Myths and legends make up a good chunk of any nation’s cultural foundation. We’ve got the Norse myths, the Greek myths, Japanese creation myths, Egyptian myths, among many others. Everyone’s familiar with at least some of the members of the Greek pantheon, and certainly you must have, at the very least, heard of Egypt’s Ra. Marvel, in particular, has assimilated Norse deities Loki and Thor in its pop culture hero ensemble, along with heroes like The Hulk. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present, all-powerful, and legendary Disney, whose magical work over the decades include retellings of myths like Hercules. With a more kid-friendly, good-versus-bad, good-triumphs-over-bad approach, of course.
Why all these retellings and borrowings? It’s because myths, as they are, are timeless. There’s a lot of material buried underneath a culture’s myth-and-legend structure, and of course it’s always interesting to find out how a certain culture explains the creation of the world and of other things, through the lens of stories either written or passed down. I’ve been very much interested in myths myself, primarily of the Western sort, and have decided to list down a few pieces of fiction that one who is interested in myths should experience. I’m also going to be toeing a blurry line here. But to lay down a more concrete idea of what I mean by myths and legends, I will be quoting the website “Myths and Legends” for definitions.
A legend is:
a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person and has important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which it originates. A legend usually includes an element of truth, or is based on historic facts, but with ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate.
A myth, meanwhile is:
a story based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning. A myth ‘conveys a truth’ to those who tell it and hear it, rather than necessarily recording a true event. Although some myths can be accounts of actual events, they have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years.
Okay so far? Alright. Here’s my list, and why they should be read/watched/played (whichever is applicable):
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman. One of Neil Gaiman’s heftier works, certainly, though no less entertaining than his short stories and other novels. It isn’t my favorite of Gaiman’s works (that spot is taken – perhaps permanently – by Neverwhere) but it paints an interesting picture of a battle between the old and the new, beliefs long forgotten and newly-formed faiths, with a smattering of pop culture references here and there. Where does the myth fit into this? The myth seeps in everywhere. Odin, Anubis, Thoth, Anansi – just some of the mythical figures from different cultures all over the world. African, Norse, Egyptian, it’s there. And Gaiman blends it all into an interesting, compelling roadtrip.
- The Mabinogion. I’m probably blurring a few lines here. The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh prose tales, with the central tales revolving around a figure known as Pryderi. Welsh – well, Celtic – belief involved putting a lot of premium in the Otherworld and the supernatural, and The Mabinogion demonstrates Welsh interest of the setting through the prose tales. There’s also a lot of interesting stuff going on: dead bodies reanimated after being thrown into a magical cauldron, a man striking a deal with a figure from the Otherworld, and a woman being accused of killing her own son. The Mabinogion also contains early versions of the Arthurian legends, with the stories themselves revolving not around Arthur, but around The Mabinogion’s version of the Knights of the Round Table.
- Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Of course, we are all familiar with the legend of King Arthur. Disney made The Sword in the Stone, a movie about young Arthur/Wart. Then there’s also the TV show Merlin. Lord Tennyson wrote the cycle of narrative poems, Idylls of the King, which retells the legend of Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King, which is about Arthur (and White’s own beliefs, injected in the narrative). It goes without saying that the Arthurian legend has touched pretty much everything, but it’s interesting to look at one of the most influential foundational works about the legend. Le Morte d’Arthur collected the loose pieces of the Arthurian legend, and tried to make the entire thing into one cohesive narrative. There are a lot of translations, of course, and you’re free to choose which translation/version of Le Morte d’Arthur you’d like to read.
- Mythology by Edith Hamilton. A no-brainer, of course. Hamilton’s Mythology is one of the most popular pieces on Greek myths – and Norse – to date, with Hamilton having painstakingly collected all the important stories (and there are a lot) and put them in one volume. I like to think of this as the Le Morte d’Arthur of Greek myth, and it’s certainly more recent a collection compared to Malory’s, but it does what Malory did for the Arthurian legend. That is, create a comprehensive, categorized, coherent collection (as coherent as Greek myth can be, that is) on Greek and Norse myth.
- Celtic Myths and Legends by. T.W. Rolleston. A personal favorite of mine. Published in 1911, Rolleston collects myths and legends from Britain – that is, Wales, Ireland, England – and intersperses these short, condensed narratives with commentary and information on the Celtic culture.
There’s definitely a ton more on myths and legends that you should read. Fairytale and folktale collections should be right up your alley if you’re interested. I’ve deliberately left out the Eastern variety, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of the myths and legends from those places to be able to draw up a mildly interesting list.
I wonder, though. What are your favorite books on myths and legends, and why?