Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Myths and Legends - Book Reviews

Myths and Legends is a new series of books from Osprey, publisher of military history books combining historical information with beautiful illustrations and images. The series will examine “the great stories that have echoed down through time and have helped to shape our cultures” (from the Osprey website).

Jason and the Argonauts

The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece is one of the most enduringly popular of all of the Ancient Greek heroic myths. Accepting the quest in order to regain his kingdom, Jason assembled a legendary crew including many of Greece's greatest heroes such as Hercules, Orpheus, Atalanta, Telamon, and the twins Castor and Pollux. With this band of heroes and demi-gods, Jason set sail in the Argo on a journey across the known world. During their quest, the Argonauts faced numerous challenges including the harpies, the clashing rocks, the Sirens, Talos the bronze man, the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece, and of course the fickle will of the gods of Olympus.

Dr. Neil Smith retells this classic myth, examining its origins, its history, and its continued popularity. The text is supported by numerous illustrations both classical and modern, including numerous artwork plates especially commissioned for this work. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

First off, this is a beautiful book. Fantastic illustrations, a good use of images of ancient artefacts and statues, colourful and pleasing to flick through; this is the kind of book that you want to pick up the instant you see it.

Jason and the Argonauts tells the myth of the ancient Greek hero Jason and his voyage to claim the Golden Fleece. It begins early in the myth and tells each stage in detail, providing background facts and information. Despite studying Classics at university, I’m actually not that familiar with the Jason myth – it’s about the only one that I didn’t touch on – and there were a lot of new things to learn in this book. The story is told in an engaging style and it’s a very easy read. The illustrations also add a lot to the story, helping the reader to imagine various events. The book is obviously meant as an introduction to the myth, and it does this well.

I did enjoy reading about Jason’s journey, but I couldn’t help wishing there had been a little more extra information alongside it. I loved the little asides that talked about ancient Greek ships and weapons, or plotted a map of the Argo’s route, or that added background to various characters, and I would have really liked more of these. For instance, a diagram of a Greek ship might have complemented this particular myth very well. I would also have loved a little more information about Atalanta, the one woman hero on the voyage. She is briefly mentioned, and it’s obviously rare to find a female ancient Greek hero, so it might have been fun to find out how she came to join Jason’s quest.

This is a fun book, well put together and visually very appealing. I think anyone interested in mythology, or in learning about ancient Greek heroes would enjoy it, and could find a place for the collection on their shelves.


From legend and mythology to The Hobbit and A Game of Thrones, the dragon is a perennial favorite in the fantasy genre.

With its fiery breath, scaly armour, and baleful, malevolent stare, the dragon became the ultimate symbol of evil and corruption in European folklore and mythology. Often serving as a stand-in for Satan, or the power of evil gods, dragons spread death and hopelessness throughout the land. Only heroes of uncommon valour, courageousness, and purity could hope to battle these monsters and emerge victorious. Those that did became legends. They became dragonslayers. The list of dragonslayers is small, but it is filled with great and legendary names. Hercules, Beowulf, Cuchulain, Sigfried, Lancelot, and Saint George all battled to the death with dragons. Other heroes such as the Danish King Frotho, the French Saint Mercurialis, the Polish champion Krak, and the Russian warrior Dobrynya Nikitch might be less well known to western readers, but also fought and defeated dragons. This book will retell the greatest legends of this select group of warriors, while examining the myth of the dragonslayer in a historical, mythological, and even theological context. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I enjoyed this book more than Jason and the Argonauts. It looks at the myths and legends of dragon-slayers throughout history, telling their stories and looking at various information surrounding each myth, such as historical records and recurring themes. I liked how the author didn’t limit himself to a rigid modern (and European) definition of what a dragon is, but looked at how ideas of dragons have changed through time and in different societies. This allowed him to include snake-monsters, sea-serpents, wurms and other nasties, and it was fascinating to see how dragons and dragon-slaying legends began and how they developed.

I really loved the amount of additional information that the author provided in this book. I found details about sources and historical records fascinating, and I enjoyed little asides about how the various legends had been used in film and literature, as well as potential real-world influences on the legends that involved real historical figures (crocodiles seem to have been a common culprit). There was so much in this book that I didn’t know (for example, spiked armour pops up a lot in the British dragon-slaying legends). I also didn’t expect there to be so many dragon-slayer stories that I’d never heard of before. The book was very well researched and a joy to read.

This was a really fun and informative book, with some wonderful illustrations and images that really brought the stories to life. Both these beautiful and interesting books represent a very strong start to the Myths and Legends series. I’ve already got my eye on the next titles!


  1. Ooooh these sound amazing!! I love books that tell you a story AND teach you, it's why I picked up the annotated Alice for my reading and learning pleasure. Definitely wishlisting these.

  2. Yay, hope you like them! The Dragonslayers one is particularly fascinating... learned so much from it! And they are really beautiful books too. :-)