Monday, February 22, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Bulfinch's Mythology

In my eternal quest to stretch the definition of "pulp fantasy" to the point of meaninglessness – or at least to "books I like and want to talk about this week" – I present Bulfinch's Mythology. I can't recall precisely when I first encountered this magnificent tome but it had to have been quite early, perhaps around the age of seven or eight. I borrowed it from the local library so often that one of my relatives purchased a copy of it for me and it became one of my prize possessions. I carried it with me everywhere I went for a couple of years and, even decades later, that original copy had pride of place on my bookshelves. Unfortunately, I misplaced it during one of my moves and never replaced it, partly because, if I did so, I'd want a copy just like the one I had in childhood, with its wonderfully evocative illustrations. 

Despite the fact that it is usually presented as a single volume, Bulfinch's Mythology is in fact a compilation of three different books, each one by the 19th century American writer, Thomas Bulfinch. The first of these books is The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes, first published in 1855. Consisting of forty-one chapters, The Age of Fable concerns itself primarily (but not exclusively) with the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. It was from these chapters that I first recall delving into the tales of Hercules and Theseus and Perseus and all their kin, both human and divine. Naturally, what I loved most were all the monsters these heroes fought – the minotaur, Medusa, the cylcopes – which left me with a lifelong affection for hideous beasts, not to mention an appetite for movies like Jason and the Argonauts or the various Sinbad films.

The Age of Fable didn't limit itself to Greco-Roman Antiquity, however. There were also chapters devoted to the myths and legends of the Egyptians, Persians, and Indians, as well as brief discussions of oddities like the medieval stories of Prester John. Even more appealing to me were the chapters devoted to the gods of the Norse. My first taste of Norse mythology came, I believe, in the pages of a reader in Grade 2. The reader included a story entitled something like "Thor's Visit to Jotunheim" and I was instantly hooked. I read this section of Bulfinch's Mythology over and over and it left a lasting impression on me that persists to the present day.

The second book book included in the collection is The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur, first published in 1858. Much like the Norse section of The Age of Fable, I read this portion of Bulfinch's Mythology often. The stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were among my favorites, which no doubt explains my immense fondness for Chaosium's Pendragon. In addition to the usual stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawaine, and the rest, Bulfinch also included plenty of social and cultural notes about medieval England that fascinated me. He also appended a section on the Welsh Mabinogion, some of whose stories form the basis of later Arthurian tales. Whereas I was aware of King Arthur before I read this book, I don't believe I'd ever heard of Geraint, Pwyll, or Branwen and so The Age of Chivalry was an eye-opener for me.

The third and final book included in Bulfinch's Mythology was Legends of Charlemagne, first published in 1863. Of the three, this is the one about whose contents I had the least knowledge, which is to say, no knowledge. Charlemagne was not a name I'd even heard of, so reading these stories of Rinaldo and Orlando, Bradamante and Rogero, not to mention Ogier the Dane. At the time, these didn't thrill me in quite the same way but I was nevertheless grateful for the knowledge they imparted to me, if only because they prepared me for the fateful day when I first cracked upon the Players Handbook and came across the paladin character class. In the years since, I've become much more of an aficionado of the Matter of France, though I've not yet acquired Chaosium's Paladin, an omission I'd like to rectify sometime in the coming years.

After Bulfinch's death, the three constituent books were collected together in a single volume in 1881 and became more or less the standard collection of myths and legends in the English speaking world (since superseded by many others, such as Edith Hamilton's Mythology.) Its impact on me was immense and I suspect that it had a similar effect on many of the writers and designers who had a hand in the creation of roleplaying games. The book is mentioned in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's 1981 Basic Rules, for example, which suggests it was still inspiring people as late as 1981. Regardless, Bulfinch's Mythology is a key component of my Appendix N and I am glad to have encountered it at a young and impressionable age.


  1. Bullfinch's Mythology was a choice you could order with the Science Fiction Book Club - so yes, it counts!

  2. For me it was D'aulaires book of Norse Myths. Staring around the 2nd grade I checked that book out of our school library hundreds of times.

    I owned D'aulaires Book of Greek Myths. But the Norse one was by far my favorite.

  3. I like Bullfinch's book, but I have a soft spot for Edith Hamilton since it's the one I read first.

    1. Objectively, I think Hamilton's book is probably better (at least for Greek mythology), but Bulfinch was my introduction to so many of these stories that it's hard for me not to look kindly on it.

    2. Bulfinch was the only one I could get as a kid, but Edith's book was better

  4. That's the edition I had as a child too - and still have.

  5. If you are into books as aesthetic objects, you really owe it to yourself to have a look at the 75th anniversary edition of Hamilton's Mythology recently published by Black Dog & Leventhal.