daulaires

My mom’s copy no longer looks like this because the dust jacket is destroyed from me having read it so many times as a child.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

  • Author:  Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire
  • Published:  1962
  • Publisher:  Bantam Doubleday Dell
  • Pages:  192
  • First Line:  “In olden times, when men still worshipped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece, a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty.”
  • Last Line:  “Also the Muses fell silent, but their songs love on this very day, and the constellations put up by the gods still glitter on the dark blue vault of the sky.”
  • Film:  none specifically
  • First Read:  Around 1981 or so

The Book:  I don’t know when my parents first bought this book.  I do know that when I started to look at it (by my memory sometime after we moved to California but definitely before I started studying Greek myths in 4th grade because I knew them all by then) it still had a dust jacket.  I don’t believe that dust jacket still survives because I read this book to death.  I could not get enough of it.  It might have been seeing Clash of the Titans, which we saw as a family at the drive-in just after moving as part of a double feature with Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I already wrote in my review of Clash of my love for Greek mythology.  This is where it came from.

When I look at a film like Troy and lament that they cut the gods out, or watch the Disney Hercules and think it sucks because of what they do with the characters (actually it sucks for a lot of reasons – that’s just one of them) or spend over a year with Veronica watching our way through all six seasons of Xena Warrior Princess, constantly griping about they go from Julius Caesar in one episode to the Trojan War in another (going backwards over 1000 years), that kind of thing doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the bizarre choices that it would make with Greek mythology.  And, yes, we spent over a year watching the entire length of that show because, well, because I love Veronica very much.  Granted, this book is not the most perfect, accurate representation of Greek mythology.  But with oral tales passed down for centuries before being committed to writing, there is no perfect representation.  For me, this is enough.

One book this could be compared to is The Children’s Bible.  I grew up with that as well and it was a great (and beautiful) way to understand all the stories for the Bible written in a way that made it easy for children to sink into the stories without being bogged down by the language, and it was gloriously illustrated throughout.  If you are older, you can pass on to Robert Graves to read your Greek myths but the best way to start, for a child or an adult, is to read this book.

The D’Aulaires were a married European couple who came to the States during the 20’s.  They were both trained as artists but began to illustrate children’s books, winning one of the first Caldecott Medals for their beautiful Abraham Lincoln.  Later, after this book, they would cover Norse Myths in a similarly-styled book that I wouldn’t know about until I was an adult, or perhaps I would have been just as interested in the Norse gods (see coincidence below).

greek1The book begins with a family tree of the gods (pictured on the left).  From there it dives into the myths, mostly in the order they take place.  We meet the Titans  (“The Titans were the first children of Mother Earth.  They were the first gods, taller than the mountains she created to serve them as thrones, and both Earth and Sky were proud of them.”).  Wrath of the Titans might have been a terrible film (actually, there’s no might about it), but if you are familiar with this book you at least have a concept of what is going on in the war between the gods and the Titans.  From there, we are introduced to the 12 primary gods, with the back stories (and sometimes major events in their lives) for each one, concluding with the moment when Dionysus takes his throne on Olympus: “There were only twelve thrones in the hall, so kind Hestia quietly rose from hers and said that Dionysus could have it.  Her place was at the hearth, she said; she needed no throne.”

orpheusFrom there we plunge into the “Minor Gods”, with stories that still resonate today, stories like Prometheus, who brought fire to man, like Pan, the satyr son of Hermes, who “had goat’s legs, pointed ears, a pair of small horns, and he was covered all over with dark, shaggy hair.  He was so ugly that his mother, a nymph, ran away screaming when she first saw him.  But his father, Hermes, was delighted with the strange looks of his son.”  There is a nice little illustration of the baby Pan, complete with rattle, his horrified mother, and his father peeking in, with a delightful little grin.  There is the story of Echo and Narcissus and I remember knowing the latter as a myth long before I knew it as a word.  This section ends with the Muses and the mortal son of one of the muses, Orpheus.  That myth was a great inspiration to the great director Jean Cocteau, and the D’Aulaires provide a beautiful illustration of Orpheus and the powerful lure of his mournful song and how it brings tears to all who hear it, even the beasts and the rocks.

The songs of the Muses finish the section, as they also sing of the great Heroes of Greek mythology, heroes who have become so familiar to so many of us.  Perseus is here, of course, the man who would kill Medusa and win over Andromeda and be the subject of two different versions of Clash of the Titans.  In high school, when I would read Albert Camus’ famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, I was well prepared, having read about him here and his eternal task pushing the stone up the mountain.  Heracles is here, the man who has inspired numerous (bad) movies and multiple characters in other literature.  He would also be a member of the company of Jason, and if there is one film inspired by Greek mythology that you should see it is Jason and the Argonauts (also, by the way, the inspiration for a great XTC song).  He would conquer the Amazons, those same warrior women who would be the inspiration for Wonder Woman.  James Joyce would take inspiration from the flight of Daedalus, whose story is also here.  One of my mother’s favorite books is her copy of the Oedipus trilogy, written by Sophocles almost 2500 years ago.  “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships”, Christopher Marlowe would write about Helen, the key player in the Trojan War that finishes off the book.  The journey home from that war would be the Illiad.  But, “out of the smoking ruins” of that war would come one last traveller: “Aeneas wandered from land to land, till at last he came to Italy, where he founded a kingdom.  The gods looked on him with favor, for it was fated that his descendants should build the mighty city of Rome.”  And thus we are passed off to Roman mythology, complete with a guide as to which names go with which gods.  Suddenly, to a kid reading this book, the names of the planets (and on the next page, the constellations) made sense.

Up above, I wrote there is no specific film that is adapted from this book.  That is true.  While William Shakespeare, as of today, has 1097 films on the IMDb credited to him, the two D’Aulaires aren’t even listed in the database.  Yet, I think many of the films I have mentioned would probably not have existed if not for this book.  Some books that I read for my Adapted Screenplay posts have only a few copies available at libraries anywhere in the world.  Worldcat has over 2000 listings for this book.  It stuck with me so much, that when I finally hit one dream and got hired for my first bookstore job and had a chance to make my first “Employee Recommendation”, this was the book I chose.  (Now for the coincidence.  The second book I chose was Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, as the film was just about to come out and I wanted to encourage people to read it first.  At that time, I didn’t know the D’aulaires had written a book on Norse Myths.  I bought it when it was re-issued in 2005, complete with a forward by, of course, Michael Chabon).  I think that many filmmakers must have remembered this book from childhood the same way I always do.

Myths2One last word about this beautiful book.  With most books, I include ample quotes.  For this one, I have included quotes, but also illustrations.  That’s because, as I said, they were trained firsts as artists and their beautiful work is a major reason to get this book.  For one final image, I’ll include the illustration of Aphrodite.  One of the great things about the book is how it proceeds – it leads onto the next story.  The story of Hermes concludes with the fact that he guides the dead to the underworld and the next story is that of Hades.  We are lead into Aphrodite’s story from Hephaestus, her husband.  We get her description that goes so perfectly with the illustration: “Nobody knew from where she had come.  The West Wind had first seen her in the pearly light of dawn as she rose out of the sea on a cushion of foam.  She floated lightly over the gentle waves and was so lovely to behold that the wind almost lost his breath.”  It concludes her story by noting that, as the goddess of beauty, she’s not pleased to be married to “sooty, hard-working Hephaestus.  She would rather have had his brother Ares for her husband.”  Just think about that the next time you’re watching Xena.

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