Canongate, 2005

With a subject as vast as mythology, it seems impossible to consider distilling it into A Short History of Myth.

Yet that is what Karen Armstrong has done for the first volume in the Canongate Myth Series.

What seems equally impossible is condensing those ideas once more, into A Short Post on Karen Armstrong’s Book.

And, yet, I debated for many years before finally picking this up; someone else might appreciate a glimpse into the book’s workings before taking that step.

Armstrong takes the first chapter of her summary to discuss “What is a Myth?”

On one reader’s hand, it’s the kind of question for which you’d like a bullet-pointed answer. On the other reader’s hand, you realize that the answer is rooted in storytelling, which doesn’t lend itself to bullet-points. Or, at least, even if it does, something of the magic of it is lost.

If myths are something that we create in order to help us understand the world, it’s understandable that much of their nature ironically will fall in the category of the unknown.

They are integrally important to us, to our culture, to our being, but it’s difficult to speak in definite terms about them, especially when attempting to trace their earliest history and development.

“Human beings have always been mythmakers,” begins Karen Armstrong’s work. By always, she means even back in “The Paleolithic Period” (20000 to 8000 BCE) and through to present day.

The Paleolithic Era was a “frightening and desperate time” in which “human beings completed their biological evolution”. Myth (as contrasted with ‘logos’, the logical, pragmatic and scientific way of thinking) helped people move through the stages of their lives.

This was followed by the Neolithic Period (8000 to 4000 BCE) in which agricultural developments “made people aware of a creative energy that pervaded the entire cosmos”. She discusses Demeter and Persephone in this context, a myth which helps people “accept the inevitability of death as an essential part of life”.

Then, she considers The Early Civilisations” (4000 to 800 BCE), when human beings began to build cities. “People were becoming disillusioned with the old mythical vision that had nourished their ancestors. …the gods seemed increasingly careless and indifferent to humanity.”  Here, you find talk of Gilgamesh.

“The Axial Age” (800 to 200 BCE) is characterized by the emergence of new religious and philosophical systems wherein prophets and sages began to look for new solutions to ancient challenges. Some, like the Buddha, were willing “to use old myths to help people to understand the new ideas”.

This process intensifies in “The Post Axial Period” (200 BCE to 1500 CE) and in this segment, the author focuses on western religions in particular for they had already begun to find mythology problematic. The three monotheistic religions claim to be historically, not mythically, based.

In the final segment, we are without mythology in the traditional sense. And what are we to do without this sustaining force?

Professional religious leaders cannot teach us about mythology. Turning to individual political leaders, powerfully charismatic individuals can lead to more problems, not solutions (as was true for those who blindly adopted Hitler’s mythology of the Final Solution).

What are we to do? Well, fortunately, we can always read a novel. (Hee. No really.)

Because, as Armstrong states, mythology is an art form.

And, if it’s read and written with serious attention:

“…a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like  a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

W.W.Norton & Company, 2002

See, just when you might have thought that non-fiction writers really just dont get it, then you have one of them advising that you spend more time reading stories.

And that, too, is what is at the heart of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar.

I was, like many children, a devoted reader of fairy tales in early years. Even then I intuitively avoided the stacks for the most part, but made exceptions for the fairy tales and poetry that I could find therein.

So I hung around the 398’s a lot and delighted in the chunky collections rather than the slim volumes that, perhaps more beautifully illustrated, only contained a single story.

But only the bare bones of the tales that I read as a girl are evident in this annotated collection.

And when I say bare bones, I mean just that.

Bare bones and severed heads, some children left to starve and other children cooked up for dinner.

Bellies sliced open and children coming out, oven doors unattended and folks getting pushed in.

Tatar often uses (or includes in footnotes or appendices) the earlier versions of these tales, the bloody and gory ones, the truly very scary ones.

The introduction explains that these were tales for all ages, also spun for those who were spinning, folks stuck with tiresome and repetitive tasks or long evenings with only firelight and each other to watch for entertainment.

And it’s not just explained; there is artwork alongside the text. And this is true, too, not only for the introduction, but for the tales themselves.

The stories spill down the centre of the pages in a narrow band (with the notes appropriately placed in banners lining the outer edges of the pages) and there are strips of artwork adorning the tales.

Sometimes several artists’ renditions of the same characters are laid out for the viewer/reader. It’s wonderful to compare Arthur Rackham’s version of the same character that Maxfield Parrish has interpreted on the facing page.

As you would expect, greater coverage is given to some of the better known tales; I suppose there are bound to be more artistic representations of Cinderella then there are of Kate Crackernuts.

(Or is it simply that the publisher felt that more readers would be interested in those illustrations?)

Nonetheless, there is considerably variety on offer in this volume. Twenty-six tales, beginning with Little Red Riding Hood and ending with The Little Mermaid.

Seven biographies of tale-collectors whose stories are herein: Alexander Afanasev, Hans Christian Andersen, Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Joseph Jacobs, and Charles Perrault.

Nine biographies of illustrators whose works are included: Ivan Bilibin, Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, George Cruikshank, Gustave Dore, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish, and Arthur Rackham.

With these two books, I feel as though I’ve gotten my fairy tale and mythology reading off to a good start for this year.

But where to head next? Any suggestions? (I mean, I have big plans, but I’m always looking for detours.)