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Sprague de Camp and Brian Stableford; one folktale-type even provided the name of pioneering rock band The Grateful Dead. And as you yourself read through these various stories, and immerse yourself in tales of boar hunts, and wild hags decapitated by heroes, and kings with animal ears betrayed by barbers, and ships returning with black sails (all classical motifs recurring in, for example, Arthurian legends), you may well begin to wonder if there is anything new under the sun except a change of name and a new context.

Review first published January 2013

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