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Since becoming a parent I have been collecting all the books that I loved as a child so that I can share them with my daughter (most of my childhood books ended up in my mothers classroom). My mother bought me this book when I was seven and it was these simple stories and the fascinating illustrations that sparked off a real interest in the ancient world. This interest outlasted my childhood and I ended up studying Ancient History at university so I was absolutely delighted to find this book still available and unchanged inside. This is a strange review for me as I am writing about a book I loved as a child, have just reread as an adult and intend to read to my daughter.
My daughter already has a fair proportion of Usborne books on her bookshelves, as their educational and entertaining approach is just what I expect from a childrens book publisher, appealing both to my daughter and myself. Usborne books were also a major feature of my childhood, so there is a nice element of comforting nostalgia as I read my daughter books that were read to me.
Understanding that these myths and legends are best understood in their social context the authors of this book have included several useful pages of information on Greek society, religion, authors, mythology and history; as well as a simple map. Then the book covers the creation story (minus testicles of course, although the sickle is left in!), the Underworld and the Greeks interpretation of certain natural events such as the seasons. The following pages cover some of the gods and the major myths e.g. Perseus, Medusa, the Trojan Horse etc. The range of myths and legends covered impressed me as an adult, all the well-known/culturally important myths are present and a good proportion of the more unusual and less familiar as well; the authors havent held back this book is packed with information and detail.
The pages are beautifully laid out with the text in clearly defined boxes or divided into easily manageable paragraphs, accompanied by stunning illustrations. Each double page spread tells a different major myth i.e. Jason and the Argonauts or collection of stories i.e. Zeuss Lovers, Evil Men, Love Stories. The 12 Labours of Heracles cover three pages, with an introduction to Heracles life story and then his twelve itemised labours, explained in enough detail to enthral but not bore; unless you find the Augean Stables or Erymanthian boar the best thing ever, in which case you will be sorely disappointed.
At the end of the book are 14 pages of Whos Who, covering most of the characters introduced in the bulk of the book. Each character has a small paragraph summarising their lives under headings such as Career, Supernatural Attributes and Personality. The book explains that this section is excellent as a reference section and for role-playing gamers, but since I have no experience of the latter I have only ever used it for reference.
If a hero appears in more than one story, their name is asterisked on the first story and subsequent page references are given, enabling the reader to find out what happened next and if their name is in bold then they also appear at the end of the book in the Whos Who. This organisation makes this book a pleasure to read, you can get a real sense of how these myths fit together rather than seeing them all as separate and disparate fables.
Additional information is supplied in several different places in the text as well. In the story of Perseus and the Minotaur, for example, there is a box briefly describing excavations at Knossos and information about the possible origin of the myth and another further on in the book examining the excavations at Troy. Having read this as a child I was interested enough to find out about these excavations and the civilisations themselves, which eventually prompted a trip to Knossos when I was a little older. There are also smaller snippets of interest, like the footnote informing us that Pandora is more likely to have had a jar than a box according to the meaning of the original Greek word.
This book is not for the sensitive and delicate little flowers amongst us as some of the illustrations are quite scary (the front cover being a case in point). As a child I would skip quickly over the story of Medusa as the accompanying illustration would give me nightmares (maybe I was just a delicate little flower!) and images such as Adonis being gored by the wild boar are a little disturbing. The illustrations from Rodney Matthews have a strange otherworldly quality that often seem quite Sci-Fi, but they are the heart and soul of this book, pulling it all together and providing the perfect accompaniment to the stories. Suffice to say that after nearly ten years of no contact with this book, certain images had remained perfectly fresh in my head and are indeed the referential image that appears when I come across the myth in another context. The Nemean Lion however, is still flipping scary, even though Medusa has lost her power to frighten.
This book is the perfect introduction to the Ancient Greeks, designed to be both educational and enthralling. Some of the stories are also quite gory or shocking, I dont remember noticing this as a child, but as an adult flicking through the book I was a little surprised. Ixion for example, was a very naughty boy and his punishment was to be tied to a burning wheel and rolled around the heavens, whilst poor old Tantalus was condemned to eternal hunger and thirst. Pentheus had his head ripped off by his mother and Heracles built a funeral pyre to burn himself to death after being poisoned. It obviously did me no harm (she says with a crazy glint in her eye), but if you have a child who is particularly sensitive to these sort of stories, it would be a good idea to read this book first. Personally I think a little bit of literary and historical gore does children good!
It is light and quite simple to read, easy to dip in and out of and flick through when bored. Because of the subject matter it never seems dry and dusty and the authors have aimed to keep attention throughout with definite success! I am of course horribly biased, having been a fan of these sorts of stories for many years, but they really spark the imagination and encourage further investigation into the subject. The authors have also succeeded in keeping a high level of accuracy and detail; there is no dumbing down, no Disney cartoon endings and no deviation from the myths themselves other than removing some of the more disturbing details.
I would imagine children of five or older would be interested in some of the simpler stories, with children of seven or older being able to read it on their own happily. As a general introduction to the subject it is useful for older children and adults, as although it has been quite simplified and sanitised (oh yes, very very sanitised) it still provides the basic structure to build upon. It contains enough information to allow you to look knowledgeable when someone brings up Prometheus or the fall of Troy, without having to plough through the Iliad or the collected plays of Aeschylus (although some of us enjoy doing that, to the extent that my spellchecker automatically corrected my typo on Aeschylus!). My only minor niggle is that I had to fight my autocorrect whilst writing this as it wanted to spell Heracles with a k, the correct way according to both my course notes and my friends who studied Ancient Greek, but the book has it as Heracles. I guess I should be grateful that they havent spelt it Hercules, like a certain Disney cartoon-dont get me started.
I have to warn you though, that you may end up with a child obsessed with the Ancient Greeks who brings up Agamemnon, Artemis and Philoctetes, as well as vile snippets of information at every opportunity. My poor parents.
Definitely one for the bookshelf!
RRP is £7.99, a little pricey perhaps for a 64 page book (although worth every penny)
Amazon have it for £5.99, with Marketplace offers starting from £1.
There appears to be one other in the series on Norse myths and legends, currently out of print but available from £2 on Amazon marketplace
ISBN for the Norse book:0746000103
Now, if you will excuse me have been inspired to make my own wooden horse to leave outside the local chocolate factory!
Identifies the gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters of Greek mythology, recounts the most famous stories, and briefly describes Greek history and culture.