William Hansen’s The Book of Greek &Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths is an enchanting collection that both entertains and educates. The extensive compilation of Greek and Roman folktales, legends, myths, anecdotes, ghost stories (and more!) that Hansen has brought together—many of which have been anthologized for the first time—will appeal to both academics and general readers. This collection is less about the common epics and popular pagan tales than about representing the wide range of stories that proliferated in the ancient world. These stories feature an assortment of characters, including animals, farmers, slaves, thieves, and scholars, and cover themes from “Kings and Princesses” to “Magicians and Witches” and “the Bizarre”. Hansen’s book is a form of preservation of these ancient literary texts, reviving interest in the early storytelling traditions of Western culture.
The introduction to the anthology deliberates on the innumerable types of oral narratives the Greeks and Romans enjoyed, emphasizing the importance of “informal narratives such as legends, novelle, anecdotes, jokes, fables, fairytales, and the like”, which allow Hansen to create “the most extensive compilation of ancient popular tales ever made” (xxvi). Different from other collections due to the selection and range, The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths provides a broad and compelling introduction to the types of stories and themes that resonated with ancient audiences. Readers who are looking for a leisure experience can simply open the collection up to a section and begin. However, those who are searching for more can read in the introduction about Hansen’s approach to the selection of these stories and his multi-tiered categorization method. Hansen begins his categorization by distinguishing the difference between the mythological and the popular tale. He divides the tales into two main categories: traditional credence narratives and traditional fictions (26). Within these two categories, he then creates further sub-sections. The subsections of the traditional credence narratives are myth, historic legend, heroic legend, religious legend (aretalogy and sacred story), belief legend, contemporary or urban legend, anecdote (apothegm and catch tale), and personal narrative (memorate and personal fable). The subsections within the traditional fiction are the wonder (or fairy) tale, religious tale, novella (Milesian tale), animal tale, fable (short fable), comic tale (joke tale and tall tale), and chain tale (26). Hansen’s categorization is interesting as there are not many adequate systems available for the scholarly study of ancient narratives, and his proposal proves that a system can be created and applied to this field of study.
The organization of the anthology itself follows a different pattern to the categories Hansen describes in the introduction. This change occurs as Hansen states that it “would be dull” to have the anthology set-up in the manner of his classification system (39). While that may be so, the switch to a thematic rather than categorical focus does feel a little unexpected after so much time has been dedicated to explaining his system. Softening this impression is the correlation Hansen creates between these thematic sections and his proposed categorization method. He notes at the start of each thematic section how the individual selections fit into the genres he describes in the introduction, helpfully situating them within his broader framework. The first thematic section “Kings and Princesses”, for example, begins with a note about how “Cupid and Psyche”falls into the fairytale/wondertale category (47).
The works that are held within the collection are well-chosen in range and variation. The length of the works spans from works of a single sentence to the 35-page “Cupid and Psyche”, arguably the oldest fairytale in the Western tradition. Accompanying each selection within the anthology is a note contextualizing the work or adding some further information to allow the reader to better understand it. These notes are delightful and instructive. One of my favorite examples is from the end of “The Rescue of Simonides.” This is a tale about the poet Simonides, who escapes a collapsing building through divine intervention shortly after being refused the full fee for his poetry recital. Simonides is then able to identify the victims of the collapse by the places they were sitting. Hansen’s note informs us that this tale is what caused Simonides to discover a system of mnemonics based on spatial-relationships (loci), which has been used from antiquity to the present day (101). Although some of his notes are seemingly obvious, like the one that accompanies that of “The Language of the Birds” (the reader can apprehend this note themselves during the reading of the tale), notes such as the one that accompanies Simonides tale show interesting connections from the tales to systems that are in place today.
Hansen includes as many stories as he can within this anthology, mainly tales that he finds memorable. Despite a somewhat limited discussion of the importance of the tales themselves and their thematic interrelationships, The Book of Greek &Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths is a fascinating work. Hansen provides an enjoyable assortment of stories accompanied by a number of black and white illustrations, which can be enjoyed by academic and lay audiences alike.
The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths by William Hansen. Princeton University Press. 2017. 549 pp.