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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths by Bernard Evslin

Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths  
Bernard Evslin  
Open Road

There was a day when the Greek classics and the King James were deemed critical background for understanding Western literature.  While it's losing its ground, the stories are still a fertile loam for planting new stories and referring to the old.

In his 1966 introduction, Evslin laments that translations don't capture the thrill of the originals:
"I went to [the Greek myths] in most of their English versions, and again felt their terrible loss."
 Other meanings may be possible, but it appears that Evslin boldly wanted to spin a translation closer to the original.  While it's impossible for me to compare his version to the originals, I can compare his version to Edith Hamilton's--a book I read twice, once for fun, once for class--and see which version fairs better.

When I compared them, however, they fared about the same.  Occasionally Evslin's work outshone his counterpart's, particularly in Phaeton's tale, a youth trying to prove himself.  He and Epaphus argue whether they are the children of gods.  Phaeton has to prove himself:  ride the sun's chariot across the sky.  Apollo greets his son thusly:
"[Y]our're my son, all right.  Proud, rash, accepting no affront, refusing no adventure.  I know the breed."
 Phaeton, on his journey, even wears asbestos armor.  I thought, ah ha!, embellishing!  But no, asbestos has used against fire for over 4500 years, it turns out.

Another impressive version is his more detailed version of Perseus where Perseus has to outwit various other mythical creatures to get the bride prize he needs--a prize that comes in handy when denied his bride.  All of this makes for a typical enthralling fantasy quest. He meets the famous witches with only one eye and one tooth between them, nymphs who would woo him forever away from his quest:
"Oh, you foolish men with your ridiculous quests, your oaths and enemies and impossible voyages.  When will you learn to eat the fruit and spit out the pit and sleep without dreaming in the arms of your beloved? ... Come kiss us, lad--we need kissing.  It has been a dry summer."
"I cannot kiss you now....  Even up here I smell your apple-blossom scent, and grow bewildered, and almost forget who I am."  
Great, quotable lines.  However, rarely do these versions dip into a realistic story mode that we modern readers are accustomed to , but at times it does:
"[H]e heard the sound of snoring....  Glittering in the muddy light were brass wings.  He raised the shield now, not daring to look directly, and held it as  mirror and guided himself by the reflection.  In a covering of weeds ly three immensely long, bulky shapes.  He saw brass wings and brass claws.  Two of them sleep as birds sleep with their heads tucked under their wings."
If you're looking for detailed stories pulling from the originals,this is as good as--and sometimes better than--Hamilton's versions.  If you're looking for a complete development of the stories, I still vividly recall Fred Saberhagen's White Bull, [link to list of novelette ebook version] whose novel version of Icarus and Daedalus sticks with me to do this day (although youthful memory can distort--ah, youth).

If you or someone you know hasn't yet been baptized in the waters of Greek myths, Evlsin's volume is a good place to start.

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