Edith Hamilton: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes – Review

Frankly you couldn’t ask for more from an introduction to mythology book. Edith Hamilton writes with complete lucidity without losing any of the magic of the original stories. Her style is neither dry nor overly verbose and she manages to pack in a lot of information into a small space in sharp literary prose.

To me the most interesting accounts of myths in this collection were:

– The story of Dionysus who, although I have read a lot about Dionysian concepts through Nietzsche, I didn’t know a lot about his character. “The worship of Dionysus was centered in these two ideas so far apart—of freedom and ecstatic joy and of savage brutality.”.

– The story of Theseus which included small pieces of information about each one of his adventures that made me curious to learn more about him. He is by far the more archetypal Hero than his contemporary Hercules and his tale connects to almost every other other famous Greek legend.

– The story of Daedalus the genius inventor, creator of the Cretan Labyrinth and father of Icarus. “He [Theseus] had Daedalus, a great architect and inventor, construct a place of confinement for him from which escape was impossible”. Daedalus was a fascinating figure precisely because he as the creator of the Labyrinth was the one who suggested for Ariadne to give Theseus the string. Daedalus is the epitome of the pharmakon.

– The retelling of the Iliad (Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan war is one we are all familiar with but Hamilton provides an excellent summary of long and complicated story.)

– And the retelling of the Aenid (I for one wasn’t quite aware of the lengths Virgil and the Romans went to link themselves to the bloodline of the Trojans but it’s fascinating.)

Hamilton is clearly a scholar of both Homer and Virgil but her retellings of these classic tales bring them to life in such a concise yet entertaining way that either your children or your grandparents would find them equally informative and enjoyable. In fact, although the Iliad has been on my reading list for years I never wanted to read the Aenid until I read this book.

Those were just a couple of things that stood out to me but of course this book covers all the escapades of the gods, demi-gods, and heroes, as well as the stories of creation and the much later Roman interpretations of earlier tales.

Overall this isn’t the scholarly source book that something like Robert Graves’ Greek Mythology is but it’s an immensely readable collection of the most important myths from antiquity (it even includes a very short section at the end that covers the Norse gods!)

In my opinion this book has not dated at all and I think even modern readers would be hard pushed to find a better introduction to Greek mythology. 5*

Neil Gaiman: American Gods – Review

It’s difficult to know what I made of this book. The premise seemed right up my street, I was really intrigued to see how Gaiman would pull off this whole ‘Gods walking among us’ thing. I’m fascinated by mythology anyway so couldn’t wait to get stuck in, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the first half or so, and to be fair I did enjoy the whole thing, I spent the last two days reading the the final 300 pages (a feat usually only my favourite books can make me accomplish) so it definitely kept me captivated.

When I first started reading the book I was really excited, I kept thinking in the back of my mind ‘Ooooh this could be five star worthy!’ (a bad habit I’ve picked up since using Goodreads regularly), I couldn’t wait to see how all the dots joined together. However I thought somewhere along the line, probably at some point during the lakeside saga which seemed to stretch on for ages with not a huge amount of plot progression, Gaiman lost his way a bit.

I mean conceptually the book was brilliant, really well researched – I was constantly googling the references to the Gods I didn’t know and reading up more on those I did – and as I’ve mentioned before in my review of The Ocean At The End of the Lane, Gaiman’s imagination is brilliant, he has a unique ability to create a believable fantastic reality that makes our own world seem that slight bit more magical.

The problem was I just kept caring less and less about what happened to the characters as the book went on.(view spoiler) A fair few of the characters who I found the most interesting were underdeveloped and had virtually no significance to the story line (Sam Black Crow comes to mind?).

The highlights for me were some of the short interludes, dream sequences and the development of the God characters in general:

I loved how Thoth and Anubis were portrayed as solemn, wise (and surprisingly friendly) funeral workers; I loved Mama-ji’s cranky old lady/god of death and war persona; I thought the ‘mystery money-god’ from the middle chapters (view spoiler)was eerily mysterious; and I thought Shadows hallucinatory conversation with (view spoiler) while he was hung up on the world tree was inspired. However, I’ve got to say, it was slightly disappointing not to see any of the Greek pantheon in there, especially considering they have such well known personalities, it would be great to see how Gaiman portrayed Zues, Dionysus or Apollo.

I can see why people really love Gaiman and I can see why people were thoroughly disappointed with American Gods, but I’m undoubtedly closer to the love side. So overall, for me, this book is definitely worth reading, it gets a solid 4 stars. My only qualm was that I think it had so much potential and didn’t quite live up to it. However, saying that, if you enjoy mythology, urban fantasy or just want a big book to get really stuck into, I’d definitely recommend American Gods.