Friday, July 24, 2009

Men and Gods, by Rex Warner (illustrations by Edward Gorey)

You can hardly turn around, of course, without bumping into Greek mythology. From straight-up "re-imaginings" like the Percy Jackson books or God of War games to seemingly endless, more subtle references, the Greek myths are embedded deep in our cultural DNA--in movies, comics, literature, brand names, everywhere.

Fluffy in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Obvious Cerberus homage. The tragic double-suicide at the end of Romeo and Juliet? Great idea, Shakespeare--except you totally stole it from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. When someone has an Achilles' heel or an Oedipus complex? Takes on a Herculean task or opens Pandora's box? Greek myths are everywhere. (Even on your feet, if you're LeBron James.)

You can read some of the best--and, as if often the case, bloodiest--stories from Greek mythology in a very cool 1950s reprint that came out last year called Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks. What's even better is that the book *looks* cool, a compact, hipster-edition hardback (still small enough to throw in a book bag) with simple, spooky illustrations on the cover by Edward Gorey, whom you might remember from macabre kids' books like the The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Doubtful Guest.

The stories are retold in a spare, matter-of-fact style by novelist and classical translator Rex Warner that perfectly offsets the bleakness and capriciousness of many of the myths. Like, for example, here in a story about the Furies: "Meanwhile the terrible Tisiphone hurriedly seized hold of a torch that had been drenched in blood. She put on a dress, wet also with blood, and knotted round her waist a writhing snake. Then she left the lower world and with her went Grief and Terror and Madness with quivering lips"--and then the Tisiphone proceeds to dish out some ill-deserved "justice" to a couple of poor mortals via her snakes, "not biting them, but distilling their terrible poison into their minds." Then, as a hilarious little throwaway coda, Tisiphone "returned to Hell and undid the serpents which had girdled her dress."

These stories--37 in all, and many just a few pages long--cover many characters that you've probably heard of, or already even read about, like Hercules, Jason, and Perseus. But they also go deeper into the mythological bench, pulling up more obscure tales, like the one about how the beautiful Scylla ended up with snarling dogs for legs (after which you can feel confident using the old-school saying "between Scylla and Charybdis" instead of "between a rock and hard place").

Revenge and creative violence are sprinkled throughout, somehow always made better with Warner's unsentimental delivery. Like when Phineus was fighting Perseus because he stole away his fiancee Andromeda, "Now spears were thrown like rain through the hall, past eyes and ears, or cleaving through breastplates and thighs, or stomach." And when Pentheus offended the drunken god Bacchus, his female relatives were driven insane and--convinced by Bacchus' deception that Pentheus was a wild boar--tore him apart "with the strength of madness." They started with his arms, naturally, as was the custom in those days.

As is often the case with fables, many stories explain the origin behind some real-world phenomenon--like how Libya became both so snake-infested and dry (the former because Perseus accidentally dripped blood from Medusa's head while flying overhead, and the latter because Phaethon flew too close on an apocalyptic joyride with the nuclear chariot that he borrowed from his dad, the Sun).

On top of giving you an instant education in many Greek myths, Men and Gods is just a fun--and fast--read, easy to pick up and put down. To get a taste for the book, you can read one of the stories online, the story of Glaucus and Scylla, as a free pdf:

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