book-reviews

The Age of Fable

by Thomas Bullfinch

Rating: ★★★

Bullfinch aims at a sort of cheat-sheet to learned allusion, giving handy bare-bones retellings of classical myths and legends, and a few choice examples of these stories being referred to in contemporary poetry. I think the resulting volume does what he intended, but it is a fairly erratic reading experience.

In short, what you get is a distillation of Greek myth and legend, as retold by Ovid (so all the gods are given their Roman names), followed by a heavily abridged version of Homer and then Virgil. This takes up the majority of the book. Bullfinch, seeming to consider his job done, turns aside to discuss some ancient art, before abruptly digressing into (contemporary) Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, whose inclusion seems bizarre and condescending (given how he describes them, Bullfinch must know these religions are still practiced, but he seems nonetheless happy to consider them ancient fables), before turning to Norse myth, with a condensed set of highlights from the Eddas, and ending on a discussion of the Druidic religion and, for some reason, the early Celtic church.

Bullfinch gives a number of examples from Romantic poetry which feature allusions to the myths he discusses. Usually these are nothing more than what is necessary to understand the usage, so you don't get particularly enchanted by any related wordcraft. Milton is probably the most-referenced poet. The text used in retelling the myths is mostly direct and unremarkable, certainly this Iliad and Odyssey have nothing but brevity to recommend them over the originals, but some segments do occasionally sparkle with a bit of grandeur and emotion.