The first volume of Bulfinch’s Mythology is a massively important book. After its publication in 1855, The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes became the standard text on classical mythology in the English-speaking world until the mid-twentieth century. After that, it’s still the book most responsible for introducing people to these stories. Thomas Bulfinch’s retellings spread feelers out into wider literature, countless authors drew (and still draw) inspiration from it.
Not that Bulfinch intended his work that way; his own introduction sets out his goal as creating a more easy-going alternative to a classical dictionary. His Mythology wasn’t meant so much as a window into pre-Christian beliefs, but as a means for someone without the benefit of a classical education to understand the allusions of later writers. That is, he wasn’t initially setting out to instil appreciation for classical literature, but giving readers tools to better understand and enjoy poetry written in modern English. He still ended up doing the former, which is why Bulfinch’s Mythology was (and is) such an incredibly popular book.
The context of its composition is still vital to understanding its reach. We have a tendency to view narratives in a descending scale of cultural importance–the more central a narrative to a culture, the less likely we’re going to attribute it to an author. This is a useful way of categorizing stories, this view of perceived authorship. Myths don’t have authors, we think, even when some clearly do. They spring out of the primordial ooze of the group and by their influence on a given culture’s psyche take on the mantle of something intrinsic to that culture. Legends and folktales get similar treatment–we often know their origin (sometimes oral, sometimes literary), but by the process of countless retelling the central story becomes, in a sense, authorless. This is how we come to the nationalistic obsession of the Brothers Grimm, who insisted stories initially found in Italian, French and even Arabic sources with often literary origins were, in fact, the stories created by the German volk. Even in the case of an epic like The Iliad, we find a perception of a superior or definitive retelling of pre-existing stories. More often, we unconsciously ignore the author of a retelling beyond the stylistic level, even when that style shapes how we experience and interpret what we’re reading. The “raw stuff” of myth (which isn’t really that at all) is always transmuted when we hear or read the story from a taleteller.
That last point brings us back Bulfinch’s Mythology, since Bulfinch’s mode of retelling springs from the value-system of the nineteenth century Anglosphere. Absorption through retelling, as it were, imperceptible because a “timeless” story like a Greek myth shouldn’t (we think) fundamentally change in the retelling. But the structure of the text is important here–Bulfinch constantly reaches back in time towards myths and then pulls us forward into history with his references to more recent poets, drawing a direct line of connection that reinforces his opening words: “The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct…They belong not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste.” The base subject matter of the myths in the book no longer exists, but they cannot be forgotten because “they are too closely connected to the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern.” The “raw stuff”, the spiritual centre of the stories, is no longer so important as how the tales themselves are used later on.
Taking this past mythological literature as a single block, then, Bulfinch draws together an often disparate and chaotic set of religious and literary narratives spanning two cultures (Greece and Rome) and a few thousand years of variation and simplifies into a single, running whole. The idiosyncrasies of his retellings come down to this goal–choosing to refer to Greek deities by their Roman names, presenting his précis of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as continuous with Vergil’s Aeneid even though their dates of composition and the culture in which they were written were widely divergent. Sometimes there are breaks when Bulfinch refers to contradictory stories for the origin of this or that, but these pop up only when more modern authors draw from different versions. For the most part, Bulfinch’s retelling, even with its seeming rambling organization, is seamless, consistent, in a way that classical myths aren’t. Bulfinch delivered a unified text out of a messy source material.* In some ways, his task was aided by being able to smooth over, elide, or ignore the more complex aspects of these stories by explicitly wanting to deliver and easy summary. One concern–making ancient myths accessible to better understand later texts–however, neatly folds into an act of standardization. Reading Bulfinch’s Mythology for that aspect is what makes it worth reading today, when there are arguably better-written, better-presented, and more scholarly translations and retellings of Greek and Roman myths available. It’s Bulfinch’s conceptualization of Greco-Roman mythology that became a central to how English speakers approached those myths later on.
Of course, The Age of Fable covers more that Greek and Roman mythology, though most of the book is devoted to it (even the next most detailed set of myths–those of the Norse–take up barely a fraction of the content). That in itself imposes a scale of importance through selection; a few pages on Egypt and the myth of Osiris and a bit on the Celts. There are passing references to Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism–all classified as myth or superstition despite those religions being alive and well in Bulfinch’s time. This, we’re given the impression, is all you need to know. Bulfinch even manages to insert some anti-Catholic sniping in the last few pages of The Age of Fable, referring to “the Papal usurpation” only overthrown when “the light of the Reformation dawned on the world.” Our hierarchy thus established, we have a hidden rubric for how to read stories that settles in along with our own simple curiosity; Bulfinch doesn’t just tell ancient stories, he tells us how to read them.
Bulfinch might have downplayed the role of ancient myths in his text as somewhat frivolous, but he clearly loved those myths as well. I don’t want to build up an argument that Bulfinch did something wrong with his retelling, far from it. The success of The Age of Fable lies not only in its structural choices but also in the spark Bulfinch brought to his writing. There’s an enthusiasm there that’s infectious. Couple that with his manner of presentation, however, and you come out with something truly fascinating. Bulfinch’s consolidation of Greek and Roman myths was an act of translation and reframing, and one that was necessary to keep those stories accessible and interest in them outside of the upper classes alive and well.
The entire text of Bulfinch’s Mythology is available on Project Gutenberg. It’s still in print, and older copies are an inevitable feature of used bookstores, so it’s well worth picking up.
*See the story behind the composition of the Finnish Kalevala for a more deliberate example of this.