Publisher: Puffin Books
Pages: 270 (Hardback)
Ah, Greek mythology, one of my pet passions. Like most people my introduction to the world of Greek mythology came through a children’s book that retold some of the more popular and enduring legends – Heracles, Odysseus, and Jason. That particular book will always have a very special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf). It wasn’t, however, this book.
Although objectively a much more comprehensive, intelligent, and less simplified introduction to Greek mythology than many of the brightly illustrated ‘Children’s Book of Greek Myths’ out there, I never quite managed to click with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes. I enjoyed it, as I enjoy all retellings of Greek myth and, as an adult with a fairly decent knowledge of the subject, I could appreciate what the author was doing; his unique approach, the way he highlighted several little-known figures or versions of events. But, for me, the magic that first made me fall in love with not just Greek mythology but mythology as a whole, simply wasn’t quite there.
Whether it’s that the tone was a little too old-fashioned and slightly mollycoddling (Zeus ‘marries’ the mothers of all his children) or that I’m simply a good fifteen years older than the intended audience and bring with me a whole different set of knowledge and expectations, I’m not sure – probably a very strong helping of both – but I could only get into this book as an intellectual exercise (‘ooh, that’s a version I’ve not seen before’ ‘Ha! He censored the incest out!’) rather than as a particuularly gripping story in its own right. To someone looking for an accessible introduction into the myths and legends of Greece, however, I would strongly recommend it.
The real strength of this version above other ‘introduction to Greek mythology’ books is that Roger Lancelyn Green takes a chronological approach. Instead of cherry-picking the best and most well-known stories (Heracles, Perseus, Theseus etc.) and simply retelling them, Green attempts to tell the whole story of the ‘golden age’ of Greek heroes; from the creation of the world and the war with the Titans right through to the defeat of the giants and the death of Heracles (the tale of the later Trojan War and Odysseus’s adventures are told in a second book). Each story is fitted in to the wider context and there’s a strong narrative thread that runs throughout the book even as different heroes take it in turns to assume the leading role. I didn’t always agree with the order Green chose to sort his stories into – I think placing the adventures of Theseus before those of Jason was a wrong one; Theseus being among the Argonauts adds very little to Jason’s story while taking away Medea’s role completely from the Theseus myth and giving it to an unnamed ‘witch queen’ instead. But then that’s how it is with Greek myth – there are so many versions of a single story that once you try to iron it all out there will be contradictions and which version you go for is ultimately down to personal preference.
In the end, though I enjoyed it, this book didn’t quite work for me. I loved the idea of it, and I loved stumbling across names I was only vaguely familiar with and having to jump to my numerous dictionaries of Greek mythology to do a bit of fact checking. But things like attempting to tell the story of Oedipus without reference to either the killing of his father or his marriage to his mother, or the story of Heracles’ conception with Zeus portrayed as guilt-stricken by the deception and only sexing up a married woman for the sake of creating a hero were simply too laughable for me to take the book entirely seriously. Still, I would recommend it as worth a read to anybody with an interest in Greek mythology, and not just as an introduction.