Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 9.
M. Findlay, Classical Mythology. Auckland: Longman, 1999. Pp. 132, incl. two maps, fifty-six black-and-white plates, four line-drawings, and fourteen colour plates. ISBN 0-582-54217-0. NZ$24.95.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
They just keep on coming, these general books on Classical Mythology! Embattled Classicists should probably feel heartened by this evidence that there is a viable market for such books, provided that they do not in some way do a disservice to the subject they are trying to propagate. In the last nine years alone, we have seen the appearance of new editions of three very substantial books for the non-specialist.[] Books of this size (ranging from Powell's 671 pages to Harris and Platzner's 1004 pages), for all their wealth of text and illustrations, are still mainly aimed, as suggested above, at non-specialists (and perhaps partly at desperate scholars of mythology who can no longer see the mythical wood for the interpretational trees, and need to regain a broad overview of what is notoriously a huge field). This scope and focus is useful and legitimate: Morford et al. have done an excellent job of 'selling' the opulent treasures of Classical mythology to the general public, and providing the latter with much literary and artistic material in the process; but if we agree that this type of book is for non- specialists, it is also likely that the type will be used as textbooks for (mainly) first-level university students. Thus, whenever a new Classical Mythology appears, one is almost driven to ask: How suitable is it for use as a textbook for young, reasonably well-educated adults (or indeed for maturer intelligent adults)?
Findlay's book is (according to its back cover) aimed at 'the Year 12 Classical studies course' (presumably in New Zealand high schools), and is thus geared for the upper teen years. It hovers on the boundary between somewhat simplistic and admirably clear, and (as with so many textbooks) its usefulness at either school or undergraduate level would probably depend heavily on the calibre of the teacher. Interestingly, it is quite a lot like the Library of Apollodorus, which appeared some 1,800 years ago, in that its main content is a collection of sound if prosaic summaries of most of the Greek myths. Unlike Apollodorus, of course, Findlay does include a large number of illustrations in her book; and she also, here and there, throws in a brief attempt at cautious interpretation of the myths in question.
With regard to interpretation: the most disappointing aspect of Findlay's book, for this reviewer, is its complete lack of any mention of (for example) Jungian, structuralist or any other interpretational approach to myths. There are occasional rather cursory, though useful, little sections, such as a half a page on 'What do myths about heroes have in common?' (p. 41) or a paragraph on the origins and nature of Dionysiac religion (pp. 33f.); but these are sketchy. However, it is probably true to say that the author had no intention of delving further into such matters, in view of her target-audience (and a preface stating her intentions would have been helpful); again, much depends on the teacher using the book, who could easily adduce his or her own supplementary material (or indeed decide that it is unnecessary for their particular course). One wonders, though, whether even 'Year 12' students might not appreciate, even desire, some deeper penetration into the labyrinthine substrata of many myths. Otherwise, the book becomes little more than a moderately coherent retelling of some mildly interesting but improbable stories. Also, the book contains not a single quotation, long or short, from Classical literature, in disturbing contrast to Morford etc., whose books are amongst other things anthologies of extensive passages from Homer, Hesiod and many other such. Perhaps Findlay was asked, or decided, to keep the book shorter, simpler and less expensive. (Once more, a preface would have clarified this.)
One pleasing feature of the book is its wealth of black-and-white illustrations, its fourteen beautiful colour plates (some involving art-works from the twentieth century) and its very clear maps. Findlay has, in effect, chosen the route of illustration- through-art rather than through literature, which is one profitable way of presenting myths. Another helpful feature is its abundance of 'Activities' at the end of every one of the eighteen chapters. Some of these lists of suggestions run to a full page (e.g., p. 35, at the end of the chapter called 'The Olympians -- the second generation', pp. 24-35, with twenty-one items.) Of the suggestions, some are dull (though useful as revision exercises), such as 'Draw a family tree for each of the Titans and their descendants' (p. 40) or 'Write a brief summary of the main events in Heracles' life' (p. 49); others are arresting and creative, such as 'Write an interview with Aphrodite to appear on a 'This is your Life' show on TV or on radio' (p. 35), or 'Write a conversation between Heracles and Athene when Heracles has to clean out the Augean stables' (p. 49), or 'Write an obituary for Clytemnestra' (p. 81).
In general, also, Findlay's book is 'user-friendly', clearly and spaciously laid out, in double columns of print liberally interspersed with illustrations. It has an alphabetical index (mainly of names, with a few topics) at the back; there are three Appendices (Appendix 1, pp. 122f., is 'Revision activities', divided into 'Group and class work', 'Group work or individual work' and 'Individual work'; Appendix 2, p. 124, is a brief list of 'Major gods and goddesses in Greek mythology'. Appendix 3, pp. 125f., is 'Classical writers of mythology' [sic], mainly epic and tragic); and there is a very short 'Select Bibliography' on pp. 127f., suitable for this level. And let us not forget that the book is vastly less expensive than the others mentioned earlier.
All major areas of Classical mythology are covered, however briefly: creation, deities, Flood, heroes, afterlife, Trojan War and aftermath, Greek myths and Rome, and the later history of Classical myths.
[] M. P. O. Morford and R. J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology (London and New York 1991); Barry Powell, Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River 1998); and Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner, Classical Mythology: Images and Insights (Mountain View 1998).